Why working mothers need a flexible approach

After I had my first baby, I was a wreck about returning to work. I was so tired from the middle-of-the-night feedings and the tormented crying jags that I could not imagine how on earth I would function again as a professional. But I was also so infatuated with my daughter that I could not imagine being away from her for nine hours a day. 

Thankfully, my employer at the time – this newspaper – allowed me to structure my maternity leave in a way that allowed me to return to work on a part-time basis before ramping up to full-time. It was a win-win solution: I got to spend time with my baby while readjusting to my professional life and learning how to balance the two. And my employer got one of its workers back in the mix.

According to a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, it seems my experience is not so unusual. The study, by researchers at Baylor University in Texas, found that working women with newborn babies were more likely to stick with their jobs if they were allowed to follow a flexible schedule.

A large number of women who return to the workforce after childbirth subsequently stop working, and the reasons for this are not well understood. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, mothers with children under six years of age are the least likely of all mothers to participate in the workforce.

I recently spoke to Merideth Ferguson, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Baylor and one of the authors of the study, who told me that when new mums are better able to control their work environment, work-related stress is less likely to become a family issue.

“When a new mum returns to work, she’s not only still healing from childbirth, but she also has an infant at home. The infant schedule is so tough – there are a lot of doctor’s appointments, they’re often not sleeping through the night,” says Ferguson.

“So when a woman gets back to work, often her reaction is, ‘Holy cow, this is so much harder than I thought it was going to be.’ And since she can’t change a lot about her family life with the baby, the stress escalates and she thinks, ‘Can I do this? Do I need to quit my job? Do I need to get a different job?’

“But work is the one place where perhaps she can squeeze in some flexibility. That’s why working at a company where there is a supportive culture [toward workplace flexibility] with policies in place and supervisors who encourage employees to take advantage of those policies makes a big difference in turnover.”

Ferguson recommends that new mothers think creatively about ways of maintaining their productivity while adjusting their work schedules to meet family needs. But the onus is on companies as well.

“When half of your talent has the potential to walk out the door because they can’t manage work and family, it becomes much harder to remain competitive. That is why companies need to come up with policies that will make it easier for their female workforce to balance work and family, and treat each situation as a unique one. Especially in that first year,” she says.

“The employees, meanwhile, need to make the business case for a flexible schedule. They need to look for potential parts of their job that they can do from home, or at odd hours. If an employee says, ‘If I can work from 6am to 3pm, it will make me a more productive person,’ that is something to consider. The employee needs to have a supportive policy, and she can’t be punished for taking advantage of it.”

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