YOU MAY BE FAMILIAR WITH THE TERM “FOURTH trimester,” which refers to the first three months after childbirth when a mother recuperates and bonds with her baby. A new term has now been coined, however, for the challenging time after the fourth trimester, when a woman is transitioning back to work from maternity leave. It’s called the fifth trimester, the term coming from a recent book of the same name by Lauren Smith Brody. Brody documents the findings of extensive surveys about the challenges new mothers face upon returning to work, including everything from having to leave their newborn with a caregiver for the first time to finding a private space to pump breast milk.
Three in four women wished they had a longer maternity leave. On average, they said it took five and a half months after childbirth to feel physically back to normal and six months to feel mentally back to normal. The reality is that some mothers, particularly those in minimum-wage or part-time jobs, do not get the benefit of maternity leave and must return to work soon after delivery, either to avoid losing their job or because they cannot afford a period of unpaid leave. This means many moms return to work before they feel restored physically or emotionally.
To help ease the adjustment on both sides, employers and HR professionals should be aware of the growing pains that can come with this transition, and should consider strategies for welcoming new mothers back to the workplace.
Best Practices for Employers
Employers should consider these best practices for welcoming back new mothers:
Be aware of the challenges for a new mother. Women thriving in their careers prior to having a baby often find it difficult, both physically and emotionally, to return to work. In addition to leaving their child in someone else’s care – possibly for the first time – it’s a challenge to return abruptly to a full workload.
Generally speaking, the shorter the maternity leave period, the tougher the transition is on both the new mom and the employer. In fact, one in seven mothers reports experiencing some form of postpartum depression, and that number is even higher among those who take relatively short maternity leave (less than 12 weeks), according to Brody’s research.
Understand and comply with legal requirements for accommodating new mothers. Employers and HR professionals should be aware of the benefits an employer is legally required to provide for new mothers. Employers should be familiar with which laws apply to their workplace, and how their applicability might vary depending on different situations.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave during any 12-month period to eligible employees for, among other things, “the birth of a son or daughter of the employee and in order to care for such son or daughter.” However, FMLA leave only applies to individuals employed by the same employer for at least 12 months within the relevant statutory period, who have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12-month period immediately preceding commencement of the leave and where the employer has 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.
Employers should determine whether the FMLA applies to an employee’s situation as quickly as possible after she notifies the employer of her pregnancy. While Florida doesn’t have state laws that govern maternity leave, Florida-based companies with employees who live in other states should check for state laws. New Jersey and Washington, D.C. have enacted laws related to maternity leave benefits.
Implement a policy. Employers who do not already have a policy for maternity leave in place should consider implementing one, even if they are not legally required to do so. Employers should consider their current workplace policies and determine what kinds of medical leave they have provided to employees in the past. While Florida law does not require businesses to provide maternity leave, employers are legally required to act consistently when providing employee leave. This means an employer who grants leave to an employee recovering from a car accident must also provide leave to an employee recuperating from childbirth or risk facing a discrimination claim.
Plan ahead. Talk to expecting employees about how much leave they will take, when they plan to return and whether they may need flexible work hours or other accommodations upon returning. The employer should reach out to an employee who is nearing the end of her leave period to firm up a definite return date. This also allows the employee an opportunity to voice any concerns associated with her return.
Consider ramp-down and ramp-up periods. Rampdown and ramp-up periods could ease the transition into and out of maternity leave for some employees. Ramp-down periods help a pregnant employee transition some of her responsibilities to another employee prior to her leave. It can help employers avoid situations in which the employee is desperately trying to complete assignments prior to her due date or responding to work emails while she is in labor.
Some returning moms find it difficult to fill their plate immediately with work, so employers may consider a ramp-up period where a returning new mother gradually receives more and more work as she returns to full capacity. Additionally, employers may consider reducing quotas and other requirements for employees who are measured by their output, such as in sales, during these ramp-down and ramp-up periods to help ease the transition.
Try to be flexible when possible. It is not unusual for new moms to need some additional time off or flexibility of hours for medical appointments and managing child care. For example, business meetings that start very early in the morning or extend past normal business hours can cause extreme stress for parents with children in daycare, and managers might not otherwise consider such concerns unless they are aware of the fifth trimester burdens. When possible, employers should avoid scheduling meetings beyond normal work hours, especially without notice. If practical, employers may also consider offering new mothers the option to work from home, at least some of the time.
Accommodate nursing mothers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides that, for up to one year after a child’s birth, a nursing mother must be provided a “reasonable break time” to express milk “each time such employee has need to express the milk.” These breaks may be unpaid, but employers are legally required to provide a comfortable, private space - other than a bathroom - for mothers to pump breast milk.
Like all transitions, the fifth trimester does not last forever. As a baby begins sleeping through the night and child care becomes routine, parents often feel better equipped to manage their various roles. Employers who are flexible in accommodating new mothers during this period may likewise be rewarded with employees who are more loyal, focused and happy.
Lisa McGlynn is an associate attorney in the Tampa office of Fisher Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm. She defends employers in a wide variety of employment-related claims, including claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). She also represents employers charged with employment discrimination before administrative agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Florida Commission on Human Relations.