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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

How To Support Mothers In The Workplace And Why It's Good For Business

Mother's hands with child's hands typing on laptop.
Employers have tremendous power in making policy changes that can help better attract and retain working parents. GETTY

It’s no news flash that the pandemic has changed employees’ priorities: Nearly half of employees say they are less committed to their jobs than before the pandemic, and a whopping 99% of those workers have children living at home, according to a survey by Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Caregivers, the majority of which are women, were pushed out of the workforce in droves during the pandemic. It’s costing companies big time: While 75% of expecting moms say they are excited to go back to work after giving birth, 43% end up leaving their careers—and replacing an employee who leaves after childbirth can cost anywhere from 20% to 213% of their annual salary, according to the Maven Clinic.

“When I do the math, three to four months of paid maternity leave [to help retain a new mother] is nothing in the grand scheme of things—especially when you factor in that you are retaining in-house knowledge and you'll likely get an employee who wants to stick around,” says Erica Ballard, a life coach for working women. “While it's amazing that we can quantify the cost of losing a working mom within the first year of motherhood to be about $92,000, that's only the tip of the iceberg on how much you're saving, and doesn’t account for the money you stand to make. We know that when you have 30% of women in leadership at an organization, it can increase profits by six percentage points annually. You’re losing talent, so why aren't we doing more to retain moms? Moms aren't dumb because they had kids. They just reprioritized how they spend their time, and we’re penalizing them for wanting to live a life.”

Leslie Forde, founder of Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs, a community for parents and a framework for balance based on research, says mothers reported being stressed beyond their limits when she started surveying parents six years ago.

“The pandemic added this whole new set of difficult conditions and life-or-death choices that pushed people over the edge in a way that is more than integrating normal self-care practices,” says Forde. “Where do we go from here in this post-pandemic world with these other stressors, such as inflation, the loss of reproductive choice, and other things that are making women feel squeezed in every direction? My answer has been letting go of the ‘mom box,’ or what mothering should look like based on society's definition, and becoming somewhat ruthless about your time.”

Forde also works with companies through her Allies @ Work program to teach organizations how to support caregivers at work with policies, benefits, and infrastructure that allows for an inclusive environment. “I'm also preaching that the types of support employers would need to put in place to make a mother with young children successful would also be welcomed by a 25-year-old man who wants to surf and have a dog,” says Forde. “We've reached this era where people understand at a very visceral level all the trade offs we've been expected to make for decades had a false promise that if you work really hard and go above and beyond, then you will have this steady, upward career trajectory with no interruptions and a constantly rising salary. And employees now know that is just not the case.”

While there is no quick solution, employers have tremendous power in making policy changes that can help better attract and retain working parents. While mothers are waiting for policy change to catch up, there are also individual steps they can take to better protect themselves from burnout. Here are a few action steps from the experts on how to do that.

Make time for self care, because the work will never be ‘done’

“Self care isn't just about pampering; it’s really about our health,” says Forde. “Women are at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and a whole slew of stress-related illnesses. I don't think we talk enough about the fact that women's lifespans in many cases are being shortened because of this crisis of a lack of care infrastructure. So I encourage mothers to be incredibly ruthless about their time and spend some time every day caring for themselves—even if it means being uncomfortable by saying no to someone, or doing something later than you planned, or not responding to that email, or opting out of that meeting.”

Forde drew her Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs on a sheet of paper when she herself was battling burnout after her second maternity leave, before she turned it into a research study of other mothers. The bottom two-thirds includes children’s well being, children’s activities, household duties, and professional roles. The top features self care such as sleep and health; healthy adult relationships; and interests, such as fun, hobbies and learning new skills.

“I had an epiphany that I would never have time for my mental, emotional, or physical health if I only ever prioritized the bottom two-thirds, because those tasks would never be done—even if I spent 24/7 on them,” says Forde. “I realized you have to create your own standard. And society is going to try to shame you and make you feel guilty for time that you spend up at the top. You don't see people on your social feeds saying, ‘I took a nap.’ You see people taking their kids to birthday parties, going on family vacations or out at work events. In our society, we're not celebrated for caring for ourselves in a sustained way. So it's really resisting that pull of culture. I encourage people to measure how much time you spend in the top third, and understand that everything in the bottom two-thirds works better and feels better if you allocate some amount of time at the top caring for yourself.”

Parent out loud

To help normalize caregiving in the workplace, it’s important for managers, supervisors and other people in positions of power to be transparent about their caregiving duties. It’s doing things such as letting your team know you’re going to your child’s soccer game rather than saying you’re leaving the office early for an “appointment,” blocking a child’s dentist appointment on your calendar, or sharing if your childcare falls through. By being open about having responsibilities outside of work, you help give others permission to do the same.

Find strength in numbers with Employee Resource Groups

Most mothers lack psychological safety in the workplace: Research from the Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs pandemic study finds that only about 3% of the mothers say they can ask their managers for what they really want. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) may be a safe space for parents if they don't have it within their teams.

“ERGs that are centered around parents or caregivers—or even around women and women of color—are taking on more prominence and more supportive roles, especially in larger organizations,” says Forde. “If you don't have the individual safety, lean on the strength of numbers and talk to the other parents about what your manager expects of you, or what your department expects of you. Find out if they have the same expectations and, as a group, how you can affect some positive change.”

Make your time match your values

“Look at the recent Roe v Wade decision, the formula shortage, gender discrimination in the workplace, and the inequities in our own homes,” says Whitney Casares, MD, MPH, FAAP, pediatrician and founder of Modern Mommy Doc and Modern Mamas Club. “While there are so many issues that are outside of ourselves, there are things moms can do internally to make a difference.”

Dr. Casares created a framework called the Centered Life Blueprint to help mothers pinpoint their values by outlining the five things that are most important to them to spend their time, energy and focus on for a meaningful life. Once you pinpoint your top five values, you can map out a plan for addressing the other areas where you’re spending your time. “There are four different categories of things that tend to eat up our energy and infringe upon our values—or the things we really want to do to find meaning and purpose in our lives.”

The first are the non-negotiables, or the things that only you can do that nobody else can do for you. There are ways to do those things with more efficiency by using strategies to cut down on the time or energy you put into them. “For example, I have to spend the time writing patient notes after I see patients in my office,” says Dr. Casares. “I could write a novel every single time, or I could practice selective mediocrity and write some brief sentences. I'm purposely not spending as much time or effort.”

Dr. Casares calls the second category the ‘swappables.’ Those are things that have to get done, but someone else could do them for you. Think: if your kids need to be picked up from sports, you might take turns carpooling with other parents to cut down on the time you spend doing it. The third category are the ‘contaminators,’ or the things you do out of a sense of obligation or expectation from others, such as saying yes to getting the birthday cake for a colleague. Those can go. The fourth category are the ‘heartstrings,’ or things you really want to do, such as spending time with your in-laws, but doing them at the wrong time or place makes you feel resentful. Once you’re clear on your top values, it makes it easier to evaluate your time and decide if you’re doing things according to your priorities, or letting less meaningful things monopolize your energy.

The old adage is that it takes a village to raise a child, but in America that responsibility typically falls disproportionately on one person’s shoulders, oftentimes a mother, and the pandemic has clearly illustrated that one person can’t do it all. Moms aren’t broken—the system is—but at the same time, we also need to find strategies to exist within these systems.

The bottom line is we know how much it matters to have representation of working moms in the workforce. “The onus is on companies to create programs, systems, and policies that support caregivers,” says Dr. Casares. “That's about women, that's about men who are fathers, that's about people who are caring for elderly adults, and it's about people who want to have lives outside of the office. We're all humans. The more that workplaces and corporations can actually understand that and build programs, the better they’ll be able to retain their employees. And we know that's a good business model.”

*Article originally published in Forbes


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