The Loop

Why and How To Support Moms Back At Work

Filed under: Benefits

Typically, the scenario for new moms returning from maternity leave has not been ideal. In some ways, the pandemic has made this situation even worse. But looking forward, the pandemic could set a course for a better future for working moms. 

First off, though, the outbreak of the coronavirus has had a devastating impact on working women. Schools shut down, businesses scaled back, and many folks lost their jobs. As a result, more women have dropped out of the workplace to assume the traditional role of providing childcare when schools and childcare centers closed for months on end. Unlike other modern recessions, at its peak this decline vaulted women’s unemployment by 2.9 percentage points over men’s unemployment.

But the story isn’t just about layoffs. A 2020 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Company revealed that one in four women have considered quitting their job or reducing their hours due to the pandemic. They cited company inflexibility, caring responsibilities and stress as primary reasons.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics’ pre-pandemic numbers, women held the majority of jobs in the US, at 50.04 percent (excluding farm workers and the self-employed) at the end of 2019. Among them, about 70 percent of working women are moms. It’s safe to say that if you eliminated working moms from the workplace, the American economy probably would sink very quickly. And yet, women often feel they must choose between their careers and family life. This is not a common complaint among men.

Mom’s Priorities

When a mom who recently had a baby goes back to work, her concerns may be a lot different from her employer. For example, the employer may be primarily interested in helping her manage her time (particularly if she needs to breast pump while at work), maximize productivity, and avoid absenteeism.

These are indeed concerns for a mom, but they may not be her biggest issues. Here’s a list of other things a woman with young children worries about:

  • A reliable childcare plan, including alternative options should their regular provider be unavailable.
  • The physical repercussions of giving birth, breast feeding, and subsequent lower energy levels – on top of all the other responsibilities she held before.
  • Due to nighttime feedings and poor sleep – the inability to work at the same level as before for quite a while. This can generate feelings of guilt; self-disgust; inadequacy; worry about losing ground in her career; feeling like workplace accommodations and flexibility are “favors” she cannot repay; and fielding resentment from coworkers who feel young moms get accommodations that they do not.
  • Breast pumping – having the proper equipment, a private place, a cleaning station out of view of co-workers, the time to pump several times a day, the need to pump during a scheduled or impromptu meeting or when racing to meet a deadline.
  • The unknowns – the newborn not sleeping through the night, health concerns that could develop, babysitting crises, post-partum depression, family dynamics thrown out of whack – such as jealous siblings or even her husband.
  • No longer having the capacity to work long hours, be on-call to put out fires, and having her attention constantly divided.
  • A worrisome desire to prove that she can return to work and perform at the same level, as if nothing changed.

Not many men experience these issues…ever. So, yes, women are concerned about time management and productivity, but they don’t think in those terms. They think about the actual, daily impediments to those goals, and that is why employers need to become more intuitive about how to support newborn moms.

Breast Pumping at Work

It’s important to support breast pumping for many reasons, and some of them can impact long-term productivity. For context, note that US breastfeeding rates tend to drop significantly (40.7 percent) three months after birth, which is when most mothers return to work. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding infants for six months to a year, in order to satisfy the nutrition and antibody immunity value of breast milk. In turn, this can lead to healthier babies and fewer sick leave absences by working moms as their children grow. Unless employers are in favor of a one-year maternity leave, it is in their best interest to accommodate lactating moms.

To establish a designated breast pumping room, an employer should provide:

  • A private room with a door that locks
  • A comfortable chair
  • A place to set up breast pumps and accessories
  • Electrical outlets
  • A microwave to sanitize supplies
  • A sink to clean supplies
  • A refrigerator to store milk
  • Restful lighting and artwork
  • A scheduling system for moms to work out pumping times

In addition to a breast pumping room, a workplace lactation program may offer access to a lactation consultant or even fellow working mom mentors with whom they may commiserate and exchange advice on workplace situations, newborn management, childcare issues, and even family dynamics. A new mom mentorship program can help create a support network, which increases the chances of moms staying on the job, and help them remain engaged, focused, and productive. 

There is a return on this type of investment. Research shows that employers that implement a lactation program, benefit from a $3 return for every $1 invested in their moms. These savings result from lower healthcare costs, increased productivity, and reduced absenteeism.

Despite these employer benefits, workplace lactation programs are still relatively rare. They are mostly sponsored by large, professional service companies. Unfortunately, women who have the most difficult time juggling work demands with a newborn tend to have low-paying jobs. Not only would providing a private breast-pumping room be helpful to the mom, but there is growing evidence that they help change and normalize coworker perspectives toward new moms in the workplace.

Reintegration Plan

Reintegration actually begins before a mom goes off on maternity leave. There are numerous things a pregnant woman worries about before her child is born. If she has a clear understanding about what is available and expected of her when she does return to work, this can help ease her mind and allow her to focus on childbirth, the newborn, and her family’s needs during maternity leave.

Employers should establish a process whereas pregnant moms are informed of the reintegration plan prior to their leave, which may include check-in conversations initiated by her supervisors and/or Human Resources while on leave. Other elements of the plan may include the option of reduced hours during the first three to six months of return; a general overview of any changes and organizational updates that occurred while they were gone, and a flexible schedule for both new moms and new dads – to support the demands of newborn family life.

Gender Bias Training

You can provide top notch privacy and reintegration plans for mothers of newborns, but they will not do much to assuage their insecurities about workplace perceptions. To embrace motherhood as part of the company culture, employers might consider gender bias training. For some, seeing pregnant women in the workplace can engender feelings of resentment.

According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 217 years to achieve economic gender parity at our current pace. Women want to work, the economy needs them to work, and no one wants to stymie the proliferation of the human race. Therefore it is important for employers to work toward advancing gender parity at a faster pace. 

Policy Recommendations

The following are some additional recommendations that can improve the maternity leave and reintegration process in support of working mothers.

  • Consider extending a maternity policy to at least six weeks, which – according to the American Academy of Family Physicians – is the average time it takes for most women to feel physically recovered from giving birth.
  • Consider offering childcare assistance or on-site childcare, which are particularly attractive benefits to young adults seeking employment.
  • Consider offering flexible work schedules, such as working from home, telecommuting, and staggering work weeks.
  • Consider job-sharing arrangements and cross-training among department members so that any employee can take leave and feel confident his responsibilities will be adequately covered – and will be able to offer the same level of support for other colleagues on leave. This not only creates a cooperative work environment, but it can help employees gain valuable experience that benefits both the company and their own careers.
  • Advertise maternity resources. An employee may work at a company for many years before thinking about having a baby, and probably never paid attention to maternity benefits. Make these benefits visible and easily accessible to all employees.
  • Consider creating a designated website that details all maternity benefits in one place that is easy to access from home.
  • Create a parental leave handbook that details all benefits, resources and tools available. Consult your working parents for feedback on what they would have like to have known when they were on leave – and ask them to volunteer as mentors with contact information for those on paternity leave.

Studies have shown that in the work environment, men are valued based on their potential, but women – particularly working mothers – are judged based on their past performance. Can they perform at the same level as before they became mothers?

It’s important to recognize that working moms have two fulltime jobs. It unreasonable for them to continue to prove and reprove their dedication after every child. They should not have to work harder to reinforce their perceived worth. The ability to juggle a newborn with a job should be held in the highest esteem as part of the company culture, and demonstrated through the employer’s actions and accommodations.

Fortunately, a silver lining of the pandemic is that many companies have adapted quickly to the work-from-home model, which can greatly benefit moms with newborns. The ability to work from home gives them the flexibility to breast pump and even take quick, energy-boosting naps as necessary – which can actually get them back to work faster without disrupting their new job as a newborn mom.

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