Dr Lisa Van der Werff: Academic in Focus
As an organisational psychologist, I study people’s experience of the workplace and am particularly interested in how people build and maintain relationships with their colleagues and employer. Since returning to work after my first baby in 2014, I have been working with a colleague, Dr Yseult Freeney, to understand more about how women navigate the transition into life as a working mum. Our research has examined a number of key aspects of this important career transition in an effort to provide advice for women and organisations who would like to make sure this transition is a successful one.
We started with trying to understand more about how women feel about work and the prospect of settling back into their career while they are still on maternity leave and what are the factors that influence their decision to return (or not)? Our research suggests that women experience very mixed emotions as they anticipate a return to work and often report excitement about reclaiming the professional aspects of their identity, mixed with anxiety about leaving their new baby in someone else’s care. Interestingly, women in our research also speak about the sense of meaning and contribution that they get from their work and a feeling that if they are giving up time with their baby it is now even more important to feel their work is meaningful.
Next, we worked with Prof David Collings to explore how high performing women, their line managers and HR professionals in Ireland are managing the transition back to work post maternity leave. This research involved women who had returned to work within the last year and were working in large organisations from across a variety of industry sectors. We spoke to the women themselves as well as their managers and the senior HR professional responsible for maternity leave with an aim of identifying what organisations, managers and returners can do to support a positive return to work. The results of our study, recently published in the Harvard Business Review, identify a number of key steps that can be taken:
- How organisations view maternity leave is critical. Organisations where leave is positioned as a brief interlude encourage significantly more positive transitions than those that position it as a major disruption.
- For many returners, their relationship and communication with their manager was crucial and conversations about how best to manage the transition need to happen early and in an open, honest, and respectful manner.
- Envisioning a successful career as a parent is far easier if women can interact with other primary care givers in senior roles. Organisations can facilitate this by setting up mentoring programmes, group coaching, or buddy systems to ensure returning employees have contact with role models that are more experienced at balancing work and family.
- Practical considerations. In many cases, women we spoke to benefited from check in days while on leave and/or gradual returns that helped them to ramp up to their full time roles. Organisations should also be aware of how the timing of meetings might impact primary caregivers and in some cases even discourage them from striving for career progression. Our research suggests that organisations where women and managers are focused on quantity and quality of output rather than input and time spent behind the desk, the return to work was far more successful.
- Remember that this type of transition is a very individual experience. Organisations, HR professionals, line managers and the returners themselves all have a role to play in making sure the returner voice is heard. Communication is key to avoiding potentially harmful assumptions around career and family priorities and preferences for how leave and the transition back to work are handled.
Our research in this area is ongoing and we have just launched a new project looking at how dual career couples (where both partners work) can balance their work and family commitments and support each other to achieve career satisfaction. If you are part of a dual career couple and would be interested in getting involved please get in touch email@example.com – taking part will take just 15 minutes of your time to complete an online survey (and one for your partner too!). We hope this research will allow us to identify factors that may help couples balance career and family priorities in a way that supports the well-being and satisfaction of all parties involved.