More mothers than before are now returning to work and continuing their careers – in 2010, less than two-thirds of women with children (63%) were working, but by 2022 this figure had increased to 73%, according to the latest childcare statistics. While this is a positive shift, the numbers still lag far behind the 92.1% of fathers who were working in 2021, according to the most recent figures from the ONS.

In part, it is the challenges many women face when returning to work act which as a deterrent. Research from Totaljobs with the Fawcett Society found that mothers struggle to balance work and family commitments due to high childcare costs and increased workloads. As a result, nearly one in five (19%) have considered leaving their jobs.

The prospect of these skilled workers leaving their careers for good will be concerning for employers who face difficulties today in attracting and retaining talent – there are now more than 934,000 job vacancies in the UK. If employers are to fill these roles, they will need to consider encouraging mothers back into the workforce. To do this, employers will need to recognise the concerns of these working mothers and work together with them (and parents generally) to ensure they get the support they need to enjoy a successful career while raising a family.

Working with mothers, not against them

Too often it is mothers who face the challenge of juggling childcare responsibilities and a career. Balancing these demands of motherhood can be a challenge, but organisations can implement various policies and measures to help. Flexible work arrangements like remote work and adjustable start times can help mothers balance professional and family responsibilities. Additionally, comprehensive parental leave policies, for not just mothers but fathers too, contribute to the advancement of women in the workplace by encouraging shared responsibility, challenging gender stereotypes, and driving much-needed cultural change towards gender equality.

Managing childcare responsibilities and professional commitments can have an impact on both productivity and mental wellbeing – according to government data, 38% of working mothers with children aged 0-14 said that having reliable childcare helps them with work, but only 11% of employers provide any kind of childcare benefit, according to Pregnant Then Screwed. UK parents spend a third of their salary on childcare, creating financial challenges for working parents made even worse by the cost-of-living crisis. By providing access to quality childcare, employers can help reduce stress, anxiety, and financial strain associated with arranging and paying for childcare services.

Design with impact and rethinking the physical workplace

In addition to workplace policies, employers should consider how the physical workplace has an impact on employees. Designing with impact and ensuring that spaces contribute to better wellbeing should not be overlooked. One impactful measure is the creation of dedicated spaces, such as lactation rooms, providing a quiet and comfortable area for mothers to breastfeed or pump milk. A quiet area where parents can optimise their time in the office away from a busier home environment can be hugely beneficial.

Some areas that are overlooked include call booths for parents to take personal and unexpected calls regarding childcare, flexible workstations allowing a combination of time to connect with peers and ‘head down work’ using privacy screens. We’ve seen success with mobile solutions which give employees freedom to create a workspace that works best for them.

Working with quality furniture manufacturers, employers can provide ergonomic furniture that promotes good posture and reduces the risk of musculoskeletal issues. Adjustable chairs and supportive accessories like footrests and wristrests can help prevent discomfort and enhance productivity, especially for pregnant women. Ultimately having furniture built with health in mind reduces the chances of employees needing time off work due to ill health.

Location is another important factor – having office spaces which are close to childcare facilities and transport hubs allows parents to spend less time commuting, and can help further ease the stress of being a working parent.

Be transparent and encourage conversation

Open communication is key to understanding the needs of not just working mothers but all employees. Employers can foster a culture of dialogue by actively seeking regular feedback. This includes having frequent check-ins and conducting anonymous surveys to measure employee satisfaction and provide a space for employees to share their personal views.

Hosting workshops on work-life balance, available childcare resources, unconscious biases, stereotypes, and stress management can also support with encouraging important discussions and provide practical solutions.

Employee resource groups or networks specifically for working mothers can be another useful tool, providing a supportive community where they can share experiences, seek advice, and advocate for their needs within the workplace.

Ultimately, organisations should be looking to cultivate a culture of empathy and understanding. This includes training line managers to be sensitive to the challenges faced by working mothers and encouraging colleagues to support one another to create a nurturing work environment.

Supporting mothers in the workplace is not just an ethical obligation, it’s an investment in the wellbeing of the workforce. By addressing the specific needs of working mothers, encouraging open communication, and offering supportive policies, businesses can create an inclusive workplace where all employees, regardless of their parental status, can thrive.

Mark Catchlove
Director at MillerKnoll Insight Group | Website | + posts

Mark Catchlove leads the MillerKnoll Insight Group which is responsible for sharing the latest thinking in workplace design and related issues. He has been at the company for over 25 years and over that time has become a respected contributor to the workplace community. He has delivered more than 800 seminars around the world. Mark has also run in-house workshops and seminars for a variety of leading organisations – both large and small. He has been employed in the office interiors industry for 40 years, working with many leading public and private sector organisations.