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future of work

It's back-to-school season. Rarely does a more joyous time exist for working parents, who have had to manage numerous child care and activity options during the summer while juggling full-time work. For those moms and dads, back to school spells order.

However, moms returning to work this fall after taking a maternity leave or long-term break to care for their children may suffer from the same nervous "butterflies" that their kids complained about Monday night. Will my colleagues view me the same way? Did I miss out on opportunities?

It's not only women who fear returning after a hiatus. A recent survey by Deloitte in the United States showed that fewer than half of those who responded felt their company fostered an environment in which men would feel comfortable taking parental leave.

Fifty-seven per cent of men felt that taking parental leave would be perceived by their employer as a lack of commitment to the job and 41 per cent felt they would lose out on opportunities and projects.

The gut response to that study from most working moms who have taken time off to care for a baby is likely an eye-rolling "You think?" As many women would attest, taking time off to raise children has an impact on their careers.

Laura Hambley, an industrial/organizational psychologist at Calgary Career Counselling, is co-author of a new guide – Making it Work! How to Effectively Navigate Maternity Leave Career Transitions – for the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling (CERIC).

There is a massive amount of room for improvement among Canadian employers in terms of helping women return to work, Dr. Hambley said.

"There is the assumption that women don't want to be in communication [with the workplace] during their leave. Some women want to be kept in the loop. They want to be invited to the Christmas party, they want to check their e-mails," she observed.

These preconceived notions are indicative of an attitude that's still prevalent behind closed doors, Dr. Hambley said. She said she still hears about employers who decide not to hire a woman because they believe she may have another baby.

"We are seeing improvements but the gap is still huge," she observed.

Her co-author on the CERIC guide, workplace psychologist Avra Davidoff, outlines proven tactics that can smooth the transition for returning moms, starting with instituting an effective communication plan.

"We found that having that extra communication [during the leave] really helped the women maintain that sense of connection to the organization, because there was less information all at once to deal with when she returned," Ms. Davidoff said.

A second tactic consists of a "return-to-work plan," which clearly identifies the position that will be available and the required work schedule that accompanies it.

A third calls for "come-back coaching."

"If someone is away from their place of work for an extended period of time, it's a great opportunity to enlist come-back coaching in order to address issues of competence, which can sometimes decrease over an extended leave.

It also helps a working mother gain clarity over her career goals and empowers her to participate in a dialogue about her career," Ms. Davidoff said.

This increased communication between employee and employer before, during and after a leave may help to combat some of the stereotypes and misconceptions that plague women – and men – who have taken time off.

"A lot of mothers we spoke to identified being ambitious, and their ambition increased when they had children," Ms. Davidoff said.

"They wanted to provide certain opportunities for their children and act as role models."

Despite all the challenges that remain for women who take a leave to care for family, there are success stories.

Leanne Scott, an associate portfolio manager and vice-president of Leith Wheeler, an investment counselling firm based in Vancouver, returned to work in May after a decade off to care for her family.

While recognizing that the length of her leave is unusual, she did engage in some of the methods suggested by the new CERIC guide, including attending the firms' client events and keeping in close touch with colleagues.

Ms. Scott said she also stayed on top of industry trends and maintained her skills through volunteering.

"I know I'm atypical. Every day I wake up and I'm so thankful.

"I love my job and feel very fortunate to be back. I always had the intention to return, but life throws things at you that you don't expect. It's not always a straight path," Ms. Scott said.

Despite her lengthy absence, Ms. Scott's continuous relationship with her employer made her feel as though she didn't miss out on much "except for all those paycheques," she said with a laugh.

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.