After returning from maternity leave, leadership, supervisors, and coworkers can be part of a welcoming and supportive environment, sending a message that this major life event has been duly noted. Or they can act as though nothing happened, piling work and resentment on the new mum. After returning from maternity leave it is important that co-workers are gracious and help the new mums Get back to work.
When it’s the latter, just about everyone stands to lose: both parents, coworkers, and even the baby, according to an Academy of Management Journal article by Laura M. Little of the University of Georgia and Courtney R. Masterson of the University of San Francisco.
“Emotional and practical support make a difference” for the 2.5 million working women in the United States who give birth every year, said Little, coauthor of Mother’s Reentry: A Relative Contribution Perspective of Dual-Earner Parents’ Roles, Resources, and Outcomes.
Little and Masterson surveyed 246 new mothers and 180 of their partners several times throughout the re entry period, asking whether respondents agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “My organization strongly considers my goals and values” and “In the past week, I had to put off doing things at work because of demands on my time at home.” They also asked parents about their at-work conduct—for example, had they snapped at a colleague in the last week?
“Our results provided evidence of the far-reaching effects of a mother’s perception of organizational support on not only her home stress, but also on her significant other’s home and work outcomes,” according to the article.
“The home stress will cross over,” Little said. “You’ll pick it up and pass it on.”
But moms take on the brunt of the home demands. They can be physically exhausted, usually taking the lead role in caring for the baby and, on top of that, might be still breast-feeding, which requires an at-work pumping routine.
Organizations, coworkers, and partners can take steps to help, Little said.
Generous maternity leave policies, flexible hours, and other family-friendly benefits can ease the stress, Little said.“Organizations should proactively support working mothers throughout the reentry period,” the authors wrote, “including showing appreciation for mothers’ goals, checking in on their well-being<, giving them some control over their schedule, and providing maternal support.”
Organizations also can make arrangements to manage the workload while someone is on maternity leave. “Organizations don’t do a good job of planning for that,” she said. If they did, it could limit the resentment that builds up among coworkers who must pick up the slack while someone is on leave. And then the returning mom might have a more reasonable workload when she comes back, Little said.
<Supervisors and coworkers: Organizations are responsible for major items, like work-from-home policies. But Little said one strategy for easing reentry stress does not cost a thing: New mothers said they felt supported when colleagues checked in and asked simple questions like, “How is it going and how can I help?” Supervisors can consider asking mothers what they need, since there is no one-size-fits-all solution, Masterson added.
Partners: The study and prior research showed that moms do the lion’s share of child care for a new baby. That reality should prompt partners to redistribute household labor to lighten the load, Little said.
The study focused on the negative consequences of failing to support new moms, but when they do feel supported, the positive effects can ripple out in a happy way—resulting in less stress for both parents.
A mother’s positive feelings about the support she gets at work “may spill over to the home to generate positive emotions such as joy or to induce play and fun in the household during a particularly stressful time,” the authors wrote.