Can ‘maternity coaching’ check attrition rate?

MATERNITY big

Divya quit her job. Again. She has done this twice in a space of 5 years. The first time was when she had her first baby and she quit within 6 months of returning to work. She took a break of a year and then registered herself on www.avtariwin.com. She fought her way back in and got a job as part of a prestigious second career program of a BPO. Two years at her new job and she has resigned again. 

The reason is that she had her second baby.

8 months later, a role has emerged which would suit Divya to a ‘T’, but she is not just hesitant, she is outright diffident. She feels she no longer belongs in the workplace. And this is a college topper, interview-cracker and exceptional performer at work that we are talking about. Whose loss is this? When women like Divya decide that the workplace is no longer sustainable for them, who bears the brunt of this damage? Is it the system which invested in Divya’s education as a girl child? Is it the corporate that trained her, invested in her and expected her to rise to leadership? Or is it Divya herself who, after getting off to two good starts, not just one, is fearing the workplace again?

The leaky pipeline is alive and kicking

Having a child, leave alone 2, is a sure recipe for the ‘leaky pipeline’ that is the bane of organizations. The most exotic policies around women’s workforce participation seem to crumble like dust in the face of the harsh reality of attrition caused by maternity. Even for the most logical woman, going through maternity is a gigantic emotional roller-coaster which throws her best-laid plans off balance. Over 48% of women under the age of 30 take a break in career citing maternity as the top reason. Companies see a surging spike in attrition of women who return from maternity. The Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill 2016 (still waiting to become an Act pending clearance from Lok Sabha) stipulates a 6 months benefit with options of providing flexible working. However, the leave provision alone does not seem to have a major effect in curbing attrition.

Sarah, 32, working with a leading IT services firm, has been considering quitting her job for the past 3 months, ever since she returned from her first maternity break. Her organization, a generous one, gave her 6 months maternity leave even before the Bill has been passed. Sarah identified a crèche (referred by her employer) to which her child goes and she also gets the option of working flexibly for 2 days in a week. However, her key challenges do not lie in these hard options – on the contrary, it is the softer aspects of her transition that seem to hasten her decision of dropping off the workplace.

Maternity Coaching – a fundamental solution

The demands on a woman professional who goes on a maternity break are high. Sarah describes her state of mind as “being a jump from professional to mother and then back to a professional again. When you are neither 100% mom nor 100% professional and seek to be a combination of the two, you seem to fail miserably at both”. Plagued by guilt and unable to prioritise, Sarah feels that quitting her job is the only sane alternative. The draining emotional upheaval that she goes through while stepping inside the doors of her workplace are not very helpful to her performance.

The different dynamics that influence a women’s thinking post maternity have been discussed aptly by Katherine Ellison in her book “The Mommy Brain”. While Ellison argues that a woman actually ends up building far more robust business skills through changed neurological patterns post-maternity, the crucial clincher is that the woman requires self-awareness and support to actually emerge stronger.

Maternity coaching or counselling emerged as a strong discipline in corporate counselling since the early 2000’s. As part of the suite of psychotherapy, maternity coaching did not obtain the same level of awareness or utilization as did its more famous counterparts. In a country like India where the joint family system extended its influence over the mother, maternity counselling was a default. It was almost like a rite of passage handed down from generation to generation. Yet, in today’s frenetic times, with nuclear families being the norm, and with the young mother having to deal with the pressures and stresses of double-horse riding at home and work, greater attention to maternity counselling or coaching has been extremely beneficial.

26 out of the Working Mother & AVTAR 100 Best Companies for Women in India offer maternity coaching.  There is a significant difference of 8% in women’s attrition in companies with maternity coaching and without. As much as the quantifiable objectives, companies which use maternity coaching also express the following positives: a) Improved engagement and productivity among returning women, b) Smoother re-integration of women post maternity leave, c) Better management of maternity breaks of employees by managers/teams

For an organization that is a serious investor in gender inclusion and believes in the power of women’s workforce participation, the following would be highly beneficial:

    1. A customised policy towards maternity leave that allows the manager of the pregnant woman to take enabling decisions from a suite of offerings. A leading FMCG organization recognizes that not all women want to go on a really long maternity leave. As such, there is a wide spectrum within which the woman and her manager make a choice. Not all maternity support systems need to be built on long periods of leave.
    2. Gender Intelligence training for managers that can facilitate better understanding and empathy. Diversity training, aka sensitization training is a must-have across all levels of the organization. The adage that too much is never enough can be aptly applied to gender intelligence training especially in the context of returning mothers. In 2011, Goldman Sachs began the practice of training managers to demonstrate empathy and sensitivity to returning women and it had a great impact on the performance of the women. Aditya Birla Group, Morgan Stanley and Shell are big proponents of the concept of gender training, leading to greater empathy creation in the minds of managers.
    3. Consistent enabling attitude that recognizes and celebrates the woman’s personal milestone while also gently nudging her to keep her skills updated and retain her professional edge. As early as the early 2000’s, HCL recognized that women on maternity required to be kept updated on the happenings at office and the opportunities that were emerging. A community was built that helped the women-on-mat-leave to stay connected.
    4. Support structures that result in confidence building when the mother makes her return after maternity leave. One of the strongest enablers for a woman professional, mother or not, is a supportive peer group. Organizations such as HUL, Cisco, Mahindra Group and Integra have consistently invested in building these peer groups that provide confidence and psychological stamina to the young returning mother.
    5. On-the-ground counselling by way of imparting preparedness training to the young mother on how she will cope with the demands of motherhood and her career. Companies like IBM, Fidelity, Deloitte and Mindtree have acknowledged the importance of this very critical support and provided the same.
    6. A coaching program to support returnees with clear prior, during and post phases of maternity leave. Solutions to questions such as how a woman on mat leave can stay connected, how to ensure that hard-won relationships at work do not suffer, how to utilize communication as a tool during an out-of-sight/out-of-mind scenario, being confident even as a fresh returnee, manage time and priorities well to hit the ground running, re-integrating into the company’s line of sight and also the important art of setting boundaries – are an absolute must for the young returning mother.

The latest edition of SEGUE Sessions, the hugely popular transitions-based skill building conference from the AVTAR Group, focuses on Maternity Transition as its content and theme for the one-day conference in July. Addressing itself to returning mothers from a range of industries, SEGUE Sessions provides practical, insightful lessons for young mothers to manage their careers and not sacrifice their professional lives on the altar of motherhood. A must-have for Divya and of course, Sarah too.

Coutersy: www.thehindu.com, January 27, 2017.

Author: Dr. Saundarya Rajesh

Founder - President, AVTAR Group, SME on Diversity & Inclusion and Women's Workforce Participation