Returning to work after loss
Recently I participated in an interview for “When babies die: Returning to work following stillbirth and neonatal death” by researcher Jane Le at University of Sydney. The synopsis of the study is below:
This project investigates the experience and consequences of returning to work following perinatal death. It contributes to the literature on returning to work following parental leave by addressing a topic that the literature has been relatively silent on: bereaved parental leave. Through interviews, the study explores the experience of mothers returning to work, particularly how they navigate paradoxes in their everyday work, and examines how this experience impacts personal and work-related outcomes. Investigating this important but neglected area provides opportunity to contribute to paradox theory, extend existing ‘return to work’ models, offer policy advice to government, and inform human resource management practice.
Le’s research has involved phone interviews with mothers who returned to work within 12 months of losing a child to stillbirth or neonatal death. Her aim to do work within industries to improve workplace return to work policies and practical guidelines that workplaces could implement to assist employees in returning to work after such loss. Although some workplaces may have policies and guidelines relating to general bereavement, not much (apparently) exists in relations to neonatal/stillbirth. Although the focus is on women (and in Australia due to country-specific legislation and limited funding), future studies may expand to partners/men and international scenarios.
And so, this is my story and experience as one of these women who recently returned to the workforce 12 months on. In participating in this study (late November), I reflected on my year and realised how much my career changed as I navigated an unknown territory as an independent contractor.
2016 was the year I survived. It was the year I was forced to reflect on professional goals and what I was prepared to (and able to) give of myself in the workplace. It was a roller-coaster of continued set-back that had me doubting my abilities and worthiness. It was the time I was meant to be on an equivalent of maternity leave (as a contractor, it was never formal leave but really a temporary departure from the workforce). But for me, 2015 didn’t work out how it was meant to be and so 2016 was different in a way I never anticipated.
Without going into too much detail, I finished work when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my first child. After a low-risk pregnancy, there were complications in childbirth and my son passed away in November 2015 at 4 days old. At the time, I was contracting for a company with a ‘flexible’ arrangement (remote working as I could no longer travel but working long hours). My final conference call for the year included a manager jokingly announcing that he saw me having a child like a project go live (to give you an indication of the workaholic I am) and that there would be a role for me when I was ready to return. I had no idea how long I would be off but thought motherhood would be a breeze and by early January I could be working part time as I transitioned back. I had not thought through any cross-country commutes or child care options so I really had no idea how this was all going to work. However, I was still technically employed.
After getting through the initial period (funeral, internal hospital review, recovering from surgery and complications), I reached out to my then manager to discuss returning to work in December. I was looking for a way to return to something I knew. As my world around me fell apart, work was my comfort zone. It was always the one area of my life that I could focus on and tune out any other challenge. However, the project requirements had changed and my services were no longer required. The reality of contracting is that you are not an employee and your services are outlined in a contract, including no-fault terminations clauses. You are ultimately a line item in someone’s cost centre and budget. And so, I experienced the first time in my career where I lost my job. I found myself working out a 4-week notification period to write documentation and train up a replacement. After that, my laptop was sent back and my job was no more.
The rugged was pulled out of me. I now had no child and no job. I barely had my health. But I had too much free time. I had travelled so much and had been out of contact from my local networks (ironically the travel was to further my career). I was lost and didn’t know where to begin. Work was core to my identity and now I didn’t even have that. I felt I had failed in another area of my life. First motherhood. Now work. I hated myself for allowing such self-pity. Post rehabilitation and exhausting Netflix offerings, sitting on a couch and feeling sorry for myself was enough motivation to job hunt.
In job hunting, I was forced to make some decisions regarding my family and my health. My husband and I had just experienced one of the worse things that can happen to you. We were still in the first year of our marriage. My health had taken a massive hit. The main decision I made was the need to stay local and work in my home town. My husband, my family and support networks were here. As tempting as it was to hop on a plane and escape my reality, I knew long-term it would be the worse decision I could make. As a result, this limited my options for work.
I found myself interviewing for a non-SAP analyst position. I had the domain knowledge but not the product. It read a slightly more junior level to what I was used to. It was still a contract position but I just wanted to work. I took an attitude (probably borderline arrogance) that the job would be a breeze and I could not care less if I lost it so I was willing to speak my mind (still diplomatically). I found myself successful and the job was mine. Fear hit me – what if I can’t get my foot back in the SAP door? Will I de-skill? I wasn’t excited at the prospects of this job. I was just grateful I had something to do.
My first day in February was the first day since August 2015 that I had to commute into the city, start a new job and spend the entire day in an office surrounded by people. I didn’t care that much about impression. Typically, the first day of a job is one of the few times I make an effort with my hair and makeup as I know I’ll get a photo for an Id card. That morning, I considered effort to be getting out of bed, getting dressed and turning up on time. I had no choice but to go shopping during my lunch break on day 2 so I would have something to wear for day 3 (post-pregnancy mamma’s body without a bub meant no suitable clothes to wear and apparently my comfy PJs would not pass for professional work attire). I had set my standard quite low. The effort to care just wasn’t there for me – those close to me reminded me it was a gold star effort for what I had achieved in 3 months.
I had the opportunity for a clean start – during my interview I was slightly elusive in how I answered the question why I’m interested in this particular role (I also told them I’d be fine to walk down 21 flights of stairs during a fire evacuation that coincided with my interview not even thinking I should admit I’m still recovering from major abdominal surgery). No-one knew my personal background and what had happened. But the type of person I am and the need to talk, I found myself telling people what happened. The common get to know you questions would crop up with the regular ice-breaker of “do you have children?”. This would begin a slight elevation in anxiety levels, ready to navigate such a conversation knowing that as I spoke I would see the comprehension in their eyes first as they became deer-like in headlights unsure of where to proceed to next. With a breath to steady myself, I would be directing the conversation to offer them an exit.
There were times when I had wished this workplace was full of gossips to avoid the repeat of such interaction. Other times, I wish I could make a global announcement to let all know what happened without drawing attention to myself (yeah you see the contradiction in that?). But damn it, I found a compassionate workplace to belong to! How dare they be so kind and understanding!
Workwise, I was given a relatively blank canvas to do what I felt was necessary for this job and the required deliverables. Although, non-SAP it helped me re-gain confidence as I improved my domain knowledge. Sure it was a different product, but the method and approach was similar. I found myself mentoring other colleagues and getting back to basics. I was continually giving the pep talk that this isn’t life and death (something I finally understood) so we can figure it out. I was planning and running workshops. I was building a network and became a bridge between the different stakeholders. I found myself even more vocal as I felt myself brave to speak up and highlight issues – the attitude of nothing to lose worked in my favour. And I also was given the opportunity to develop new skills by learning about Agile and other products.
I had something in my life to fixate on and channel energy but there were still bad days when I would struggle to focus. There were days I would tune out of workshops (that I was leading). My handwritten notes involved acknowledging ‘no idea check xxx’s notes’. There were days I would read an email on my phone relating to the medical inquiry or (lack-there-of) change in state health policy and I would become angry. There were other times when I would walk past too many prams (something I fixate on and find myself counting each day), read too many anti-vaxxer posts about Group B Strep (what my son contracted) or see too many ‘being a mum is the hardest job in the world’ memes. There were the anniversaries that were coming up and resulting distraction (my birthday, mother’s day, special holidays, father’s day, first birthday, and so on). There were days I would text my leader to admit I need a time-out day and would work remote or not at all as I didn’t have the energy to be around people. Followed by the days I would work longer hours to make up reduced productivity out of personal guilt.
But I also had a team leader who would be one of the most empathetic people I have ever had the pleasure of working with pull me up and check that I wasn’t pushing myself too hard and making sure I put my health first. Although I would muster up a good show of deflection and hide how I felt, she was always successful in seeing through the guise and could tell which days were worse than others without even asking me. She would patiently await the time we’d be out at lunch to touch base and let me download what was going on. She would encourage me to join into Friday drinks or go for the sneaky glass of after-work wine on a Monday as we debriefed from the hectic day. She had me back out socialising.
This job ticked so many boxes for me except for being SAP. My worry about getting my foot back in the door was always there. I kept myself active in the SAP Community and made myself attend conferences. I hit a crossroad and questioned if I was holding on too tight and perhaps my career could head away from SAP. Perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing: just let go and what will be will be.
For me, I loved the SAP ecosystem and wasn’t prepared to leave it. Without expecting it, I received a job offer from people I had worked with 10 years earlier. I now faced the first time in my career where I was deciding to leave a job that was not yet complete and did feel some guilt. But this new job was positioned as flexible and in the SAP space.
As part of the informal recruitment process, we discussed my personal goals. They knew my history (had been at my son’s funeral) and knew I would aim to have another child at some point so was unsure of future work commitments. We agreed on a transition period so I could work at both jobs as I worked through the right time to leave my current job.
My new employer had built up a small business where there is a strive for work life balance and that family and health comes first. It wasn’t a sales pitch that didn’t eventuate. Each time pieces of work came up they would ask me if I had capacity and make sure I wasn’t over committing. And this work culture has continued – something I find to be rare in today’s job market.
For the past few months, I have been wholly with my new job as I had to make the call to cut back work hours and two jobs was too difficult to manage.
I’m now back specialising in SAP consulting. I’m back working in my home town and have not had to hop on a plane to visit a client. I’ve had flexibility in working from home, from the office and at client sites. I was able to negotiate part time work of an average of 4 days knowing if it’s busy I won’t work more than 5 instead of the long hours that I used to do. This flexibility has benefited both sides – I can ramp down in quite periods and increase my hours when there’s last minute client requirements. I’ve had more time to get back to focussing on my personal goals as much as my professional ones. This new workplace has continued to be understanding of my personal situation including encouraging me to bring my dog to the family Christmas party as I was to be the only one without a child there.
This (relatively) new role means I’m starting 2017 in a completely opposite position to how my 2016 commenced. My confidence is back and I have learned it’s okay to admit when I’m not coping and ask for help. I’m getting better at making strategic decisions in my career that can be “win-win” for everyone. I’m setting myself up for the next time I have a child and take a break from the workforce. As much as I derive a lot of my sense of purpose from work, I am appreciating there is more to life and holidays are an investment in life.
Last year was a massive year for me in starting over and redefining my normal. I hope you never find yourself in my situation by having to return to work due to loss of a child.
For those of you who need to support such colleagues, unfortunately there is no one size fits all. You won’t be able to find an article of “The 10 things to do when someone losses a child” or <<insert some other number for click-bait title tips>>. These are some of the things I’ve learned from the past year or wish options had been available (acknowledging my journey was not typical and I never really returned to one job and also that I am not a HR expert):
- Grief is not sequential. For some, there is no single day when you stop crying. There is the first day when you don’t cry at all and might find yourself upset by this (are you moving on/betraying memory/letting go). Then there are days it can restart with the smallest trigger (t.v. shows, someone in the street, a name, missed your bus and so on).
- When to return to work will entire completely on the mother and her circumstances (sometimes finance may be a primary motivation) and can include: physical and mental health; financial security; support networks; enjoyment of work.
- Avoidance and exclusion does not protect. Your good fortune and our loss do not need to be mutually exclusive events. By all means, be considerate and if you have the relationship to warn the person and talk to them directly but please never exclude.
- It’s okay to admit that you have no idea what to do or not know what to say. It’s also okay to ask us how we are without apologising for thinking the question is in poor form. It’s nice to be treated normal and there are days when life is actually pretty terrific and I want to share.
- Try not to make general offers of assistance and be prepared to follow through with any offers. Instead of ‘let us know if we can do anything’ make a specific offer. In the context of returning to work, you might offer to send general information to her (i.e. workplace newsletters).
- If your workplace has a uniform policy, ask the mother if she requires any flexibility or new uniforms. Body shapes change and for those who are returning to work sooner than originally intended (farewell to a 6 or 12-month maternity leave), post-pregnancy weight may still be there. I wore more dresses due to surgery scars in the first few months but was lucky I had no set uniform requirements.
- Aim to anticipate HR allowances and provide information to the mother. Do you have special leave policies or return to work approach that can be utilised? What are the implications of paid parental leave, other leave balances, etc? Does your company provide employee assistance programs that can be used? Can negative leave balances be accrued. Be clear as to what the company policies will allow to avoid any confusion. This may include personalising the information by providing current leave balances and time periods they could be consumed (e.g. you could take next 6 months off by doing xyz and this would be the implication to your take home pay/entitlements).
- Do you have a primary HR contact or caseworker the mother can contact to discuss return to work timings? If such a caseworker existed, would this be an informal or formal process for the mother to follow for required support? Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help but regular appointments may create opportunity to admit challenges in the workplace. Having someone external to your team can also be helpful if you are struggling and want confidentiality from immediate team.
- Consider your Health and Safety Policies – does the mother’s job require a certain level of medical clearance to be fit for duty or can you offer them altered duties and gradual return (possibly part time and easy back into full time) until they are physically and mentally recovered?
- Are there options for the mother to transfer to another area of the workplace if they are not ready to return to old team? The work area could be a fast-pace and high stress that may not be conducive to recovery. And in some cases, does your company need to support the mother not returning at all and provide assistance.
- Do you have performance review periods? If KPIs are used, is there a need to be considerate and empathetic to a potential drop in performance? How can your company assist here and how much patience can be afforded to the mother as they find their new normal?
- Are there any guidelines or information for temporary employees and contractors at your company?
- During the initial time after loss, what can your workplace do to support the mother? Is there a contact person who can find out how much information to the mother would like shared with the rest of the company and advise as to whether or not colleagues are invited to attend the funeral and whether gifts or donations are appreciated? On a personal note, I was really taken aback at donations that came in globally from SAP Mentors and some ex colleagues in memory of my son instead of my home filling up with soon-to-be dead flowers or the number of plants given to me that have not survived the year (I can barely keep a cactus alive).
I look forward to seeing the conclusions Le’s research offers and hope she receives further funding to continue into other areas of see the development of guidelines. I hope to all to those who read this that you never share such an experience. But if you do, I hope your workplace has considered such a policy and that your colleagues provide the support I found myself receiving throughout the past year.
I would love to hear your views or experiences on return to work policies. Please, if referring to someone else, remain as general as possible to protect their privacy.