In the summer of 2012, it was reported that almost 1,000 people were emigrating from Ireland every week. As Ireland struggled to see a way out of the economic morass, the exodus of so many people – most of them young, highly educated, packed with potential – was both shocking and sad.

Even at the height of the ‘generation emigration’ debate, however, few column inches were devoted to another brain drain that is taking place right under our noses; one that’s happening here and now, and that is depriving Irish companies of some of their most talented and capable people.

I’m talking about the many, many back-to-work mums who decide, for one reason or another, that they are not going back to work.

Mums not returning to the workforce

How many? Official stats show that 86% of women without children work, compared to just 57% of women with kids aged three or under. Even among mothers whose kids are older – aged six or more – just 58% work. That is a big proportion of mothers who are not returning to the workforce after maternity leave.

Of course, for many women this is part of the plan. If it suits, if circumstances allow them to remain at home with their kids – a full time job in itself, let’s not forget – then that is a great decision for all concerned.

However, it’s not a decision that suits everyone. There are lots of mothers who would love to return to their jobs, who intended to return after maternity leave, but who find that step back to the workplace difficult, daunting or downright impossible.

What is stopping them? Sometimes it’s plain old circumstances: childcare issues, incompatible schedules, lack of available support, commuting problems, time, distance, complications that just can’t be overcome.

Where there’s a will, though, there’s usually a way – and that’s where the employer comes in. Whether we realise it or not, too often we as employers are failing to make returning mothers feel welcome.

After an extended break from work, anybody can lose a little confidence in their abilities. An extended break that includes the maelstrom of pregnancy, childbirth, sleepless nights and all the rest is bound to leave most women feeling anxious and insecure at the prospect of going back to their job.

When that lack of confidence runs into a lack of flexibility on the part of the employer, even the best-laid back-to-work plans can be stopped in their tracks.

We need more women working

And let’s be clear – we need more women in the workforce. It’s a business issue – more diversity leads ultimately to greater productivity – but it’s also a societal issue; it’s about enabling people to fulfill their ambitions for the benefit of all.

So how do we increase the number of women returning to the workforce? Obviously, public policy has a role to play, e.g. improved childcare facilities and better access for mothers to education and employment opportunities. For employees and employers, however, a few basic steps can ease the transition back to work:

For the employee:

  • Keep in touch with work while you’re away. Follow the latest news on the company website. Stay in contact with colleagues. Keep yourself on the radar.
  • Maintain your professional profiles, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. If you can, attend any relevant conferences or events that will keep you up to speed with developments in your field.
  • Find out if you are missing any technological advances, e.g. if your company is using new productivity or financial software. Technology evolves at such a rapid rate that the most capable worker can feel disenfranchised after only a few years away.
  • Make sure your employer knows when you plan to return.
  • Focus not on “time lost” but on new skills attained. Multi-tasking. Negotiating. Patience. Energy. Communicating. You have become a much more capable person than even you may realise!

For the employer:

  • Try and keep in touch with employees who are on an extended break. Schedule an email every few weeks that lets them know you have not forgotten about them.
  • Implement a back-to-work scheme that is flexible and accommodating. This could include initiatives such as flexi-time, a ‘buddy’ system where returning employees are assigned an intern to help them get up to speed, or even a job-sharing arrangement.
  • Talk to employees who have returned after an extended break. Identify any ‘hurdles’ that may discourage others from making the step back.
  • Make sure all employees understand the importance of welcoming people back to work. It is not a ‘nice to have’; it is an integral part of the company’s growth strategy.

Among employers Morgan Stanley stands out for its 12-week Return to Work program, targeting professionals who have taken several years away from their careers. The programme awards candidates to “re-engage” with the workplace, with half of participants receiving full-time offers. Let’s have more of this.

Now let’s get back to work – all of us!


Damien Kehir is Managing Director of Eden Recruitment.