Facilitating transition from maternity leave to work for working mothers: An intervention study

Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Professor Chia-Huei Wu is a Visiting Professor at Leeds University Business School. His research interests include: proactive behaviour at work; personality development and work; work design and leadership.

Chiahuei wu_LUBS

Women's success in an organisational career is often more constrained than men's due to home demands. To address these challenges, organisations have implemented family-friendly policies such as flexible work arrangements, childcare subsidies, and breastfeeding support. However, these policies may not always be enough to support working mothers during their transition back to work.

The transition back to work after maternity leave can be a complex and emotional experience for working mothers. They may feel torn between their responsibilities at work and the desire to spend quality time with their newborns. Moreover, cultural norms and gender-based social roles can make it challenging for some women to continue their careers after having children.

As the transition from maternity leave to work is a critical career transition for working women, organisations should go beyond providing maternity leave and offer additional resources for female employees to facilitate their adjustment after returning to work.

To address this call, Akiko Kokubo, Katsuhiko Yoshikawa and I developed a training programme for working mothers on maternity leave to help them better prepare for their return to work and enhance their work-life self-efficacy. (Self-efficacy refers to individuals’ belief in their ‘capability to exercise some measure of control over their own functioning and over environmental events’ (Bandura, 2001).)

We tested the training programme in Japan, where working mothers encounter pressure to conform to gender-based social roles and face challenges in continuing their careers due to cultural traditions.

Japan has one of the lowest levels of female representation in leadership positions among developed countries, with a large proportion of working women leaving their careers after giving birth. As well as gender-based social roles, the workplace norms of long working hours make Japan an ideal location to conduct our study as working women on maternity leave are more likely to anticipate serious challenges before their counterparts in many other developed countries.

In our study, a total of 100 maternity leave takers from 16 companies in Japan attended four 2-hour sessions, with each session focusing on discussing one case scenario. Each scenario featured a working mother as the central character and described the challenges that working mothers and the people surrounding them face at work.

For example, one scenario featured a mother returning to work with an aspiration to advance her career. However, her supervisor was hesitant to assign her more responsibilities because of his stereotypical view of working mothers and the potential negative impact on team performance. The intended learning objective of this particular scenario was to promote mutual understanding with the supervisor to gain desirable work assignments.

My co-author, Akiko Kokubo (who received formal training to develop and organise case-based teaching sessions and has extensive experience with working mothers and their supervisors at various organisations) led all the sessions, guiding participants to explore potential solutions for each case from various perspectives.

Supplementary materials were provided to encourage participants to consider different viewpoints, and the instructor suggested recommended solutions and summarised key approaches.

The activities involved providing opportunities for mastery experiences, social modelling, verbal persuasion, and physical and emotional states. These four principles develop self-efficacy in the following way:

  • mastery experiences – inform individuals about whether they can perform a behaviour well enough to achieve its intended outcome
  • social modelling – provides a behavioural script for them to know how to deal with a specific situation effectively
  • verbal persuasion – reminds individuals that they have the capability to take actions that can achieve their intended outcomes
  • physical and emotional states – inform individuals about whether they have the physiological and psychological energy to take action to make things happen.

Six months after participants completed the training and returned to work, we observed an increase in work-life balance self-efficacy among maternity leave takers, which contributed to better role performance as reported by their supervisors after they returned to work. We also found that our training programme helped increase working mothers’ managerial self-efficacy, which may inspire working mothers to develop long-term career goals beyond their current job positions.

Our results highlight the importance of supporting working mothers during the transition back to work. Organisations can complement their family-friendly policies by providing maternity leave takers with our training program to enhance working mothers' self-efficacy and facilitate their readjustment to work.

Read the paper: Kokubo, A., Yoshikawa, K., & Wu, C. H. (2023). Facilitating transition from maternity leave to work for working mothers: A self-efficacy intervention study. Cambridge Prisms: Global Mental Health, 10, e18, 1–11. 

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