How does your HR function support new mums returning to the workplace?

4 Minutes

Becoming a mother opens up a whole new world, a very exciting and rewarding one. But for me,...

Becoming a mother opens up a whole new world, a very exciting and rewarding one. But for me, similar to many women, I wanted to be both a mum and a professional and this meant returning to the corporate world alongside my new one.

I had my first son whilst living and working in Hong Kong. Statutory maternity leave there is just 10 weeks and, legally speaking, 2 of the 10 weeks should be taken before the baby is born. That leaves 8 weeks with your newborn and then some employers expect new mums to be back in the office! Most organisations do give an additional period of paid or unpaid maternity leave, but this rarely extends beyond 16 weeks – a very different scenario to what we see in countries in Europe and Canada.

Due to maternity leave being shorter, hiring in a maternity leave cover for your role is rare. Work is typically dispersed amongst other team members or is left until your return, which means many new mums come back to chaos. It’s important to note that in comparison with the West, most local and expatriate families in Hong Kong will have a full time helper or nanny, meaning trusted and flexible childcare support is on hand. This kind of help is invaluable to parents who are back at the office, but it only works when there is genuine trust between the family and the helper. The support an organisation provides to a new mum returning to work whilst their baby is still so young is therefore key.

With a three to five month old baby, you’d be very lucky to have one who sleeps through the night and many women are still likely to be breastfeeding. I spoke to a number of new mums in Hong Kong about their experiences returning to work and was positively surprised at how supportive their organisations have been. However, the support mechanisms in place are mainly informal and often rest on the assertiveness and confidence of the individual.

Five key things stood out from my discussions. These are great conversation points for HR teams to have within their businesses and to use as a basis for planning support:

  1. The role a line manager plays in supporting a new mum returning to work is critical – none of the organizations that I spoke to equip line managers for this important role. Does yours?
  2. Mums don’t often understand all of the support mechanisms available to them – does your company clearly communicate what you provide (flexible working, external partners who offer advice and support, internal support groups, benefits allied to parents, etc.)?
  3. New mums are looking for HR and senior female leaders to lead by example and be role models – does your organization have any, and how do you showcase them?
  4. Do you offer basic facilities – a private room for nursing and separate fridges for pumped milk?
  5. Have you considered a graduated return to work? This allows the new mum to ease back into the corporate environment and sets them up for success without overwhelming or exhausting them.

Of these five findings, the first presents a huge opportunity for HR. The most important support to a returning mum is their line manager, yet none of the organisations I spoke to had any programs or initiatives in place to define what this support should be and to educate and support line managers on it. What more can your HR function do to equip line managers in the critical role that they play to support, engage and retain mothers when they return to work after maternity leave?

The advice I’ve shared above is applicable outside of Hong Kong too. Many markets globally face a talent shortage and women, particularly those who have taken time out to have a family, represent an under utilised talent pool. The companies I spoke to for my research were all international, representing a range of industries (investment banking, media, international education, PR agency, insurance, and real estate).

I suspect that the stories would be different for local Hong Kong based companies, and I’d be keen to explore this.

Get in touch at to let me know what your HR function is doing to support new working mothers.