Should you provide maternity coaching? By Lucie Benson

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With the recent changes in maternity leave legislation, coupled with the fact that many new working mothers complain of feeling disconnected from the workplace when they return from leave, there is a growing trend for organisations to offer 'maternity coaching' to their female employees. Lucie Benson looks into whether this form of coaching is the answer, and what effect it has on the workplace.

This month saw an increase in statutory maternity pay, from 26 to 39 weeks. With more mothers now expected to be off work for longer, savvy organisations are now looking into innovative ways of retaining their key female staff, who may be finding it difficult to make that transition back to work after extensive leave.

This is where 'maternity coaching' can help. Many women returning from maternity leave suffer stress, anxiety, a loss of confidence, and a lack of up-to-date knowledge, amongst many other things. Maternity coaching can offer support to them through, typically, a series of either one-to-one or group sessions before, during and after maternity leave.

There are a number of different consultancies that are currently offering maternity coaching to organisations. One such firm is Talking Talent, who specialise in helping businesses to better manage the transition that working mothers make through pregnancy, maternity leave and their return to work.

Retain talent

Talking Talent believes that organisations can become more profitable through managing this transition more effectively. Through the delivery of coaching, the consultancy says that it is helping businesses to retain their talented women, and provide HR and line managers with the knowledge and skills to manage this process more efficiently. It provides a combination of one-to-one and group coaching.

Chris Parke, co-founder and director of Talking Talent, says that both group and one-to-one are broadly similar, in so far as sessions are held before women go on maternity leave, just before they come back from leave and then on their return.

"The groups are generally between four and eight people and our clients tend to send the more senior women and key talent through one-to-one coaching, while more junior individuals will go through group coaching," he explains.

The aim of the group sessions is to create a "self-help" group of individuals who will support each other through the transition, says Parke. "One of the big things for women is that they can feel quite low, especially in a male-dominated environment, so finding other people in the same organisation who are struggling with the same issues, both in and outside of work, can be quite empowering and supportive."

"If you look at the different phases of coaching, for the individual, it really allows them to go through maternity feeling far more in control and having a far more positive experience."

Chris Parke, co-founder and director, Talking Talent

So what are the advantages of providing maternity coaching to your female employees? Parke suggests the benefits are numerous. "If you look at the different phases of coaching, for the individual, it really allows them to go through maternity feeling far more in control and having a far more positive experience," he says. "For example, they will feel more in control of their handover before they leave, which is pretty critical as it is the last thing they do in the business for several months. Also, it's key in terms of how they manage boundaries, how the business will contact them when they are on leave and how they can contact the business. We also talk to them about how they can effectively use their keep in touch days."

Building confidence

Parke says that the session provided just before women return from maternity leave is really important. "Many women feel anxious on their return to work for a whole number of different reasons, so it is about building their confidence, helping them to think about how to re-engage, and how to return on their own terms."

One other coaching consultancy that offers maternity coaching packages is drc. The firm is made up of an all-female team and they provide coaching to leading organisations such as HBOS, Marks and Spencer and Goldman Sachs. The drc coach works with senior women from announcement of the pregnancy to the business, through planning for the maternity break, becoming a mother and finally the return to work.

Trudi Ryan, founder of drc, says that the coaching they provide recognises the importance of senior women returning to business after maternity leave and helps them to feel good about returning, as well as to struggle less than they would do without coaching and support.

"Whilst on maternity leave, women are immersed in a completely new world of having a child so there are emotional and physical changes," she explains. "For women, it is often about supporting them to recognise that what they are going through is normal, as well as helping them to think through things, be prepared and make choices."

One organisation that has benefited from drc's maternity coaching package is high street fashion retailer Oasis, which now comprises over 100 outlets. Oasis offers maternity coaching to all female employees going on maternity leave.

The retailer does not see maternity coaching as a way to get women back to work as soon as possible, and does not pressurise any women to return to work just because they have received professional coaching. Rather, it sees coaching as a way to keep experience in the company, and to help minimise the disruption inflicted on a business by a member of staff leaving.

"We recognise coaching as an integral part of how we support and develop our senior people, and so it's natural that we should want to continue to support them when they go on maternity leave," says Clare Hickey, senior HR business partner at Oasis. "It helps us to retain talent and experience in the business, while ensuring that the process of maternity cover is managed well and the stress on the individual is, as far as possible, relieved."

Benefits for everyone

Ryan remarks that the great thing about maternity coaching is that everyone benefits. "Businesses can be assured that their top female executives will have the best possible opportunity to re-engage with their work successfully after maternity, meaning they are less likely to incur the cost of having to recruit a replacement. Women are enabled to manage the stress and disruption caused by an extended time away from work and the impact of maternity on their career prospects."

Parke adds that many of his clients have realised that their female employees, upon returning from leave, are far more effective far quicker, when they have had coaching. "They are not going through the difficulties of deciding of whether they have made the right decision, because they would have done all that thinking before they return," he remarks. "Also, we coach women who have responsibilities for their colleagues on how they can minimise the impact on their team."

"Businesses can be assured that their top female executives will have the best possible opportunity to re-engage with their work successfully after maternity, meaning they are less likely to incur the cost of having to recruit a replacement."

Trudi Ryan, founder of drc

Research conducted by Talking Talent has found that over 40 percent of women return to a different role or team after maternity leave. "So effectively they are coming back to something different and if you combine all those things together, as well as the fact that they are about to leave their child for the first time, it is quite a heady mix," says Parke.

It is also important to work with the line managers who are left behind when one of their team goes on maternity leave, says Parke. "Some of the work we do with the line managers is the most important. For them, it is recognising that this is a really complicated transition to manage. Every woman will have a unique set of circumstances, and you can't be expected, as a line manager, to suddenly know exactly what to do. So we provide development programmes and coaching to the line managers too."

Ryan believes that if an organisation employs large numbers of women, it can be a huge cost to the business if they either don't perform or don't return, so this is a good reason for providing maternity programmes. "It just means more women will make good decisions and there will be more women able to work and operate effectively," she comments. "It is good for the workplace and I can't see any disadvantage in this being part of the employment offer."

She adds that, with the changes in the recent legislation, there will be more of a call for maternity programmes in future. "With the extended maternity leave, we will be seeing more of a requirement for organisations to hold onto the valuable resources of their female employees."

Parke sums up the benefits of maternity coaching: "It is about providing that dual support for both the managers and the women, and it is helping to make organisation culture more parent-friendly."

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17th Apr 2007 12:40

Just thought it was important to mention that maternity leave entitlement is now 52 weeks regardless of length of service and not 39 weeks as stated in this feature. It is SMP that has increased from 26 to 39 weeks.

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17th Apr 2007 14:17

Thanks for spotting that Wendy. As you will see, the feature has been amended accordingly.

Best wishes

Lucie Benson
Features Editor
HR Zone

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