Home Business Susannah Dale: I want to help keep mothers in the workplace

Susannah Dale: I want to help keep mothers in the workplace

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When Susannah Dale had her first child five years ago, she found herself struggling to cope.
"Motherhood hit me like a ton of bricks," she says. "I struggled with bonding, with breastfeeding, with the monotony of the early days."
She says it took three years and a second child before she had counselling.
It helped and led her to look for answers about why she had struggled with the transition to motherhood.
Susannah began talking to mothers and trawling through the internet to find out what impact motherhood was having on women, particularly on their careers.
It ultimately led her to create a social enterprise that encourages companies across the UK to make workplaces as supportive as possible for pregnant employees and new mothers.
Susannah's interest had been piqued by research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission which suggested at least 54,000 women a year were being pushed out of the UK workforce after becoming pregnant.
Other areas of concern emerged for her, including a survey by HR tech firm Culture Shift which indicated that a quarter of expectant mothers feared "negativity" from colleagues and managers if they revealed they were pregnant.
Susannah was also to stumble upon the concept of "matrescence", a term coined 50 years ago by anthropologist Dana Raphael to describe the complex and transformational process of becoming a mother.
"Simply put, matrescence means the physical, psychological and emotional changes you go through after the birth of your child," she says.
"This is tricky enough to navigate on its own, but can be even more stress-inducing when you add in the anxiety about going on, and returning from, maternity leave."
For the past few months, Glasgow-based Susannah has been asking companies to commit to a series of wellbeing steps that go well beyond statutory requirements for maternity leave.
More than a dozen UK firms – varying in size from under 20 employees to 200 – have already signed the pledge, which is divided into five "pillars".
They include creating a maternity leave and return to work plan for employees and helping them "maintain an emotional connection with the workplace so they do not feel anxious about being on maternity leave and their subsequent return to work".
Susannah believes current maternity leave practices often fall short of where they should be.
She says: "Although there are laws in place, the statistics and stories show that the measures currently in place to protect jobs and provide financial support are not working as well as they could as they're not reflective of the society we live in, what mothers want and the profound experience of motherhood.
"Our aim with the Maternity Pledge is to help keep mothers in the workplace if they want to be and through that we hope to see more women in leadership roles."
Pregnant employees of firms that sign up are also given a "matrescence pack", which Susannah says covers "the parts of motherhood which tend to be glossed over in pregnancy but can affect mental health".
It addresses issues such as breastfeeding problems and the affect of matrescence on relationships with partners.
Companies already signed up to the pledge seem to be fully on board with its goals.
Colchester-based PR company founder Megan Dorian says she is glad to be part of the project.
"When I launched Orange PR and Marketing when my first-born daughter was just over a year, I knew a priority for the business was to create an inclusive culture that not only supported but embraced parents in their journey," she says.
"There is still a stigma around women taking a career 'break' – it's certainly not a break – to have a baby and then return to work, and I am a big advocate for breaking this down."
Another supporter is London-based Jenny Jones, chief operating officer of advisory, legal and accountancy firm Dragon Argent.
"Becoming a mother was the hardest transition I've ever had to make," she says.
"Going from being confident in your job and your life in general to being at home looking after a very small, fragile person 24/7 was tricky to say the least.
"Supporting all our present and future parents through the often unspoken challenges of balancing parenthood and careers matters to us, which is why we signed The Maternity Pledge."
Susannah says everyone benefits if companies support new mothers' return to work with as much flexibility and care for their wellbeing as possible.
"Maternity leave can work better for businesses and mothers if communication, support and empathy is improved," she says.
"Most women want to work – and with the cost of living, nearly all women need to work – so it's really important to keep women in a workplace where they feel valued and fulfilled."
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