Creating a “family feel”: supporting parents’ return to work

RSK HR director Zoe Brunswick and her family
RSK HR director Zoe Brunswick and her family

Returning from maternity leave is tough. Zoe Brunswick, HR director at environmental engineering consultancy RSK and former Personnel Today Awards “Rising Star”, explains how coming back to work for a second time is making her examine the support available for parents from employers.

I recently returned to work following maternity leave for my second child. Since then, people keep raising the issue of work-life balance. I’m still not convinced that it’s much more than a myth.

You work hard to get to where you want in your career, and you work hard for your children, and often you can’t enjoy either. I think the reality is you never feel like you’re succeeding at either.

As I sat there writing Peppa Pig’s diary entry, I wondered whether or not it was the most productive use of my time.

Returning the second time is more challenging than the first. Firstly, I have a larger business to manage. RSK has almost doubled its staff from 700 in 2010 to more than 1200 today, with 49 offices around the world.

Secondly, I now have two children at home, one who’s approaching school age and becoming more aware of “Mummy’s work”. When they’re younger, if you’re working on your laptop, they don’t understand, whereas now my four-year old asks: “Mummy, why are you working?”

He came back from nursery last Friday with a huge smile on his face because he’d been chosen to bring Peppa Pig home. All I could think was: “Please not this weekend. How can I cope with this on top of everything else?”

As I sat there writing Peppa Pig’s diary entry, I wondered whether or not it was the most productive use of my time. But, to my son, it was by far and away the most important thing and I wanted to do it for him. I always want to be the “perfect parent”, who attends every party and sports day, but it is a struggle.

I think that women feel extra pressure to perform compared to their male counterparts. Many of my colleagues at a senior level are male. This is changing but, in the engineering industry, the transition is going take a while.

I do find myself wondering whether or not most men have to perform the same balancing act as I do, such as making childcare arrangements before they attend a meeting. Of course, there are women with stay-at-home partners too, but in a male-dominated industry like mine, you do feel pressure when men are in the majority.

I also feel as though I have to show that having a child hasn’t made me any less competent. I even feel I have to make myself more available. That is not expected of me, and this pressure comes from myself, not from colleagues.

Many working mums share this feeling. It leaves me wondering why so many women experience such pressure. We are determined to succeed in our careers but we also cannot escape our maternal instincts. Although my husband’s job does not allow him to be the primary child carer, I very much wanted to take on this role myself anyway.

A generation ago, it was typical that the man went to work while the woman stayed at home. That has changed with more women having high-powered jobs, but the reality is they’re still trying to juggle everything at home as well, from managing the family finances to making sure the school bag is packed. If organisational skills are one of your strengths in the family unit, often you end up trying to do it all.

That’s why as a human resources director I want to look at how employers can best support workers. For example, RSK offers both men and women flexible working, not only for childcare, but also for study, travel, illness and other life issues.

Extending a family feel to the workplace is, I believe, the way to ensure that women and men who are struggling to find a work-home life balance do not drown in their efforts

If someone comes to HR about a family situation, we do not just get the employee handbook out. Instead, we consider how to make it work. We look at an employee’s situation as real life and consider things on a case-by-case scenario so we can work out the best solution for that situation.

This becomes more of a challenge as businesses grow in size, but it is still possible. As there are more than 1200 RSK employees across the world, it is down to line managers to have a really good understanding of the teams they employ.

It is not just about understanding their career aspirations; it is about having empathy for people’s personal situations. This flexibility works both ways. When a client has a really tough deadline to be met, I can guarantee that our employees, male or female, will be there working overtime to make sure that it is delivered.

In a company the size of RSK, it comes down to the teams and the offices to create that “family feel”.  Extending a family feel to the workplace is, I believe, the way to ensure that women and men who are struggling to find a work-home life balance do not drown in their efforts. I am looking into setting up a parenting forum within RSK, where mums and dads can share their experiences.

I am not sure if there is an absolute solution to issues of balancing home and work life. Women put too much pressure on themselves, and, as a result, many will never feel they have that balance right.

Personally, I am a bit of a control freak, so, even while on maternity leave, I was unable to disconnect totally from my job. Perhaps the answer would have been to have another “me” in my place during that time. Maybe cloning is the solution!

Joking aside, if the problem of achieving the “mythical” work-life balance cannot be solved, perhaps it can be normalised through initiatives such as workplace parenting forums.

If we can make parenting a normal and accepted part of working life, as well as of personal life, we can possibly disperse the “parental stigma” that many women currently experience. None of us will ever be “perfect” parents or employees but empathetic employers will make things easier.

Zoe Brunswick

About Zoe Brunswick

Zoe Brunswick is HR director at environmental consultancy RSK. She won the HR Rising Star Award at the Personnel Today Awards 2010.