The United States is the only developed nation in the world that does not have national standards surrounding paid family leave. The only federal law that protects new mothers' rights to take time off after childbirth (12 weeks) is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees that they'll still have their jobs upon their return — and without penalty in pay or position (even though that's, unfortunately, not always the case). The law does not, however, require that their companies pay them while they're away. And it doesn't apply to everyone — it only protects mothers who've worked at companies with more than 50 employees for a minimum of 1,250 hours during the year prior.
Many women rely on the FMLA, nonetheless, as a study from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that just 60 percent of employers give 12 weeks of maternity leave, and just 33 percent give more than 12 weeks (including both paid and unpaid leave). Meanwhile, only 58 percent of companies pay a salary or wage during some or all of maternity leave.
But even when women do have any kind of maternity leave plan, they're not all so inclined to take advantage of it. The risk of being "mommy tracked," missing out on professional opportunities they've worked hard for and concerns about their reputation at work upon return makes taking a long leave a nuanced decision.
"For many women, returning to work after parental leave is a key career transition point — before returning from leave, many women feel mixed emotions: concern about leaving their child with another caregiver, but eagerness to return to an adult, professional world where they have mastered the subject matter," a Havard Business Review on a new survey reads. "But even so, returning to work after leave is harder than many women anticipate."
And if women do decide to take a leave, returning to work is a make or break transition point for their success and happiness in a workplace.
The survey of 300 women on parental leave from 28 organizations across a variety of sectors suggests that many organizations are failing to support working mothers upon their returns.
"The women we spoke with told us that returning to work was tougher than they’d expected: They experienced a significant decline in positive emotions once they returned to work, reflecting the lived challenges of this transition," the report reads. "In many of the firms, parental leave was viewed as a major disruption. Our interviews found signs that women’s careers were derailed after returning from leave, that colleagues held unconscious biases against the returning women, and that professional relationships also deteriorated after returning from leave."
The researchers did hear positive stories — but those stories came from women who worked in companies in which managers recognized parental leave as "no more than a brief interlude in a person’s long-term career." In these companies, women felt valued and came back to work with a renewed sense of energy and focus.
"While most organizations spend heavily on onboarding programs for newcomers and graduate recruits, we found that almost none pay the same level of attention to reintegrating employees after parental leave," the researchers explain in the report. "Our findings suggest that how the return is handled is typically more important than the actual length of leave."
The research indicates that a new mother's return to work is a challenging transition and, therefore, can lead to career derailment. But if organizations reflect more on the corporate culture surrounding parental leave and educate managers to ensure smoother transitions, mothers will have a much easier time.
The researchers suggest that human resource leaders support organizational cultures that position parental leave as brief interludes, and consider offering phased returns. They may want to look into “check-in days” during leave and gradual return plans that ramp up from three days a week, to four days, and then finally to five. Human resource professionals might also want to "set up mentoring programs for returning employees, where [they] match high performers who are more experienced caregivers with high performers who are new parents," or establish group coaching or informal buddy systems.
As for line managers, the researchers suggest they open communication lines with returning mothers, beginning before maternity leave. It should include how to approach leave, the individual’s communication preferences while on leave and the return phase, with specific plans for handovers at the start and the end of the leave. Likewise, they should "check assumptions about new parents’ career and family priorities" and "be aware that this is a deeply personal, individual transition for everyone."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.