How Workplaces Can Support Returning Mothers

By Kylie Ora Lobell January 23, 2020
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mom at home with laptop baby in stroller

​When Kimberly Prescott returned to work following the birth of her child, she had to figure out a way to balance her job responsibilities with her needs as a mother. As the owner of Prescott HR in Columbia, Md., she was able to block off one hour three times a day in the office so that she could pump breast milk.

"Although I was an executive in the workplace and I had that flexibility," she said, "many returning mothers do not."

Lots of working mothers have no choice but to return to work soon after having a child due to financial demands, while others are in the midst of important career tracks and worry about losing traction. According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. moms worked an average of 25 hours per week in 2016, which is a big jump from nine hours a week in 1965. Currently, women make up just over 50 percent of employees in the U.S.

Companies that want to recruit working mothers, as well as retain their talented women employees, are taking significant steps to support women and their spouses or partners following maternity leave. These steps include:

Stay in Communication

Returning mothers have likely been out of work for up to 12 weeks or more, and they may be anxious about what's been happening in the office while they've been gone. Keeping employees on maternity leave up to date on important work milestones, as well as offering remote work after their return, are smart ways to bridge the gap.  

"Returning to work can be a stressful time for new mothers," said Steve Pritchard, an HR consultant at Ango Liners in the United Kingdom. "Communication from employers is especially important during this time, starting during maternity leave and through the transition back into work."

At HubSpot in Cambridge, Mass., Becky McCullough said that one of the best things a manager did was keep a running list of events and activities he felt were important to update her on when she returned. That way, she wouldn't have to waste time sifting through every single e-mail she missed while she was out of the office.

"Having a running document of things that happened—lessons learned, challenges met, team wins—helps create an overview for the person returning," said McCullough, the company's global director of recruiting and people operations.

Go Beyond the Law with Leave Time

While knowing parental leave laws in the states where your company does business is critical for HR professionals, going above and beyond those laws will attract more qualified candidates and keep current employees satisfied. For instance, HubSpot offers 16 weeks of paid leave time to primary caregivers and six weeks of paid leave time to secondary caregivers.

"We have people self-identify which caregiver they are, in order to have a gender-neutral approach to parental leave," said McCullough.

Offering more parental paid leave is also better for the health and well-being of a family. According to multiple studies, paid family leave doubled the median duration of breastfeeding time for all new mothers. Breastfeeding is healthier for children and can reduce their risk of getting asthma, allergies, ear infections and respiratory illness.

Be Flexible

Working mothers will have circumstances arise that they didn't anticipate, such as a sick child, doctor's visits, a spouse's work need, and the emotional or physical pain after giving birth. For this reason, workplaces need to be flexible when handling mothers' needs.

"I wouldn't be able to be the best mom and best leader at work without HubSpot's commitment to flexibility," McCullough said. "It gave me the ability to adjust my schedule to go through an extensive IVF process to grow my family and enables me to never have to worry about missing, and even more importantly, feeling guilty about choosing to go to a school drop-off, pickup or special event."

"Whether it's offering employees flexible work schedules or the ability to work remotely, creating a culture that values flexibility really makes a difference for working parents," she added.

Provide a Nice Place to Pump

Federal law requires that workplaces provide a private space that is not a bathroom so that mothers can pump, as well as provide frequent break times for pumping.

Though this law is in place, sometimes organizations' facilities are not adequate, Prescott said. She recommends developing a multipurpose wellness room that can be used for nursing mothers and other wellness initiatives.

"This may incentivize the business to create the space, as it is not specifically for nursing mothers," she said.

Investing in a nursing space will also help with employee loyalty. According to a study by the National Business Group on Health, companies with a lactation support program experienced a 94 percent retention rate, while the national average for retention is 59 percent overall. 

Create a Parents' Community

New working mothers may feel alone in their challenges or simply want to share their happiness with others. Workplaces can help with both needs by creating a community of parents, McCullough said.

"We have a community of over 200 current and future parents at work who are just a Slack, e-mail or a couple feet away as part of our employee resource group," she said. "It's a shared space for all things parenting [that includes] resources about our benefits and discussions on how to make the transition back to work easier."

Let Mothers Gradually Return to Work

New moms who return to work full-time after being out for several weeks often describe the experience as going from 0 to 100 miles per hour overnight, and experts say this transition is especially difficult for first-time mothers. Allowing for either remote work or part-time hours or both for the first few weeks could make all the difference to a mother and ensure that she isn't overwhelmed.

"[Workplaces] can offer an 'adjustment' period," said Darko Jacimovic, an HR manager and co-founder of WhatToBecome in Serbia. Pinterest provides a four-week gradual return-to-work program where returning mothers or fathers "can choose to work part time and still get their salary as if they were working full time."

Giving Mothers (and Families) the Support They Need

Making sure that mothers are comfortable in the workplace and having their needs met will not only help to attract and retain talent, but "it's the right thing to do," McCullough said, which businesses should care about.

"Like many top companies, HubSpot is always innovating in how we can be remarkable in attracting and retaining top talent," she said. "But when it comes to taking care of your employees who want to grow their families, it isn't just about your employer brand or your retention strategy."

 Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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