Why maternity returners don't go back to work. They go forward.

Having recently returned to work after maternity leave, I’ve found the phrase 'going back to work' to be misleading and I believe the same can be said when using the phrase for other types of long-term absence. It suggests the employee is going back to the same job (not always the case), in the same environment (often not the case - especially at the moment), and in the same personal circumstances as before (rarely the case). 
Going 'back' is not the right way to look at it. Then again, it isn't starting afresh either. Returners want to re-enter the workplace with the same level of goodwill and respect they held when they left. So why is it important how we see a return to work? And how can employers better support employees on their return after long periods of absence?
Why is this important?
Those that return to work after a long period of absence will likely have different perspectives on their work, what they want to achieve and how they can achieve it. Returners often must reacquaint themselves with how they did the job before, but also learn how to do the job differently going forward. They might have different attitudes to how they approach their work, competing interests over their time, and different perspectives to bring to the table. 
Whilst the transition back to work might be a relatively short part of someone’s career, how they are treated during this time might stay with them in the longer term and could even influence their longevity with their employer. We know that retention rates for working mothers are low compared to working fathers and women taking time out of the workplace to take on caring responsibilities is impacting the gender pay gap. 
How an employee is treated on their return can also exacerbate or mitigate allegations of discrimination or detriment and impact workplace culture. In 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a report on how Britain is fairing on equality and human rights. It found that three-quarters of mothers surveyed had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity or on their return to work. 
Despite all of this, the focus by the employer is often on how the work will be covered during the employee's absence, not the employee's transition back and their future role. Whilst many employers are currently taking positive steps to improve their family leave policies, supporting working parents and other returners in their professional lives once they are back at work is equally as important. 
What should employers be doing?
How successfully a returner re-enters the workplace should not be solely dependent on the individual. Employers need to play their part and be proactive, not reactive. A returner's experience of re-entry to the workplace can be positively influenced by some basic steps:


  • Communication: First of all, line managers should be aware of when employees are returning and inform other team members where appropriate. It is common for returners to hear "Oh I didn't know you were back". While this might seem harmless, there really isn't anything positive to take from it when it's heard repeatedly. Managers should also communicate with the individual about their expectations. Whilst managers might be happy to give the returner some breathing space to settle back in before allocating work, it's important to let the employee know that this is their intention, to avoid the employee assuming they have been forgotten.
  • Workspace: Ensuring the employee's desk (whether remote or at the office) and IT is ready for their first day back seems obvious, but this is often not the case. Returning to the workplace can be a big ordeal for some (emotionally as well as physically) and returning to an IT battle on day one is not a warm welcome. 
  • Returner programmes: Formal programmes offering support and assistance may help reintegrate employees back into the workplace, with some employers offering formal coaching sessions for returners. 
  • Ally or mentoring schemes: These are becoming increasingly popular within organisations for different working groups, including family and carers networks, working parents’ groups, or those returning after long-term illness. They can provide a collective and valuable source of support for employees internally, without using too much management or HR time. 
  • Review: Returners will require a degree of support and direction from their management to avoid them trying to play a role they can no longer play. There may also be other assets and attributes they can bring to the team that they didn't offer before which management can utilise. 

A lot of these steps seem basic, but are often underestimated or forgotten, particularly in the current climate where more of us are working from home. 

As employers consider how to reintegrate their wider workforces back into the physical office after lockdown, a lot of these steps will also be relevant, and the same learnings can be applied. As we all go ‘back’ or ‘forward’ to work, employers should be aiming to support returners on their re-entry in order to get the most from their workforce, boost productivity, retain talent and promote equality.