According to figures analysed by the House of Commons library, up to 50,000 women a year feel they can’t return to their jobs after maternity leave, suggesting that women returning to work are either forced into positions with less responsibility or are effectively dismissed. Stigma and discrimination have been cited as the main reasons, underlined by comments from Labour party politician, Yvette Cooper, who talked about her own negative experiences. She used words such as ‘hostility’ and ‘battle’ to describe her dealings with senior colleagues, which shows just how serious the issue of maternity discrimination has become and how many businesses are struggling to deal with this sensitive issue.

Whilst I agree with Yvette Cooper that discrimination against new mothers in the workplace needs to be abolished, there is far too much focus on regulatory pressure and lawsuits, which might not achieve the best outcome for women on maternity leave. Already, businesses and line managers often fear getting on the wrong side of legal requirements and stipulations. As a result, they either swing between being too passive or overly ‘procedure driven’ and aggressive, which can lead to unnecessary friction. Misunderstandings can then become commonplace as it is easy for both sides to assume the worst in such circumstances. When open and honest communication is replaced with secrecy, a productive environment can’t be achieved in any situation, including maternity arrangements. To ensure that small problems don’t escalate, employees, whether they are line managers or women on maternity leave, need support, development and structures enabling them to deal with maternity arrangements smoothly and appropriately.

Putting the right structure in place

More often than not, friction over maternity arrangements and returning to work is due to outdated people practices rather than businesses actively discriminating against women. Employers are starting to realise that as the skills shortages bite even further, they can’t afford to keep losing female talent who take maternity leave. Whilst the economy is looking more promising and hiring intentions are improving, talent remains scarce. Now more than ever, the inclusion of women with key skills and a strong understanding of the business environment is critical for long term and sustainable business performance. Employers need to take responsibility for ensuring that their management models help women confidently return to work after maternity leave. It not only provides a clear and effective way of retaining female talent but it also demonstrates to employees that they are valued by their employers.

Align individual needs with business needs

The ability to be assertive and think creatively about how to align individual needs with business requirements can make all the difference. The key is to ensure that both line managers and women who decide to have a baby feel supported and maternity coaching is a very effective way of achieving this. Women who receive coaching before, during and after their maternity leave are not only more likely to return to work, but will come back with confidence and a real focus on making a contribution to the business. Coaching also enhances their understanding of their position within organisation, which is vital in our world of constantly evolving businesses. It helps women to feel valued in their organisations and to collaborate with their managers and colleagues openly, to avoid negative attitudes experienced by Yvette Cooper and many others. Maternity coaching also supports line managers, giving them more confidence and knowledge about how to support their female colleagues.

Coaching before maternity leave

Even before leaving work to go on maternity leave, many women face personal anxieties about their career progression. It’s never the same for everyone so a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work. For some women, concerns that their career will stall or that they won’t be able to commit to their job as well as a small child can cause anxiety. Others might start feeling unfairly excluded from work meetings or social situations. Correctly pinpointing these initial emotions and identifying what women want to get out of the coaching is important. It helps them feel in control of the situation but also gives the coach clear direction for creating an efficient coaching plan that summarises key objectives and milestones. These should then be agreed by the employee, their coach and their line manager. An initial meeting with the coach is also important to ensure that the match is a good one, as a lot depends on the relationship that the coach and the employee forge.

Coaching during maternity leave

Keeping up momentum during maternity leave is essential. From my experience, meeting with the business and the coach around six times throughout the year can help women feel connected to the organisation, and keep them up to speed with projects, the company strategy and any major changes taking place. Women can also benefit from using these sessions to help them plan their future working patterns. It may be that they want to opt for more flexible working options, and talking to their line manager about it helps them to think about the sorts of arrangements they will need to make for their return. Ongoing telephone and email support outside of these meetings is also important. Support needs to happen continuously rather than as a mad panic before an employee is due to return to work. Women who have a coach whilst they make the transition through this important time are more likely to return with a clear understanding of their day-to-day-role, more confidence and a real motivation to succeed.

Coaching after maternity leave and beyond

A study by law firm Slater & Gordon in early 2013 found that one in five female employees felt their co-workers didn’t understand what it was like juggling work with new motherhood and nearly one in three female workers felt that they didn’t ‘fit in’ anymore when they returned to work. It’s clear that returning to work after maternity leave can be overwhelming but this doesn’t mean that women want less responsibility than they previously had. In fact, such presumptions and lower expectations of women returning to work can unintentionally create the feeling of discrimination. Maintaining regular two-way communication between the employee and the employer is critical to achieve the right balance between individual needs and overall organisational objectives. Also, on returning, visibility amongst co-workers is important to help the individual re-integrate back into the company successfully. It’s important that women are reminded that they are part of a team and are not making the transition back to work on their own.

Ian Symes is General Manager at Right Management for the UK and Ireland.

Ian Symes joined Right Management in November 2012 as the new General Manager for the UK & Ireland. Ian has more than 20 year’s business experience in senior executive roles, most recently as Marketing Director for Cisco in the UK & Ireland and for the company’s high profile sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.