Ten Tips for Returning To Work after Baby Loss
When I was looking to return to work I scoured the internet for information and aside from some charity advice I found very little. There is plenty of advice and guidance for mothers returning to work after maternity leave but very little for those mothers who have faced the worst thing any mother could ever go through; the death of that baby.
Returning to work after the death of your baby is tough; I think everyone would agree with that. It is normal to feel anxious, upset or down right terrified at the thought of it. For me it has been the biggest hurdle I have faced since those early milestones such as registering Billy’s death and arranging his funeral. But I am pleased to say it has gone as well as could be expected. There are definitely things that you can do to make this daunting prospect a little bit easier for you.
I hope my ten tips will help you a little if you are returning to work soon.
1. Return to work when you feel ready: I think this is the most important thing. Do not try and return until you feel the time for you personally is right. I felt like colleagues might judge me for taking my maternity leave when I didn’t actually have a baby to look after and started trying to put the wheels in motion to return after three months. After several panic attacks and anxiety induced meltdowns I soon realised I was in no way ready to return and at that point decided to take my full entitlement. I am so glad that I did, it gave me plenty of time off work to focus on processing and accepting what has happened and the only thing I had to worry about was what we would have for dinner that night and getting through the day. It was imperative that I took this time, and it is due to taking the eight months off that I did that I feel stronger and more positive now. Only you will know what is right for you, we all process and handle this differently. I know for some people the return to work is a distraction and the structure and routine helps them to move forwards, but for me I needed to take the time to rebuild my strength and get back to a place where I can focus on work. Remember that the right time to return to work will be different for everyone.
2. Keep in touch. I would recommend staying in touch with your line manager and any colleagues you have a close relationship with. Most employers will offer KIT days (keeping in touch) and I would say it is helpful to utilise them. I met two senior colleagues fairly regularly for the five months ahead of my return to work. We would meet informally for a coffee outside of the work environment (Starbucks caramel latte for anyone who cares what my coffee order is) and they would see how I was doing, talk a little about work but it was mainly to simply see how I was doing and make me feel cared for and supported by my workplace. It helped hugely, returning to work felt less daunting because I had seen and spoken to two colleagues on a regular basis. I am friendly with both of these colleagues which certainly helped but your manager has a duty of care to you whether you are friendly or not and will almost certainly want to help your return to work be as smooth as possible. Meeting up and speaking regularly will definitely help you with that.
3. Plan a phased return. This obviously depends on your workplace but if you can plan a phased return it will be very beneficial to you. Easing you in gently is very important in my experience. After experiencing trauma and a prolonged time away from work, it is a very big adjustment to suddenly go back to full days and a full workload. My workplace offered a four week phased return and I was able to plan this myself and gradually increased my working days and hours during this period. I used a combination of half days and full days along with working from home days. It has be hugely helpful to me, it is very tiring at first and trying to concentrate for long periods is tricky initially but gradually building up the hours and days in work has helped. A phased return meant that it wasn’t too intense too soon and that I gradually increased my working capacity.
4. Go into work ahead of your return date. I went into work for a meeting a few weeks before I was due to return to discuss and plan for the phased return. I was therefore able to walk through the doors for the first time (very daunting) and go and say hello to my team ahead of my first day. It made the first day back a little less daunting and means that your colleagues have seen you before that big first day back in the office.
5. Ask someone to meet you before work on your first day back. One of my close friends works at the same office as me so I asked him to come and meet me on my first day so that we could enter together. Bless him; he was waiting in the carpark at 8.20am sharp! He walked me to my team and then we went for lunch. It helped relieve the pressure immensely. It sounds very juvenile in a way but I think it made such a big difference to me as removed the anxiety of walking through the building for the first time. Most of us will have a work chum we can lean on and now is the time to call in a favour! I am sure most people will be only too happy to come down and meet you before you make that daunting journey back up to your desk.
6. Set out expectations and be honest: My manager asked me how I wanted to be treated upon my return to work. When it became apparent that I was unable to request my own rider with a bowl of only red and blue M&Ms delivered daily to my desk and a three course lunch provided to my desk at 12pm sharp each day I decided that ‘normal’ was the clear way. I said that I don’t really want to go deeply into what has happened and just wanted to come to work and be treated exactly as I had been before I had gone through this. My first day was met with a few hugs and ‘nice to see you/have you back’ comments and I was met with love and support without dwelling on things. It was really lovely actually and made me feel cared for and welcome. I think it is important that you do not pretend that everything is back to normal despite this need to be treated normally however; I have been honest about the fact that I attend counselling and therapy sessions and have arranged time for this to be accommodated.
7. Take a break: I think it is really important to get away from your desk, especially at lunch time. I have been using my lunch breaks for a little me time. I just go for a walk or go and sit in a coffee shop and catch up on a bit of social media or read a book. But I want to be alone if possible. Nothing personal to anyone but we are still very much dealing with grief and juggling a mixture of emotions and a little time out is necessary. On the subject of taking a break, I have found it really useful to plan some time off work (they are lucky to have me, 8 months off then immediately plans a holiday!). But it has been important for me to have something to look forwards to, a holiday I can get excited about and knowing something positive is around the corner. Look out for my Lake Como pics won’t you and try not to get too jealous! I would also recommend booking off time for any milestones or anniversary’s that you know will be tough way ahead of time. I booked off Billy’s birthday week on my first day back, I know that will be a tough week and one I do not wish to be in work for.
8. Treat yourself to some new work clothes!: I know this one will not really help with the practical transition of returning to work but actually buying a load of new work clothes and a new bag for my laptop really helped change my mind set about returning to work a little bit. Everyone loves new clothes don’t they! And I couldn’t wait to use my new furry tiger striped bag to cart my laptop around. I couldn’t face wearing some of the clothes I had worn whilst pregnant, I still haven’t so it was new threads all the way and I am loving feel like Carrie Bradshaw strutting about…. The only difference is I work for the civil service and don’t have a glitzy side job at Vogue like she did but y’know, you can’t have it all! I can however treat myself to a cosmo ala Carrie, after a tough day at the office. I think if you can also plan a little treat at the end of your first week back it gives you something to look forwards to. We went out for dinner; hubby’s treat (hey got to milk that cow when you can!) and then I went and treated myself to some lovely new makeup. These are small things but they really made a difference for me.
9. Speak up: If you are not happy about something once you have returned to work or you feel overwhelmed at any point, discuss it with your manager. Flexibility is key here and as you will know, it is not easy to plan when the waves of grief will become overwhelming or you need something a little extra. You might need to leave early one day after an intense and draining day, you might need some time off, you might need to do shorter days for a while, you might need to get out for a break at an unofficial break time; whatever it is that you feel you need to get you through this transition it is important to ask for it.
10. Be gentle with your expectations: Do not put too much pressure on yourself, those first few weeks back at work can feel a little bit surreal. I would say keep your social calendar sparse for the first few weeks back, it can be very tiring and at times, emotionally draining. The first time you see people at work can be strange and awkward. Get used to the sympathetic smiles and that head tilt; you’re going to be seeing a lot of that! But also expect some people to be completely awkward around you, I have lost count of the number of people who I would see around the office who I used to say hello to and have a little chit chat with who just scuttle past me looking at the floor now or pretend they haven’t seen me! I think it comes from not knowing what to say but, come on, that is probably the worst way to handle things! But I can honestly say I am not too fussed by these acquaintances who feel uncomfortable making eye contact now. Don’t expect too much from yourself either, I thought I would just snap back into action but the truth is it is taking me longer to do things at the moment, probably because I am double checking a lot of things because I feel that I may not have got it right. Re-reading every email before I send it to make sure it makes sense! I think there is a lot of self-doubt in those early weeks but you will find your flow after a while, it just takes time.
I hope you find this guide helpful and I hope that if you are returning to work soon that it goes well and that it is gentle for you. It is certainly not easy but it probably won’t be as difficult as you expect either. We have a habit of over thinking things and expecting the worst, but I expect that your work colleagues have nothing but admiration and kindness towards you and are looking forward to having you back and will do all that they can to make things as smooth and easy for you as possible. You’ve got this mama.
Love Hannah x