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How to design a compassionate return-to-work experience for working mothers

Did you know that 43% of women with children leave their careers or pause them for an extended period (Hewlett & Luce, 2005)? Despite many leading organisations implementing inclusive pay practices and hiring standards, little has been done to understand the impact of mid-career parental leave (Ferrante, 2019).

The research is clear. Taking a period of absence and returning to work is a remarkable experience for working parents and one that is often overlooked, impersonal or under-resourced.

The process of returning to work also has a lasting impact on labour market participation, employee confidence and inclusion in the workplace. Unfortunately, there's a lot of data highlighting "The Motherhood Pay Gap" (Grimshaw & Rubery, 2015), a wage penalty experienced by returning mothers which can take up to 7 years to resolve.

For employees returning to work after parental leave, providing a positive return to work experience isn’t just the right thing to do, it supports a more productive and engaged workforce.

Investing in the experience can benefit any organisation by:

  • Driving longer-term workforce participation

  • Maximising employee retention

  • Increasing productivity and minimizing the reboarding impact

  • Increasing employee engagement

  • Improving your chances of hiring more diverse talent

It seems obvious that giving your employees a positive RTW (return-to-work) experience is business-critical but this isn't always the case. We often see organisations investing more in onboarding first-timers and hiring diverse talent than reboarding or retaining the incredible talent they already have.

A survey by MMB & People Management suggested that for every 1000 women, less than 18% of them feel happy and confident when returning to work after parental leave. That’s a remarkably low number for such a remarkable experience.

Our Founder, Sasha Wight, recently carried out some research on the RTW experience for working mothers as part of an academic research project with the University of Aberdeen. She uncovered the critical challenges (where organisations fall short) and the greatest opportunities to drive meaningful change (what they can do about it!). We’re delighted to share a few highlights from this research, starting with critical challenges uncovered:

  1. There’s a lack of communication from the business

    1. Returning mothers are largely unsure of when to expect communication from the business during their parental leave to discuss the returning process.

    2. The lack of clarity around when they will hear from the business results in higher levels of anxiety and concern for their role

    3. Inconsistent communication contributes to a negative experience, particularly when the responsibility is placed on Managers to lead communications

  2. Support systems are limited

    1. Becoming a new parent can take a toll on any parents mental health. It is common for mothers to be diagnosed with postpartum depression (PPD). With this in mind, many organisations do very little to support or anticipate such mental health challenges

    2. Organisations typically expect working mums to be mentally prepared once they are back in work mode, but the reality is that PPD can occur up to 12 months after giving birth.

    3. Many of the women interviewed as part of this research shared their experiences with anxiety and imposter syndrome, largely driven by the lack of support provided by their organisation and the lack of communication

  3. Reboarding isn’t seen as a priority

    1. Transitioning back to the workplace is challenging as working mothers manage childcare arrangements and feeding schedules. Finding time to pump or feed and getting into a childcare routine doesn’t magically happen in the weeks before returning to work.

    2. Settling into a childcare routine and adjusting to a new work routine naturally increases the pressure to perform and deliver. As a result, many working mums experience a lack of confidence when approaching their return date and a real lack of support in finding a new working rhythm.

Other challenges included not having the space to pump in the office (when present) as well as a number of the interview participants reporting significant and unexpected changes to their roles whilst absent from the business. It’s important to note that remote working was largely seen as a huge benefit and stabilising factor for many working mothers.

Whilst the research sample was small (15 new mothers) the findings are clear and largely reflective of various industries and locations in Asia. However, it’s always important to note that the most effective way of understanding critical challenges within your own organisation is to ask your own employees. Conducting a detailed internal EX research programme will allow you to build on the findings we’ve shared and identify any org-specific challenges you might have.

So how do we make the experience better?

How do we build a compassionate and competitive return-to-work process?

Well, it’s a journey and one we’d suggest is managed in an agile fashion. Here a few key insights uncovered within our research to kick-start your redesign process:

  1. Communicate across all stages of the transition process

    1. It is essential to be proactive in planning organisation-driven communication to maintain employee connection, confidence and reduce any anxiety. This can be done by sending regular updates throughout the parental absence period. It’s important that these communications are meaningful.

    2. Personalise the communications process as much as possible by asking how often your employee would like to receive updates. Everyone's parental leave journey is different so don’t assume everyone needs or wants this level of communication.

  2. Maintain manager-employee relations

    1. Ensure Managers are having regular and supportive conversations with returning mothers before and after they return to work. It’s important that organisations are equipping their managers with the tools and training needed to manage the transition effectively.

    2. Provide your managers with the research and kick-start any training on this topic by building an awareness of why compassion and empathy during this time is key

  3. Offer connected and creative support systems.

    1. There are a variety of options to ensure that your employees have a strong support system during and after their parental leave. Look into coaching, phased return programmes, internal networks and mentorship programmes to establish a positive return to work process that feels intentional and connected

  4. Drive for personalisation

    1. The final and most important point is that personalisation is key! The most significant finding of the research was that returning parents have different experiences and different wants and needs. Whatever programmes of support you’re providing, don’t force participation - empower your working parents to build a support programme that works for them.

The returning experience is one that requires empathy and investment. Organisations who overlook this critical employee experience are more likely to lose incredible talent and will struggle to build a truly diverse and inclusive organisation.

If you would like some help researching and designing your RTW experience, please contact us for employee experience solutions customised to your organisation's needs.


Ferrante, B. (2020) ‘When Returning To Work, New Mothers Are Lacking Significant Support’ [online], Available at: (Accessed 27 August 2020).

Grimshaw, D. & Rubery, J. (2015) The motherhood pay gap. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

Hewlett, S. A. & Luce, C. B. (2005) ‘Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success’, Harvard Business Review, 1 March. Available at: keeping-talented-women-on-the-road-to-success (Accessed 27 August 2020).

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