03 December 2009

Returning to Work in a Recession

By Jayne Muller, Altris

The following question came in to our Ask The Expert box. We turned to Jayne Muller, Director of Altris for her perspective. Altris are a group of executive coaches who specialise in transition coaching for their advice; they recently conducted a New Zealand-based Women in Transition survey and have in the past provided Professionelle readers with their top seven tips for returning to work, and a successful case study. At the end of Jayne's answer, Sarah adds further comments.

QI returned to work 13 months ago after having my son and taking a year off. During my maternity leave, my organisation underwent an 'integration' and the group I managed was disbanded and absorbed into other areas. I was given a new job (in a terrible department with a poor record and reputation) and struggled to get into the swing of things for the first few months. It is hard enough returning to work after a period of absence, never mind having to get to grips with a new role, new staff, new responsibilities!

I quickly realised that I needed to continue to work 3 days per week (as I had begun on returning) for the benefit of my son, my family and my own sanity. As a result, I was unable to continue my National Manager's role and was given the option of a fixed term contract involving project work in another department. My current contract comes to an end in June and will not be renewed due to the current fiscal environment (fixed term employees represent quick-win savings to the bottom line!) Now that you have an overview of my situation, I have a number of questions that I'd value some advice on, as follows:

  1. I'm interested in how long it has taken other returning mothers to get back into the swing of the corporate/business environment? I still don't feel like I fit/belong/am accepted after 13 months despite having been with the organisation for 6 years and previously holding a responsible/respected position. Is this normal or has my new role etc made it worse?
  2. Though I appreciate the current financial situation, I feel a little aggrieved that my organisation can 'dispense' with me so easily after investing 6 years' time and money in my development (having promoted me 3 times) in order to save a few bucks in the short term. Are they being short-sighted or am I expecting too much loyalty? It just doesn't seem to make good business sense as they have a recruitment freeze but heaps of work going on.
  3. Have other people experienced inconsistent approaches to returning mothers working arrangements? For example, they wouldn't entertain me remaining a manager on a part time basis, yet other departments have allowed it.

I appreciate that there are a large number of women currently facing job losses so I'm not alone, however, I'd value any advice with how to put my case to the organisation in order that they can realise that their short term fix has consequences in the long term in respect of retaining experience and investment.

AJayne took the questions in order, beginning with a response to the time taken to get back into the swing of things.

Through our research at Altris where we surveyed around 200 women on the topic of returning to the workforce, we found that the time taken to return to peak performance varied somewhat.

To answer our question, "How long did it take you to get back to peak performance?", answers ranged from:

  • 25% - a few weeks
  • 14% - a month
  • 27% - three months
  • 12% - six months
  • 5% - a year
  • 3% - more than a year
  • 14% - not there yet

The main reasons given for the time taken to return to peak performance were:

  • Restructure/change which had occurred during their time off and which they had to adjust to
  • Tension between focus on work and concerns about how my child is getting on
  • Lack of sleep and tiredness
  • Having to take sick leave to care for sick children
  • 'Baby brain' / feeling that their mental capacity and concentration had been impacted

You can see there are certainly other women who too have had changes made to their role whilst on leave and depending on the communication and support during that change, these have impacted on how long it took for those women to get back on track to peak performance.

On the question of whether, notwithstanding the recession, the organisation was being too short-term in its approach, Jayne offered this perspective:

Unfortunately during times of economic pressure many organisations seem to react in a way that does not look after their key resource, which is people. A quote I heard recently says "in times like these, it is the strong companies who focus on looking after their key resource (people), who become stronger".

In our experience it is the organisations that work at showing best practice, that recognise that it takes time to get back up to speed and will offer assistance or support to returning women. E.g. A transition plan; support from an executive coach etc.

Are inconsistent approaches to mums returning to work common?

Interestingly enough from our Altris research, it was flexible working hours that was one of the main supports offered that helped women transition back.

As well as this, the women surveyed outlined the key areas that would have helped them get back to peak performance which were; a structured transition plan; access to an independent confidante; an internal support, which all identified and supported the best way to transition back into the working environment effectively and efficiently.


On the issue of advice for putting a case to this member's organisation, Jayne suggests several other points that could be useful:

" In our view, one of the reasons New Zealand has a skill shortage is that we have a pool of untapped potential in mothers who have either not returned to the workforce or returned to the workforce but in a role which doesn't make full use of their capability".

We all know …

  • A talent-short market is a growing issue for NZ
  • We need to make best use of the resources we have
  • In most businesses it's the people that really make the difference

By encouraging women back to the workforce:

  • It's a more sustainable approach - avoiding the cost and time involved in hiring a replacement
  • They get up to speed more quickly as they already know the organisation
  • The organisation retains valuable corporate knowledge


About Altris

Altris is all about releasing potential. Releasing the potential of you, your employees and the untapped potential in your business. Altris is New Zealand's premier executive coaching group, who specifically focus on transition coaching.

At Altris we aim to make a difference to you and your business as a way of making a difference to New Zealand as a whole. We think that makes us a little different and are sure you will too.



© Professionelle Ltd 2009


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