Role Modelling Flexible Working - A Personal Account

Thu 30th Aug – by Liz McIntyre

Following the publication of the London Leadership Academy’s report on Flexible Working in the NHS, EMLA programme leads Becky Williamson and Vicki Richardson share their thoughts about returning to work after having a baby – and the importance of having a supportive leadership team…

Becoming a new mum brings with it a whole host of fears and a seeming insurmountable number of questions. How will I get through childbirth? Is my baby going to be happy and healthy? Will I be a good mum?

Maternal fears are one thing, but the thought of returning to work was completely unfamiliar (and scary) territory - that alone bought with it a myriad of questions. We both felt that essentially, we were no longer the people that we’d been before we went on maternity leave. Our priorities in life had changed and ‘spare’ time was now filled with dirty nappies, sleepless nights and the paranoia that most new mothers experience. Realising that you’ve changed as a person is a challenging experience, particularly when you’re unsure about how former colleagues will respond to the ‘new you’. As the return date loomed ever closer – the number of questions grew. Would we manage this new juggling act? Would our employer accept this new version of us? Would we still be able to do our job?

As NHS staff there was an automatic perception from our families and friends that being supported by our organisation was a ‘given’ and while our experiences fortunately proved them right, this sadly isn’t the case for all women (and men) returning from a period of maternity leave. This seems to boil down to the type of senior leadership team you work for and the culture that is instilled in an organisation at this very transitory and often emotional point in life.

Before returning to work we were approached by our senior leaders and asked how we felt about the prospect of coming back into the office - and what we’d like our new working pattern to be. This was something that came as a surprise to both of us. Who’d have thought that we might be asked what would work for us, when for so long the perception for working women was that we should ‘suck it up’ and ‘mould ourselves’ back into the pre-motherhood way of working?

It was refreshing to be able to have open and honest conversations where anything we suggested was genuinely considered; even when the organisation couldn’t grant that particular request – at least we felt that we’d been heard. We came away from these conversations feeling valued, which proved a massive moral boost after spending months at home in the often lonely depths of new-motherhood.

When the big-day finally arrived and we replaced nappy bags with more formal work ones, we were once again surprised at the understanding and compassion we were shown. One of the first conversations we both had with our respective line managers highlighted their understanding of the pressure of juggling work and motherhood. ‘It’s a learning curve for us all and if you have any problems with childcare or sickness please talk to me. We can work it out together.’ These words alone helped to disburse the new fears that were already bubbling below the surface.

It’s bizarre that some organisations and leaders are against flexible working options for their staff. There are some roles of course that aren’t conducive to flexible working but in reality a vast number of requests are denied simply because it’s ‘not the way things are done.’ We’d encourage leaders to revisit this approach and consider the positive implications that trust and flexibility engender in their staff. The EMLA approach has served to make us more loyal to the organisation, to be more willing to change our working days if required and to be more understanding of the personal commitments of other members of the team. Surely this is a prime example of the magic of compassionate leadership!

Becoming a working mum was and still is hard but if there’s one piece of advice we’d give to people returning to work, it’s don’t be afraid to admit when you’re struggling. It doesn’t make you a failure. You’re not a bad mum or a rubbish worker; you’re a human being – and it’s wonderful to be recognised as such.

As NHS leaders, ask yourselves - are your staff as lucky as we were?

Resources to support working mums: