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Top 9 tips for return to work after maternity leave

By Alison Rodericks | 08 December 2020

Returning to work after maternity leave presents many challenges for the average worker. Since 2011, Australian parents have been entitled to 18 weeks of paid parental leave at the national minimum wage. Having to return to work after maternity leave often comes as a shock to the system for most new mothers (let’s face it, it’s usually the women who take parental leave).

There’s a tug-of-war between wanting to care for your child just a little bit longer (hello, mummy guilt!) and having to return to work out of sheer necessity (hello, mortgage payments!).

It is fraught with challenges: the stress of coping with the workload, the fear of not being able to do the job after a long break, the constant juggle of family life with a career. No wonder most new mums feel overwhelmed and anxious. Here are some tips to make the transition back to work after maternity leave as smooth and as stress-free as possible.

Returning to work after maternity leave

  1. Know your rights.
  2. Keep up to date.
  3. Negotiate flexible working conditions.
  4. Do a trial run.
  5. Have a Plan B.
  6. Simplify your life.
  7. Schedule a meeting with your boss.
  8. Know your boundaries.
  9. Work from home if that's an option. 

1. Know your rights.

According to the Fair Work Act 2009, mothers are entitled to return to their pre-parental leave position, or, if that position no longer exists, the nearest possible position in terms of role and pay. As a new parent, you also have the right to request flexible work arrangements like part-time-work.

The reality is, many employers don't always follow the rules. Reports of discrimination, often disguised as concern for your family’s welfare, are rife. Make sure you're not being short-changed at work – or worse, unfairly dismissed – because you had a baby.

2. Keep up to date.

Yes, you’re knee-deep in nappies and night feeds, but make the time to peruse the papers, watch the news and keep abreast of what’s happening in the real world and in your workplace. If you’ve taken a year or more off work, chances are, your job role would have changed drastically during this time.

It is up to you to update your skill set so that you’re not out of your depth once you return to work. Upskilled has a wide variety of online courses ranging from certificates to graduate diplomas so that’s you have the know-how when it’s time to return to work.  

3. Negotiate flexible working conditions.

Flexible work practices is an essential element to retain women in the workforce. While working part-time is the most commonly reported flexible work arrangement for mothers returning to work (65%), you should also look into other possibilities like working from home, doing shift work or working flexible hours. 

If you're returning to work in a flexible role (i.e. full-time to part-time), it is important to discuss and confirm in writing all these arrangements before you go on maternity leave. Keep in mind that while part-time work gives working mums the work-life balance they need, people often wrongly perceive you as someone who is prioritising their child over their career. You need to assure your boss that you are committed to your role and will maintain productivity. 

4. Do a trial run.

Yes, you’ve got the all-important spot at daycare, but do you know how long your drop-off will actually take? It’s best to prepare and plan ahead. Do a dry run before you return to work, mimicking exactly what you would do on the actual day – dressing up for work, packing your baby’s things, driving the same route to daycare or the grandparents’ house. This gives you the opportunity to fix foreseeable problems and adjust your routine when D-day rolls by.

5. Have a Plan B.

mother with newborn working from home

You need a support network (partner, mother-in-law, best friend, neighbour) in case your Plan A falls apart – as it often does. What if you baby has a cold and cannot go to daycare? Discuss contingency plans with your boss/ HR department. For instance, can you work from home if your baby is sick? Do you have remote access and a work laptop? Master the art of doing your work in advance to make room for any eventuality that may come up with your kids.

6. Simplify your life.

Apply the Marie Kondo method to your life. Simplify it and get rid of things that do not “spark joy”. Do you really need to be scrolling through Facebook at 11pm when you could be sleeping? Do you have to attend that business meeting after hours? Do your kids need so many toys that clutter up your home? Use technology to your advantage to synchronise calendars, set up reminders, automate bill payments, etc. but don’t let it overtake your life.

Yes, there will be days that end in tears (and not from your baby) and times that you want to want to give up. Breathe. Things will get better. You’ve got this!

7. Schedule a meeting with your boss.

Coming back to work after 6-12 months can be overwhelming at first, especially if you're unsure what work or projects that need to be prioritised once you return. Setting up a meeting with your boss is an effective way to avoid feeling like you'll never catch up with your workload. By having an honest discussion with your boss, it can make the transition to your role much easier. Below are suggestions on what to talk about with your boss:
  • Changes to the workplace and procedures: being away for a long period of time means that changes are inevitable in the workplace. Checking in with your boss means you'll receive updates on what changes impact you. You'll also get the opportunity to have a quick rundown on procedures that apply to you as well.
  • Discussion of top priorities: returning to work after a long absence can be overwhelming at the start but it helps to discuss the top-level priorities your boss wants you to work on. This gives you the chance to hit-the-ground running on important tasks and avoid getting bogged down on ones that rank as less important. 
  • Talk about flexibility: it can be a challenge leaving your baby at home and you may even carry a sense of guilt leaving them behind. Having an honest conversation with your boss about having more flexibility when it comes to your work schedule can be helpful. Talk about reducing to part-time hours (assuming that you work full-time), working from home or flexible start and finish times to help you transition to work more smoothly. 

8. Know your boundaries. 

Before you had children, it was perhaps easier for you to take on more tasks and say 'yes' when it comes to helping people with their workload. However, it's important to set boundaries so you don't end up feeling the effects of workplace burnout. If you bite off more than you can chew, you'll end up having no energy left when you return home to your baby. 

According to research in 2014, women find it more difficult than men to say "no" to extra work because of the social norms placed on women's behaviour. Jenna Gordeau writes on Business Insider that women are "more likely to feel guilty" when they turn down requests from bosses or colleagues and may even face "real backlash from managers". 

Katherine O'Brien, who conducted the research said, "Women typically are regarded as nurturers and helpers, so saying ‘no’ runs against the grain of what might be expected of them."

Of course, you don't want to burn bridges at work but you also don't want to drown yourself in responsibilities that aren't related to your role. Speak up when necessary and learn how you can respectfully decline requests without affecting your professional relationships.

9. Work from home if that's an option. 

Since the start of the COVID-19, many companies have had to make their employees work from home to prevent the virus from spreading. Working from home may be the best option when returning to work after maternity leave, offering many benefits like:
  • Flexibility to choose start and finish times
  • Reducing commute times
  • The ease of tending to your parenting duties
It's important to recognise that working from home does have its drawbacks and it may not necessarily be the best option. Harvard Business Review reported that women tend to be left with the expectation of taking on domestic work while working remotely, which may cause an increase in family conflict. 

Again, it's best to discuss your options to work from home with your boss. The importance of taking mental health breaks or mixing your work week with some office days can help you out greatly when returning to work after maternity leave. 

How to cope going back to work after a baby 

Returning to work after having a baby isn't easy. In most cases, you'll struggle during the first week on the job - it'll be like starting a new role and finding your feet again. Below are some tips that can help you cope with returning to work after maternity leave. 

1. Be patient.

It's important to give yourself the time to ease into your role and not be so hard on yourself. Be patient when it comes to catching up on your workload. It can feel overwhelming at first but remember it takes a while to get used to settling into a new routine. 

2. Make time for yourself. 

It can be a challenging transition to return to work after maternity leave. If you can, plan ahead and catch up on some 'me' time. Whether that be sitting back and reading a good book, taking a leisurely walk or getting a facial, putting aside time for yourself can be beneficial in helping you recharge your batteries and be better prepared for work. 

3. Find your support network. 

Leaning on to your friends and family for support can help make the transition back to work much easier. They can provide you with useful advice and be a listening ear if you need to vent about your current work situation. 

It also helps to connect with other mothers since you'll relate to them more when it comes to their experience of returning to work after maternity leave.

Career options after having a baby

young mother working from home with baby

Are you looking at expanding your career options? During maternity leave, you may have decided that you're after a new career challenge. You may want other perks such as having the ability to work from home or be in a role where you get to expand your analytical thinking skills. 

Below are some suggested career options that may be suitable after having a baby. 

1. Web Developer.

If you're passionate about building websites and want to work with a variety of clients across different industries, working as a web developer may be a fulfilling career pathway. If you're interested in designing, developing and administering websites, Upskilled's ICT40120 - Certificate IV in Information Technology (Website Development) can provide you with the opportunity to gain skills and knowledge in the exciting field of web development. 

2. Copywriter. 

If you're a talented wordsmith and want to potentially turn it into a full-time freelance career, the role of a copywriter could suit you. Demand for copywriting services will never go out of style since clients are in need for copywriting specialists to take care of their blog content, emails and website content. The BSB40820 - Certificate IV in Marketing and Communication can help expand your skillset and understand your target consumers when writing impactful copy. 

3. Social Media Specialist. 

Love creating buzz on your own social media channels? Turns out, social media marketing is an in-demand field and plenty of companies are always on the lookout for professionals who have a flair in building online communities through creative and authentic content. 

The Social Media Intensive or Social Media Essentials course can equip you with the fundamentals of social media marketing. If you're after a nationally-recognised qualification that can help boost your employment prospects, the 10904NAT - Diploma of Social Media Marketing may be what you're after. 

4. Virtual Assistant. 

Virtual assistants do similar work as an administrative assistant except they do all their work remotely. 

From scheduling business travel to managing email and phone communication, the work of a virtual assistant is fast-paced and you need to have excellent interpersonal skills and time management to succeed. Upskilled has a variety of business administration courses available that can help you prepare for this career pathway. 

Job search after maternity break 

Coming back to work and realising that you've outgrown your role may be a sign that it's time to quit your job. To make the most of your job hunt, here are some handy tips below that can help you secure your next role.

1. Update your resume. 

Submitting an impressive resume is all it takes to secure an interview with a potential employer. Make the changes you need by including relevant work experience and highlight your achievements that best reflect your talents and skillset. Ensure that your resume sells your best professional self. 

2. Take advantage of social media networking. 

Connecting with people on LinkedIn is more powerful than you think. By starting a conversation with someone who has your dream role, they may give you the dish on what qualifications you need to secure their role at another organisation. They may also be a connection that can give you a job referral when an opportunity becomes available. 

3. Study a short course. 

If you're a busy professional that can't commit to an online qualification, you have the option of doing a short course. Short courses still give you the opportunity to upskill and has you learning and developing your skillset as a professional. Whether that be in the field of leadership or marketing, a short course can help improve your career.  

4. Prepare for interviews. 

Preparation is key when it comes to job interviews. You may have been in the same role for years and are ready to move on. Before applying for a new role, do your research on the company and the people that work there. Memorise key points for questions an employer is likely to ask and don't hesitate to ask for the salary and work perks you want to best balance motherhood and your professional life. 

Research your career progression options

Upskilled now has dedicated careers and job roles pages where you can research important metrics such as salary expectations, skills needed and accreditations required. Head to the Upskilled Careers section for more advice on how to re-enter the workforce.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2019. Content has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness. 

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