Returning to work after maternity leave: how can performance psychology help?

Dr Sophie Williams, Academic Lead in Psychology and Dr Philip Clarke, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL), talk about how strategies from performance psychology can help with the return to work following maternity leave.

The number of mothers in employment has risen over the last three decades from 62% in 1996 to 75% in 2019 suggesting that over time it has become commonplace for women to return to work after having children.

Having recently become a new mother, I’m now in the process of returning to full-time work, and even though I had talked about what to expect with other mothers in my office, nothing could have quite prepared me for first time motherhood and the daunting task of returning to work. Like other mothers, there is an eagerness to re-join the workforce and resume my previous psychologist identity, mixed in with an anxiety over adjusting to working life. For me, my key concern was finding a new work/ life balance and performing well as a mother and in my job.

Performance psychology strategies

After sharing my concerns with my colleague, Dr Philip Clarke, a performance psychologist, we identified four key strategies from performance psychology that I implemented to support my return to work. Philip had used several of these strategies helping athletes prepare for endurance events and competitive sports.

  • Be where your feet are

The first was to remember the mantra to ‘be where your feet are’. To remain present in the moment, it is important to keep your mind where your feet are. If your mind is constantly somewhere else this can potentially suggest that your feet need to be somewhere else. As a new mum I learnt, you never stop thinking about your children. By applying the ‘be where your feet are’ mantra it has been especially helpful when I returned to work and my little one began childcare. Initially, I kept thinking about how he was doing at nursery while I was trying to work. So, to be where my feet were, I set specific times where I would allow myself to call the nursery and check on his progress and indulge in those thoughts and concerns.

  • What if, then what?

The next strategy involves considering situations that might occur and preparing for them in advance by asking what if, then what? For example, what if the nursery calls and I need to leave work? Then I will let my manager know what needs to be covered and that I need to leave, or I will excuse myself from the meeting and send my apologies later. Preparing for any eventuality is a great way to feel confident and help to manage anxiety.

  • Know your support structure

When forming the what if, then what statements, it is important that you know your support structure. Research in the role of planning and workplace support suggests that the level of support you have in the workplace can impact your return to work. It’s important to identify what support is available; this may be from HR, your manager or your colleagues but you also need to know your support structure at home, be it family, friends or a partner. For me, I spoke to other mothers in my department, sought their advice and shared any worries I had. The main thing to remember is that while they might not understand what you’re going through, don’t be afraid to tell them how you’re feeling – open communication will help you to find out what support is available, and enables them to support you.

  • Manage your expectations

Finally, I had to learn to manage my expectations. Returning to work after a period of leave, and a large life event may not be straightforward. Give yourself the freedom to adjust and get up to speed over a couple of weeks as getting back to the hustle and bustle straight away, could set you back. If you rated your performance as 8 or 9 out of 10 before you left, it’s unrealistic that after an extended period of leave you’ll be able to perform at this level on your first day back. Give yourself an adjustment period to settle into your new work life. 

While the transition back to work after maternity leave will never be a simple one, using these strategies from performance psychology may help with what can be a challenging event. I know I certainly found them helpful.

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591491, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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