As a working Mum myself, I found that going back to work was both more rewarding and more difficult than I’d expected. I’d never anticipated giving up work when we decided to start a family. I’d loved my job and the people I worked with, and I had something of a financial imperative. Even so, I’d not fully anticipated the extra complications and conflicting emotions that come with having a small child to consider.
Here are my top tips for smoothing the return to work.
- Keep in touch
Unless you’ve absolutely, definitely decided not to go back to work after starting a family, it’s a good idea to stay in regular contact with either the company you intend to return to, or the broader business environment in general. That way, when you decide to pick up the reins again, you won’t feel the world has moved on and left you behind. Try to dip in to your employer’s company website or employee portal from time to time, perhaps even post a picture of your new addition. And, if your employer offers paid keep in touch days, it’s worth making the effort to attend.
- Think about flexible working
Before returning to work, it’s important to take the time to step back and think about how you will cope with a young family. Rather than piling on the pressure by returning to work full time, it may make sense to see if flexible working would be a better option for either you or your partner. The government website provides an overview of current legislation on the right to request flexible working from a current employer, and you’ll find plenty of advice elsewhere.
- Put it in writing
If you decide to request flexible working, put it in writing. Even if you are not eligible by law to be considered for it, it’s still worth asking the question. Most today companies recognise the challenge of balancing work and home and, if they value you enough, will find a way to help you. Ensure you get a written reply, and document any working arrangements that are discussed. That way both sides are clear about what’s been agreed; and it’s easier for you, and them, to plan. If you’ve agreed on reduced hours, but may need to come back to work full time after a year or so, remember the company is not obliged to accommodate your request.
- Build a support network
Things won’t go according to plan—with children they never do! While your employer is unlikely to take you to task if you end up at A&E (as I have more than once) because your child has taken a tumble or become seriously ill, they’ll be less sympathetic if you have to drop everything at short notice every time the little one picks up a cold or sore throat because the nursery, child minder or school won’t take them. According to the NHS, toddlers can catch as many as 8 or 12 colds a year. Talk it through with your partner – could they cover for you? Ask family or close friends if they would be prepared to help out should the need arise.
Once your kids are at school, don’t miss out on making friends with other parents. Not just because you’ll find ways of helping each other out, but because it’s good for your social life and your children’s too!
- Share your contingency plan
Even with flexible working, not all businesses are able to offer the degree of flexibility you may need to cover the unexpected family crisis. If you’ve discussed the options with your manager in advance, and thought through how a colleague could help out if you can’t come into the office, or have to drop out of a client meeting at the last minute, it will be better for their peace of mind, and yours.
- Investigate working from home
Working from home doesn’t suit every person, or every job. However, with so many businesses running their business software in the Cloud, it’s a viable option for many of us, and goes hand in hand with a more flexible approach to working.
Even if it’s a regular occurrence, it’s important that you take responsibility for letting colleagues and managers know where you are, and how to contact you. Nothing breeds distrust faster than simply disappearing from sight! Online HR software or diary tools can be used to log your whereabouts and share contact information; email, Skype and other chat software make it simple to stay in touch.
- Plan your re-induction
Larger companies usually have a “back to work” process in place that’s designed to get you up to speed quickly with everything that’s changed while you were away. In smaller organisations, this is something that can get overlooked, so you may need to take the lead yourself. In the weeks leading up to your return, get in touch with colleagues and arrange to get together for a coffee or a chat. Arrange a meeting with your immediate boss, and use that to sound out their expectation, and try to catch up with them at least once a week for the first few weeks until you feel comfortable that everything is running smoothly.
- Keep holiday days in hand
I make it a rule to keep at least a week of holiday in reserve, so I can take time off if I need to. That way I don’t have to feel guilty (or work through the night in order to catch up) if I need to look after my children during the working day. I also make sure that important events, like sports days or school plays, are booked out as holiday well in advance, so I don’t miss out on important events.
- Don’t beat yourself up
Indra Nooyi, Chief Executive of PepsiCo, isn’t the only one to say that she suffered “heartaches” after going back to work. There is always an element of guilt about leaving your child with other people, not being there when they need you, or missing out on key events; the first step, the first word, the first sports day, playing third shepherd from the right in the nativity play…. the list goes on. Even promising yourself ‘quality’ time in the evenings and at weekends doesn’t always work out. Meals needs to be cooked; clothes found, cleaned, ironed; homework checked, light bulbs changed. Life won’t ever be the same as it was before kids, so don’t set your expectations too high. Do the essentials, and make time for your kids and for yourself.
- Be prepared to think again
If after a few months you find it’s not working out – your kids are miserable, you are miserable, your employers aren’t coping with the new way you want to work – move on. Life, and especially your child’s childhood, is too short and too precious. There will always be other opportunities.
Have you returned to work recently? What tips do you have?
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