Maternity coaching: Keeping mum

A high number of mothers who return to work quit after one year. Coaching can, say its fans, cut this fall-out rate.

The changing patterns of family life have brought fresh challenges for employers as they have to accommodate longer periods of maternity and paternity leave and acknowledge requests for flexible working. Yet, despite honouring the letter and spirit of the law, employers are still finding that they lose female staff soon after maternity leave, or that those who do return become dissatisfied and restless.

Support

Enter maternity coaching, a concept that has been on the market for about three years. The length and style of maternity coaching varies between providers, but it usually takes the form of a series of face-to-face individual coaching sessions, which are delivered during pregnancy, maternity leave and upon return to work. The intention is to support women at these times and help companies stem attrition.

“The cost to a company of a badly managed maternity leave is not purely financial, although that in itself presents a significant difficulty,” says Duncan Fraser, managing director of the public sector development specialists The Way Ahead Group. “It also negatively affects client relationships, performance, organisational knowledge and goodwill.”

The Way Ahead Group has just launched a maternity coaching programme for the voluntary and public sectors, which it says will offer a “reflective approach to maternity leave”.

In the private sector, maternity coaching has been taken up by law firms and City banks. And even in these tough economic times, many providers are finding it is recession-proof.

“We have had an increase in the maternity coaching business in the past six months,” says Geraldine Gallacher, managing director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy. The consultancy is finding that its clients are requesting extra coaching sessions for staff, and more maternity coaching products, such as group coaching workshops for support staff.

The benefits of maternity coaching are reflected in attrition rates, and so can be more easily measured than other types of coaching. However, there is no point in offering the coaching if job satisfaction has been overlooked.

Mummy track

“When women get back to work there is initial relief from all sides,” says Gallacher. “But often women tend to feel they are on the ‘mummy track’ because they have not been given work that is stimulating.”

At coaching firm Managing Maternity, managing director Anna Hayward says that her aim is to help employers help returners “hit the ground running”.

She offers maternity coaching as well as general workshops on legislative framework for managers.

One of the main drivers in the maternity coaching boom is that new mothers are more likely to be in their 30s or even 40s and so may have at least 10 years’ solid career experience behind them. They represent an investment that employers cannot afford to lose, especially when facing the dual pressures of an economic downturn and talent drain.

“This has increased the challenge to employers to actively re-engage these women on their return,” says coach Joy Bussell.

Bussell, who works independently and for the Executice Coaching Consultancy, has researched whether the offerings from employers can help to retain professional women, as part of her MA in coaching from Oxford Brookes University.

Great expectations

Bussell’s research, called Great Expectations: Can Maternity Coaching affect the retention of professional women?, found that the problems lie around not whether women will come back to work, but if they will stay.

“My research findings are backed up by internal research carried out by a major City law firm, which shows that maternity coaching has had an impact on retention figures,” she says.

Bussell refers to the law firm’s findings, about a group of women returning to work between 1999 and 2005. Before coaching was introduced, 22% had subsequently left in the first 12 months and a further 8% exited in the 12-24 months following return. When coaching was introduced, only 10% left within the first 12 months and only 1% left in the 12-24 months following their return.

“The statistics indicate that while maternity coaching has a positive effect on retention, the particular benefit appears to be supporting women to remain at work after returning,” she says.

Bussell says that employers perceive the danger time in terms of attrition is while women are on maternity leave, but that her research found it is from 12 to 24 months after they come back, when they then want to take on more challenges.

She advises that employers sponsor four, not three, coaching sessions – with the fourth session run at this later period. This then harnesses the coaching to help address the mismatch between employer and employee attitudes.

Soft pedal

“Employers think that women want a little time to soft pedal, but they actually want a clear view of their career development and to plan where they are going,” Bussell says. “There is a big unspoken fear that having babies can damage your career prospects. It is important for employers to demonstrate this is not the case.”

These tensions are often worse for senior women, who are likely to be involved in project-based work. When the work is distributed, employers often make the assumption that returners, who have more commitments at home, want a lesser role. “In fact, women returners feel the need to validate themselves,” says Bussell. “They are keen to show they have an important contribution to make.”

Bussell recommends that women have a performance management review before they go on leave.

“This serves two purposes,” she says. “One is to highlight for both the woman and line manager their skills and achievements in the past 12 months, and the other in turn provides a really important reminder when they are return how good they are. They may come back to a different boss, in which case it is important to have something on record.”

Women are now likely to take between nine and 12 months’ maternity leave, a trend that increases the pressure on women and organisations.

Work-life balance

“It is ironic that as maternity leave has become more generous, it has become harder for women to return,” says Anna Hayward. She explains that this is because women who are away longer will miss more of a project lifecycle or feel they are losing touch with their workplace. As a consequence, a coach will often have to help the coachees with issues of assertiveness, managing work-life balance and maintaining a strategic focus at work.

“Maternity coaching is not about the new mother having a moan,” says coach Susie Kendall. “Yes, it brings the benefits of speaking to an independent person about what’s not working for you, but it’s also about resolving those worries.”

Kendall has a background as a City solicitor and litigation lawyer. Her interest in maternity coaching was prompted by her own experiences before starting her first maternity leave.

“When I was preparing to leave, I worked flat out until 11pm every night,” she says. “I wanted everything to be perfect for the handover to my cover. I then found out they were not starting until a month after I had left, by which time things would have changed anyway.

“Details like that, and realising an employer cares about you, really matter to a woman’s sense of belonging,” she says.

Case study: Herbert Smith

Law firm Herbert Smith launched maternity coaching with its senior women in 2006.

“Having a baby is a momentous and life-changing experience,” says the firm’s head of diversity and inclusion, Carolyn Lee. “Maternity coaching is one way we can provide support at this time.”

The coachees, who cannot be named, have said they found the coaching to be a positive intervention.

“The coach obviously cottoned onto the fact that I was trying to be better than everyone else,” says coachee A. “And so she encouraged me to clarify and work out how I wanted to be going forward. It was a relief to set limits.”

Another benefit was a renewed focus on career development.

“I had all this energy and drive and wanted to channel it into something positive,” says coachee B.

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