Fewer than one in five women feel confident returning to work after maternity leave

Lack of organisational support so damaging 37 per cent consider handing in their notice, says survey

Organisations must support diverse routes back into the workplace following maternity leave, experts have said, after a survey revealed less than a fifth of women feel confident returning to work after having a baby. 

In the survey of more than 1,000 women run by MMB Magazine – 72 per cent of whom worked at management level or above – less than a fifth (18 per cent) felt happy and confident about returning to work. 

More than a third (37 per cent) felt so unsupported and isolated on their return they considered handing in their notice, and nine in 10 (90 per cent) were not offered any formal support through a returner programme. 

Commenting on the findings, Lisa Unwin, founder of returnships consultancy She’s Back, said organisations too often took a short-term view of maternity leave rather than seeing working mothers as a valuable asset. 

“Maternity leave is seen as a problem to be solved and the focus is on covering the work rather than helping the mother navigate what can be a tricky period in what could be a long and successful career,” she told People Management

“Pregnancy, maternity leave and the first few years of parenthood can all be tricky. But they are a tiny fraction of a career that could span 40 years or more. Investing time and energy in helping women – and men as they take paternity leave – to navigate this process has huge long term benefits.” 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission reported 77 per cent of mothers had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave or on returning to work in its 2018 Is Britain Fairer? report, while a poll from the commission in February found six in 10 organisations believed women should disclose pregnancies during recruitment. 

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said organisations should be actively tackling long-standing discrimination against working mothers, and taking steps to support returnships and progression at senior levels. 

“Mentors can provide vital support for women returning to the workplace, but the other important area is to offer transferable workplace policies such as shared parental leave, which incentivises men to take an active role in caring for their children,” he told People Management

“There are very few examples of senior job sharing in the workplace today, and we need to see more progressive and flexible working solutions that can support senior pathways. Creating better incentives to take up paternity and shared parental leave as well as maternity leave in the workplace will create greater equity around this issue. ” 

Women taking time out of the workplace or working part time in order to take on caring responsibilities is a key driver of the gender pay gap, which recently fell to a record low of 8.6 per cent, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). However, more than half (60 per cent) of respondents to MMB’s survey said they were worried about their requests for flexible working being rejected. 

Labour MP Rachel Reeves said working parents faced ‘immense’ challenges when returning to work. “It is important that employers are sympathetic to those challenges and do far more to help working parents with flexible hours, support with childcare where possible and other measures,” she said. 

“Working parents are a huge asset to business and they should be nurtured and supported so they can play their part in growing the economy.”