This article is a guide to some of the things you might like to think about in planning your return to work after maternity leave. This post should not be taken as legal advice. We encourage you to seek further information including through the links at the bottom before making any decisions about your return to work. Some of this advice is specific to the situation under Australian law, while other tips are relevant to our international audience too.
Time to get back to the workplace, mama!
So, you’ve reached the end of your maternity leave, or you have decided to return to the workplace. This can be an exciting time – but is, for many of us, daunting too, as we face an uncertain time navigating part time work, possibly with limited sleep, and with the changes in our identity we can experience as mums. You can read a bit about how raw and nervous I felt on my return to work in this previous post.
This article is going to cover a few things I wish I had read about or thought through before I went back to work after a longish time at home with kids:
- What am I actually allowed to ask for?
- What work am I going to be doing – and how do I negotiate with my boss?
- How I am going to be at work (am I still the same leader/person I was before)?
- Where can I get support?
What am I allowed to ask for?
You are entitled to your old job
It may sound obvious, but if you have been on maternity leave from a permanent job – paid or unpaid – you are entitled under Australian workplace law to return to the same job you had before going on leave. If you had to go on reduced duties or into a safe role while pregnant, you are still entitled to go back to your original job. If you are on a contract, and it hasn’t ended while you’re on leave, you are entitled to complete the contract on your return to work.
If your old job no longer exists or has changed, your workplace must offer you a suitable job for which you are qualified and suited to work in, and which is near to your old job in pay and status. Has this happened to you? Then your workplace has an obligation to consult with you about these changes, even if you’re on unpaid parental leave.
You can ask for flexible working arrangements
If you are returning to work from maternity/parental or related leave, you are entitled under Australian law to request flexible working arrangements, like part time hours, different starting and finishing times, working from home, or any combination of these. It is such a complex thing to work out, around childcare availability/days, the sort of work you do, whether you manage staff or not, whether you have a customer-facing job with set hours etc, but the onus is on your workplace to come to an arrangement that suits you both.
I am lucky in many ways to be in the public service, where these workplace rights are further strengthened by strong corporate policy and strong enterprise agreements (workplace agreements negotiated by the public sector union) – but even with these rights, I have still had to proactively negotiate the arrangements that work for my family right now. I even pivoted – moved to a different role – to find more meaningful, flexible work that suited my ambition and part time hours. For me, this means long days (9 + hours) Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and two hours of paid time from home on each of my days “away” from the office, working remotely on a work-supplied secure laptop. I have a preschooler and toddler, and I work around them when the four year old isn’t at school. My workplace is flexible enough to understand that as long as the work gets done, my team are happy, and the quality is there, it doesn’t matter when or where the work is done.
You are entitled to have time for breastfeeding or expressing
By the time I returned to work, each of my children were over one, and I had weaned them onto regular milk during the day. But for many women who wish to continue breastfeeding but have – or want – to return to work, you are entitled to breaks for breastfeeding or expressing. This can be a really awkward thing to discuss with your boss, and I have heard some great (horror!) stories about where people have been forced to express – toilets on planes, the boss’s office, a janitor’s closet. Best practice workplaces will work hard to provide you with a suitable place to express or feed, but you might need to be willing to negotiate this well in advance so that the office can prepare a space. The Australian Breastfeeding Association has developed a toolkit to help you (or hopefully your boss/HR department/organisation) set up a breastfeeding and expressing room at your workplace.
The ABA also has a series of return to work and breastfeeding workplans to help you and your employer understand what you plan for your return to work, and how they can support these practical parts of returning to work as a mum.
What will I work on – and how should I talk to my boss about it?
I have mentioned flexible working arrangements being a legal entitlement on your return to work – but how on earth do you start this conversation with your boss? My advice – start a conversation about what you’ll do when you return before you go on maternity leave. Negotiating maternity and associated leave is a whole thing in itself, but once you have worked this out, and as you come towards the end of your pregnancy, I would advise one or two short discussions with your boss about your thoughts (as best you can) about a few things. Be open with your boss that you may change your views once you have the baby, but try and get something in writing (an email would suffice) about:
- whether you plan to come back full or part time
- whether you want to stay on a leadership path, or drop off for a little while when you come back to ease in. This could mean whether you would manage staff on your return or not, whether you would want to manage projects or have your own special work (this comes with risks of being on the mummy track for a while, but it can also help ease you back into paid work)
- whether you plan to breastfeed/express at work (see above).
Once you are on leave, and after you have settled a bit into life with baby number one, two, three, four, more – check in with your boss occasionally or often (depends on your relationship). I would recommend at least one chat or email conversation with them every couple of months you’re away to let them know how you are, and to let them know if any of your agreed plan has changed.
Starting a new job altogether? Once you have confirmed a start date, I would suggest a similar approach – be honest about the flexible arrangement you are seeking (ask for what you want, and you may just get it), and discuss the work they plan for you to take on.
As your return to work day approaches, try and check in with your boss/supervisor a week or so before and ask again about what projects you will be working on. It might also be a useful time to ask where you’ll be sitting, and to let them you are keen to get to work on your first day. This will help remind them to a) can make sure you have things like a computer and phone ready (this wasn’t the case on my second return to work); and b) make sure they at least have something for you to do on your first day (I’m working off my office job bias here – front/customer facing or technical jobs will clearly need a different discussion, but useful to remind them of your start date just the same).
How will I cope at work (can I still do what I used to do?!)
So many of us mama leaders worry about how to find our work self again, when we have been consumed by our mummy self when at home with a baby/kid for and away from the paid workforce. My advice is, be kind to yourself, and assume it will take a while to re-adjust. Some things will be great – drinking a hot cup of tea or coffee, going to the toilet without an audience – but some things are bound to take some getting used to, like kitchen small talk about something other than your kids, working on different projects or on different work because you are now part time…
The latter issue is one of the reasons that Lead Mama Lead exists of course – we believe that meaningful work and motherhood shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, and we want workplaces to change to recognise that a part time mama can do the challenging and interesting work and be a workplace leader too.
In my return to work I turned my challenging return to work last year into an opportunity to find a role that better suited the place I aspired to get to, and has opened up new (part time) leadership opportunities.
Some of the things I found most helpful on my return to work the second time:
- thinking about what I really wanted to be doing;
- seeking out the people and projects I wanted to work on;
- getting some coaching to help me work this out;
- looking at myself as a leader again, including standing tall, and getting a few new outfits to better suit my differently shaped mama body.
You will cope, but you may also need some help if the return to work isn’t as easy as you hoped.
Where can I get support or find out more?
To support your return to work including your entitlements, the Fair Work Commission is a great place to start. They have resources about what your rights are, and processes you can follow if you think you have been discriminated against for being a mum/working part time/going on maternity leave/being pregnant etc. The Australian Government’s Supporting working parents website also has downloadable guides and toolkits on pregnancy, parental leave and parents in the workplace.
On breastfeeding or expressing at work, the Australian Breastfeeding Association has a wealth of resources to support breastfeeding at work, and details on how you can encourage your workplace to seek accreditation.
If you want some support about how to manage your personal transition back into the workplace, you could consider a coach. At Lead Mama Lead, we offer individual coaching, including support for women who have just returned (or about to return) to the workplace following parental leave. Find out more on the coaching page.