3 mums on how their companies made it easy for them to return to work

What Mums Really Want When Returning To Work After Maternity Leave

by Balvinder Sandhu  /   March 8, 2023

For mums who just had a baby, settling back into working life can feel like a struggle. We asked three new mums to share how their companies helped in their transition

For this year’s International Women’s Day, The Singapore Women’s Weekly is taking a look at the roles mothers play in society, and what is needed to balance a fulfilling professional and personal life. In this story, we look at how companies can make it easier for mothers who return to work after maternity leave.

How a new mum adjusts to going back to work after her maternity leave depends a lot on what’s being offered by her employer. For example, does she have access to a flexible working arrangement in case of an emergency? What if she needs time off to care for her child? Are six days per year of childcare leave enough?

Despite these worries, most of us have no choice but to head back to the office and hope for the best. Here, we speak to three (relatively happy) women to find out how they settled back into working life after maternity leave, and how their companies have helped them. The mums at The Singapore Women’s Weekly also offer their perspectives, and a human resources specialist chimes in on what working mums want in the workplace.

Her company offers extra maternity leave plus financial and mental support

While Cassandra Pek, 31, head of sales at Foodpanda Singapore was on maternity leave, her team was able to continue with business operations independently under the strong supervision and support of her team lead and the commercial director. With her team in good hands, she could focus on taking care of her newborn.

Cassandra has worked at Foodpanda for six years. The company offers an extended paid maternity leave of four weeks in addition to the 16 weeks given by the Ministry of Manpower. Once her maternity leave came to an end, she looked forward to picking up the pace again.

“I was also not too worried about coming back to work as I hired a reliable helper who helps with babysitting while I’m in the office,” she reveals.

The mum of an eight-month-old daughter is very appreciative of the facilities available at her workplace.

“I like how the Foodpanda office has a private nursing room and baby-changing rooms in the toilets on every floor,” she shares. “I’m also very grateful that I can have the flexibility to choose where to work from, and also my hours of work. Everyone has been very kind and understanding, from my teammates to my bosses and even the external partners we work with.”

Cassandra and her daughter

“Also, we have a $5,000 maternity benefit for maternity-related expenses such as gynaecologist consultations, labour ward expenses and more,” she shares. “The additional parent-friendly leave and benefits have been helpful so that I don’t have to use my annual leave for doctors’ appointments.

“Plus, the work-from-home arrangement allows me to sneak in hugs and kisses for my little one during breaks while not affecting my overall productivity,” she adds.

In July 2021, Foodpanda formed a support group for employees who are parents, called Pandafamily. Its aim is to create a space for parents to connect with other parents at similar stages, and offer a supportive network. The group also conducts regular activities, such as fun workshops for families and first-aid courses for parents.

Her company rallied to help when her child was sick

When Rueyna Lam, 37, lecturer at School of Applied Science in Republic Polytechnic, gave birth to her firstborn in 2017, her son had to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit until he passed all the tests in the doctor’s checklist. Rueyna found the experience traumatising but was lucky to be surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues who told her not to worry and helped to share her workload during that period. Her reporting officer also encouraged her to extend her maternity leave for another month to attend to her family before returning to work.

She admits that she had an “uneasy feeling” when she resumed work, but it soon disappeared.

“I was grateful that my superiors were prioritising my well-being and sharing tips on juggling both work and family,” shares the mum of two. “They also allowed me to progressively catch up with the fast work pace while adapting to my new family responsibilities. Their love and care is something intangible, and reminds me of supporting other colleagues fully when they are in need.”

Rueyna and her children

Republic Polytechnic (RP) has a childcare centre on campus, as well as dedicated nursing rooms in each building so that nursing mothers can have their own private space to express milk.

Besides the usual childcare leave, parents can enjoy Back-to-School Time-off for school-going children up to 13 years old who are starting a new academic year. This is up to half a day, one time a year to be used in the first week of school for primary and secondary schools.

“I think these are just some examples on how RP values its staff and their families in line with the people and family-oriented culture,” says Rueyna, who has been with the polytechnic for over six years.

Dedicated facilities and experienced fellow mothers helped her adjust back to work

Rupini Piragasam, 30, clinical research coordinator at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital’s (KKH) Research Centre, found it challenging going back to work after four months at home with a newborn. She felt out of touch with her work routine as she returned as a new mother with new priorities and responsibilities.

In preparation for going back to work, she enrolled her daughter in infant care two weeks before her maternity leave ended. This helped to alleviate some anxiety (on her and her daughter’s part) while she coped with the transition at work, but she nevertheless felt guilty. “There was definitely a physical and psychological adjustment,” she recalls.

But her community made sure it went smoothly. “My supervisors and colleagues were extremely supportive in allowing me to slowly adapt and learn the projects assigned to me. They guided me with a lot of patience and I have been very thankful for that support.”

Rupini and her new baby

“I also have a good family support system, which has helped me transit back to work smoothly. My family members have been very forthcoming in caring for my daughter and my welfare, in the event that I need to spend more time on work projects,” she adds.

Rupini is currently breastfeeding. Her favourite feature at her workplace is KKH’s lactation room, known as the Jasmine Room and located conveniently next to her office. Dedicated for breastfeeding staff, the room is well-equipped with individual private cubicles with breast pumps attached, a refrigerator to store expressed breastmilk for the day, as well as cupboard space to store accessories such as milk storage bags/bottles and pumps.

Having both new and experienced mothers using the room regularly has also given Rupini the opportunity to connect with them and learn how they manage a newborn and work at the same time.

As Rupini delivered at KKH, she enjoyed maternity benefits that saw a reduction in the costs for her medical appointments and delivery. Another benefit is access to a workplace infant and childcare facility that is conveniently located nearby, with an additional subsidy.

“I feel assured knowing that my child is somewhat closer to me and in the event of an emergency, I can attend to her quickly,” she says. With these options in place, she feels that the transition back to work has been made much easier.

What about the long run?

If working mums are to remain in the workforce, companies need to adopt a long-term perspective to support them, bearing in mind their career and family aspirations, as well as prevailing gender roles in society.

Credit: Editor Estelle Low and her kids

For Estelle Low, editor of The Singapore Women’s Weekly, having flexible work arrangements within her team is a good start.

“When I’m working from home, I get to be physically present for my kids, which eases a lot of my working mum guilt,” she says. “The ability to witness their little moments – such as their excitement or moodiness after returning from school – is a luxury I’d have never thought possible before remote working became socially acceptable. It gives me a sense of work-family balance and fulfilment.”

Plus, she believes that the flexi-work arrangement has improved job satisfaction and morale in the team.

Her colleague, Karen Fong, contributing associate editor and a new mum, has also found it extremely helpful that the team understands she often needs to work flexible hours (eg. after the kids have gone to bed) or take a couple of hours out of the day, be it for doctor’s appointments or her children’s activities. However, she finds that four months of maternity leave (or three months for mums with non-Singaporean children) aren’t enough.

“The change in pace is jarring and it takes a stronger, more organised woman than I am to do it seamlessly,” she says wryly. “When a mother comes back to her full-time job, she’s effectively got another full-time job at home when she’s done in the office – one that can last through the night!”

Associate editor Karen and her young daughters

“Mums I’ve spoken to often share that their companies lack empathy for their situation. For example, not giving them time to pump or private places to do so. At the same time, society emphasises that breastmilk is best for the baby, so mums end up feeling a lot of guilt no matter what they choose to do,” she adds.

Moving forward, Estelle hopes that more mums can have access to flexi-work arrangements without judgment and penalty as the well-being of working mums has a ripple effect on families and society at large.

“More childcare and family care leave is definitely welcome, but if we truly want to be a nation that’s ‘made for families’, we should look at collectively addressing deep-seated expectations and common struggles faced by mums, and cultivating greater empathy for them, no matter what stage of parenthood they are at,” she says.

More understanding and commitment to support

As a HR professional, Michelle Yeo, head of human resource at social service agency AWWA, is aware of the needs and demands of employees, including working mothers. She reveals that most mums say the biggest form of support they expect from their employers would be some level of understanding. The facilities expected would differ, depending on the needs of each mum. For example, some might need nursing rooms while some might just need comfortable breakout areas for them to rest. The staff might even need time away from the desk for their nursing needs, with meeting times worked around those timings.

Michelle at her desk

“While nursing rooms may not be readily built into all facilities, we are always able to explore options to carve out spaces so that they serve multiple purposes,” she explains. “For example, staff who work in smaller facilities can be given the option to book a meeting room, in the absence of a nursing room, for their personal needs.

“As long as the organisation prioritises the well-being of its staff, solutions can always be co-created to meet evolving staff needs, and this will require constant conversation between staff and management,” she adds.

Women make up more than 80% of the staff pool in AWWA. The organisation believes that creating a supportive work environment enables its staff to thrive both at work and at home. And investing in its staff translates to better services for its stakeholders.

“We do not just hire for the moment, we are invested in helping our staff grow with us,” says Michelle. “We recognise that every woman is at a different stage in her life and we are committed to supporting them all. Whether she is a young woman who aspires to be a parent someday, or a seasoned working mum looking to grow in her career.”

AWWA also understands that, compared with their male counterparts, the majority of working women continue to play a larger caregiving role, often as mothers and daughters to gradually-ageing parents. As such, it is imperative for employers to continuously be supportive of the evolving needs of working women, no matter what their personal and professional aspirations may be.

At AWWA, managers often explore short-term alternative work arrangements for working mums in their team so that they continue to remain a part of the organisation through different phases of life. For example, a working mother and her manager may discuss how to redistribute their team’s workload reasonably, so that she may take up a temporary part-time or half-day work arrangement to spend more time with her newborn. When she is ready, the working mum can take up her full-time role seamlessly once more.