Maternity leave is one of the greatest potential threats to an organisation’s talent bank. A valued employee could be absent for up to a year, return for a few months and then quit, either because they have returned to a pressured role that is a threat to their work-life balance, or because they have taken a lower-profile job and feel dissatisfied with being stuck on the ‘mummy track’.
So how can employers stem this type of attrition, which could be an extra pressure at times of recession?
Many are turning to maternity coaching, which is deployed before, during and after the period of leave, and is increasingly seen as the answer to holding on to female returners.
Maternity coach Joy Bussell, who works for the Executive Coaching consultancy, says that offering such coaching can demonstrate that having babies need not damage career prospects.
“Women returners feel the need to validate themselves,” says Bussell. “They are keen to show they have an important contribution to make.”
Bussell says that the typical period of discontent for new mothers is between 12 and 24 months after they return to work. But maternity coaching can help an employee to understand what she wants from work and how to ask for it.
Nosheen Somaia, HR manager at law firm Allen & Overy, agrees, and says that maternity coaching can be invaluable.
Somaia should know. She received a series of maternity coaching interventions between 2006 and 2008.The first was held four weeks before Somaia finished work, with the aim of helping her to organise her departure.
“The coach covered the handover for my job, with subjects such as who was going to do what, and when was the cut-off point,” she says. “This was helpful because I had only been focusing on the day-to-day activities.”
Somaia refused the option of coaching while she was on maternity leave because she didn’t know if she wanted to come back, but then took up an offer six weeks after her return.
“This session covered the practicalities of adjusting to work and of other people’s perceptions,” she says. Somaia found this useful because it allowed her to talk at a time when she felt she could be vulnerable to being stereotyped as unambitious, being a new mother.
“You are still yourself after maternity leave, but you could be seen as different, because, for example, you might want to finish work at the same time every night so that you can see your child before bedtime,” she says.
Her coach helped her to request a reduction of hours to a three-day week.
“The coaching empowered me to have conversations about my future with my line manager,” she says.
By September 2008, Somaia was receiving telephone coaching, which she describes as “career coaching for a working parent.” As her son was then two, and ready to spend an extra day at nursery, she felt able to take up a new job on a four-day week.
Somaia believes that the coach has helped her through all the different transition stages of maternity and returning to work and has also introduced her to new skills.
“It has helped me to understand coaching and facilitating and to think how I might transfer them into my role,” she says.
Maternity coaching is not just confined to one-to-one interventions. It also lends itself to group coaching, says Carolyn Lee, head of diversity and inclusion at another law firm, Herbert Smith.
It launched a maternity coaching scheme in 2006. This is an ongoing programme, run by external consultants, and 50 women have attended so far.
“We have used one-to-one for partner level, or for women who are at a particular stage of their career, such as trainees,” she says.
Lee says that the coaching covers areas such as preparing to leave the job for a while and how to formulate a strategy for returning.
Herbert Smith has also offered one-to-one coaching to junior staff before their maternity leave who have then moved on to group coaching on their return. These groups usually comprise four to six people in a three-hour session.
“The groups tell us that they enjoy the networking possibilities that group coaching gives. It helps them to share thinking and experiences,” she says.
Implementing maternity coaching
Anna Hayward is client services director at coaching firm Managing Maternity.
She stresses that maternity coaching should be part of an integrated approach to family issues and offers these top tips:
Check your strategy on diversity and inclusion. If an organisation provides maternity coaching, but the culture is not supportive and doesn’t facilitate her return, then a woman will struggle.
Build best-practice HR expertise in your organisation. HR can have a facilitator’s role in bringing together pregnant women and their line managers to look at issues such as planning maternity cover and thinking about continuity after their return to work.
Consider what information managers have when an employee announces that she is pregnant. Aim to provide intranet guidance or workshops, for example.
If you are building up an internal maternity coaching capability ensure that supervision is in place. Maintain clear boundaries and help the employee understand that the sessions are confidential.