Navigating maternity in the UK workplace


Like many mothers, I faced the daunting prospect of returning to work after maternity leave. That experience was nearly ten years ago now, but sadly I feel that things haven’t progressed much in terms of awareness and support. This isn’t good enough, I know we can do better and I’m excited to have the opportunity to make a difference.

Gemma stands in between her two children with a green hilly landscape.

Gemma Margetts, Senior People Manager at Torchbox, and her children Annabelle and Archie

The decision to return to work after maternity leave is often fraught with mixed emotions and concerns. Mothers grapple with the delicate balance of caring for their babies while reengaging with their professional responsibilities. Returning to work brings with it many professional challenges, ranging from updating skills and managing flexible work arrangements to feelings of imposter syndrome and isolation.

Through this guide, I hope to empower mothers and improve awareness for employers by providing the tools to navigate these challenges effectively. The guide focuses on the importance of building a supportive community and how we can foster a culture of understanding. The aim is to create a framework that enables mothers to thrive and helps them navigate the return to work with confidence and resilience.

I want to share stories that resonate, offer practical advice that works and create a sense of companionship among mothers returning from maternity leave. Together, we can redefine the narrative and support each other in achieving professional success and a fulfilling family life.

Sparking change

Being a working mother is hard

Returning to work leaves new mothers facing an almost impossible challenge - finding a way to carefully balance both career and family responsibilities.

Anxiety around juggling these commitments is a common struggle for mothers at all stages, whether that’s guilt around leaving a toddler with childcare or worrying about spending enough time with their teenager. This often leads to increased stress levels, which can harm both their mental and physical health.

Mothers also have to face many hurdles in the workplace including:

  • discrimination and biases
  • lack of flexible working options
  • difficulty arranging leave around school holidays and childcare needs
  • the financial impact of taking unpaid leave and childcare costs
  • fewer opportunities for career progression
  • dealing with extra demands and interruptions

I've been experiencing imposter syndrome quite frequently. My response has been trying hard to prove to colleagues, clients and myself that I deserve to be here.

Iona Twiston-Davies Senior Digital Account Manager

Maternity support benefits us all

Embracing maternity support in the workplace not only benefits mothers but also your business and other employees too. It shows that the wellbeing of your staff is a priority and that you’re committed to creating a welcoming environment for everyone.

For mothers, the impact this support can have is huge. A smoother transition back to work and the ability to achieve an effective work-life balance can significantly boost wellbeing and self-confidence. This allows mothers to feel valued and fulfilled in their work, and empowers them to pursue professional development opportunities.

As a business, investing in maternity support makes a lot of sense. Staff who feel supported in their role are more productive, take less time off work and are better able to fulfil their responsibilities. Accommodations such as these can also help to enhance your business’s reputation, making it an attractive place to work for both current and prospective employees.

A compassionate and inclusive culture has a positive impact on everyone within an organization. It promotes diversity and understanding across the entire team, strengthening collaboration, building loyalty and fostering a sense of belonging for all.

Navigating emotions

Understanding the emotional impact of motherhood

For many women, the transition into motherhood is full of change and conflicting emotions, from joy and fulfilment to anxiety and exhaustion. New priorities emerge, whilst others must be reconsidered and the weight of responsibility suddenly feels much heavier than before.

Then there are the physical changes too. A body that looks and feels different, a change in energy levels and new sensations to cope with. It’s common to hear mothers say they feel like a different person or that they don’t recognise themselves anymore, leaving them feeling vulnerable and uncertain.

I wanted to be able to give 100% in both areas of my life, but I had changed as a person to the one who left work 9 months ago.


Becoming a working mother is a deeply personal and emotional journey. It requires time to acclimatise to these new roles and a lot of understanding and self-compassion to help face the challenges ahead.

Working through pregnancy and into motherhood

There is often a focus on supporting mothers after they return to work, but support must start at the very beginning of their journey and continue throughout.

Sharing news of a pregnancy can evoke a wide range of emotions. Expectant mothers will already be starting to navigate the tricky balance between their personal and professional lives. While there is joy in sharing such personal news with colleagues, there may also be some nervousness about how the news will be received and how much support to expect.

Providing this support early on can create a more positive association with work and help lower anxiety. It also allows mothers to get comfortable with asking for support and practising self-compassion, setting them up well for both maternity leave and their return to work.

How to promote self-compassion at work

Normalise asking for help

It’s important to let mothers know it’s ok if they’re struggling and that support is available. Asking for help isn’t a weakness and it isn’t something to feel scared or ashamed of. But opening up can be difficult, and sometimes it’s hard to know what help to ask for. As a manager, proactively offering support can be a great way to spark this conversation and show mothers that their requests will be taken seriously.

At Torchbox, our People Team arrange regular wellbeing check-ins with new mothers to encourage this.

Emphasise the importance of self care

Encourage new mothers to prioritise self-care and to take breaks when needed. Whether that’s a short walk, a moment of mindfulness, a quick tea break or some extra time to eat a proper meal. A 10-minute break can do wonders for reducing stress and preventing burnout.

We’re big fans of Headspace to help promote mindfulness and provide the whole Torchbox team with access.

Encourage open conversations

Many mothers feel pressure to always speak positively about parenthood and to juggle everything without complaint. Allowing people to be open about the difficulties they’re facing, whether at home or work, can help to ease this pressure by allowing space for honest and judgment-free communication.

Our new mums support group provides a safe space for mothers to open up and share their experiences with other people who understand.

Provide wellbeing spaces

Providing a quiet, relaxed space within your office allows people to step away for a moment when things get too much. It can also give people a place to spend time if they need to focus, or somewhere calmer to escape the noise when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

We have wellbeing rooms in our offices that have been thoughtfully designed to make them comfortable for breastfeeding and pumping too.

I felt my time was protected really well when I returned, so I could ease in, and take on more when I was ready. I felt Torchbox took the risk of overwhelm and mental wellbeing really seriously.


Promote compassion through training

We can’t build a culture of understanding unless everyone is involved. Training sessions for the entire team can help build empathy and provide insight into the challenges and unique needs of new parents.

At Torchbox, when someone is returning from maternity leave their line manager is invited to attend a workshop that covers many of the topics within this toolkit.


Tips for supporting mothers at work

Managers can demonstrate their support for new mothers by:

  • scheduling regular catch ups, with a focus on wellbeing
  • looking for signs that they are struggling
  • reminding them to take it slowly and to practise self-compassion
  • showing a genuine interest in their new family
  • facilitating a gradual and phased return to tasks
  • focussing on the long term, not the short term, in their return to work
  • reaching out to HR for further assistance

And don’t forget, the little things really do count! Making them a hot drink, sending a welcome back food parcel, or just a friendly chat at lunch can all make a big difference.

My line manager tells me not to be too hard on myself, and reminds me that I'm still getting used to being back at work.


Policies that help to support working mothers

As a business, we can further support mothers through processes and policies such as:

  • providing flexible working options
  • adopting a gradual, phased return from maternity leave, without causing financial impact for the mother
  • setting up an internal support network
  • supporting career progression with guidance and training opportunities
  • providing easy access to mental health support and resources
  • having a clear and thorough re-onboarding process
  • upskilling line managers on how to offer support

Case studies

Returning to work at Torchbox

Sam recently came back to work at Torchbox after nine months on maternity leave. She shares her thoughts with us on what it’s been like getting settled back in, what helped, what hindered and what she thinks employers need to know about new mothers returning to work.

Preparing for a new normal

Toward the end of my maternity leave, I began to feel really apprehensive about returning to work. The nature of agency life is that there are always lots of interesting and exciting things going on, it’s a very fast-paced environment. I felt like everything was going to have moved on so much since I left, and that I’d be really behind on all of the new projects, ways of working, people and clients.

I was also concerned about how I would find my new normal. My eldest started school while I was on maternity leave, and now my new baby would be going to nursery. It was a whole new home and work routine to juggle. How was I going to manage it all?!

Settling back in and finding balance

Once I returned most of my worries became unfounded. Things had changed, but not as dramatically as I had imagined. I was able to quickly catch up on key areas of the business I felt had moved forward a lot, and the friendly Slacks, emails and calls to welcome me back gave me a real mental boost.

My first real challenge was accepting that I needed to take my return slower than felt natural for my usual work style. This was encouraged by my line manager, who gave me time to get back into the swing of things and put me on internal work without fixed deadlines so I could go at my own pace.

I didn’t actively work on projects for several weeks, and in hindsight, I perhaps took it a little too slow. I felt like a spare wheel for a few of those weeks until I was given some project work to get stuck into.

To help me settle back in I also:

  • used the holiday I had accrued to provide a phased return to work
  • re-onboarded myself in lots of different areas to refresh my mind
  • sat in on other’s meetings to get a feel for the work environment again
  • regularly read our ‘Unboxed’ newsletter for highlights while I was away
  • scheduled several informal catch ups to help me feel like I was part of the team again

Alongside work, my home life had changed massively. I now have a school day and a work day to juggle. To help make this easier, I took advantage of our part-time working policy to change my hours to start a little later. This meant I could do the nursery and school drop offs in the mornings, which really helped with my work life balance. Within a few weeks we’d managed to find a new normal that worked for our family and felt sustainable.

What employers can do to support new mothers

I think the most important thing you can do to support new mothers is to allow them to return and work at their own pace. Be guided by them on what they need, what they can manage and when they want to be back fully as everyone will need something different. A phased return can be really helpful, as can having some internal work without deadlines to take the pressure off.

Regularly checking in on how they’re feeling and coping is so important too, the reality of juggling work and family can be really overwhelming. A clear onboarding plan can help to make things easier. Agree on day one what is expected of your returning employee, include things such as catch up time, informal chats, sitting in on meetings, as well as actual day to day work.

Finally, review your maternity and paternity pay policies. This can make a real difference to an employee’s decision on when to return. Torchbox’s recent change to enhanced maternity pay meant I could afford to stay off for nine months rather than six, and this was crucial for my mental and physical wellbeing. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have mentally been well enough to return to work at six months.

Torchbox joins the Motherboard pledge

Over the last 12 months we had five people returning from maternity leave. This prompted us to sign up to Motherboard and pledge to enhance our return to work policy.

We’d previously tried to improve the process by updating our induction template, but it was ineffective. The feedback we received highlighted feelings of being held back from engaging at work and the perception of a one-size-fits-all approach. This wasn’t what we’d hoped for and it became clear that this was only a temporary solution to a much deeper, unexplored issue.

Using insights to inform our approach

This time, we consulted those most affected - employees returning from maternity leave. We set up an internal steering group and reached out to external contributors to better understand what returning mothers needed. The insights we gathered were invaluable and helped us put a plan in place to improve our offering.

A recurring theme of our conversations was that returnees felt an immediate expectation to resume their roles. They felt there wasn’t any acknowledgement of the challenges posed by taking such a long time away from an evolving business, including getting to grips with operational and technical changes. The emotional impact of motherhood was often overlooked too, with little understanding of the delicate balance of home and family life.

Making meaningful changes

The changes we’ve made have been directly influenced by what we’ve learned from mothers and shaped by our internal steering group.

It starts with our comprehensive toolkit for expectant mothers, which they are offered as soon as they share their happy news. It includes all relevant policies, a payroll forecast and details on the support we offer upon their return. The aim is to proactively address potential stressors or questions, providing a centralised resource for easy access to essential information. Alongside this, our new welcome back pack underlines our commitment to supporting employees and their families during this pivotal time.

We’ve also made strategic adjustments, such as modifying our keeping in touch (KIT) policy and transitioning to full day pay to help address the added costs and challenges that new mothers encounter. On top of this, our new phased return policy entitles all returning mothers to a gradual three week phased return (paid at their pre-maternity salary rather than at their new working pattern) to help them gently ease back into work.

Our wellbeing support programme is available for all employees, and now includes help with addressing challenges like imposter syndrome too. A new tailored training initiative has also been set up to equip line managers with the tools needed to provide meaningful support for mothers during this time.

Ongoing work and continuous improvement

Engagement with this project has been overwhelmingly positive and the impact has made a big difference to mothers at Torchbox. Regular participation in Motherboard's roundtables has also helped foster ongoing support for working mothers in tech.

We’re not done yet though! Our work is ongoing and extends beyond the changes we’ve implemented already. We aim to continue refining our support offering and building on our family-friendly approach to work. This will include fathers, partners and those returning from adoption leave, so that we can provide the best possible support for our whole team.


Information sheet for employees

We’ve put together an information sheet for you to share with your employees before they go on maternity leave. We hope this information will help to empower new mothers to ask for what they’re entitled to and make their return to work easier.

Download the information sheet

Download PDF (207.4 KB)


Gemma Margetts

Senior People Manager (Culture, EDI & Wellbeing)