Keeping Moms on the Job

A flexible schedule is key.

Women who return to work after giving birth are more likely to stay on the job if they have greater control over their work schedules, according to a new study. Researchers also found that job security and the ability to make use of a variety of their job skills lead to greater retention of working moms, while the impact of work-related stress on their physical and mental health causes greater turnover (Journal of Applied Psychology, online, June 21, 2011).

"Having a flexible schedule is an important element necessary to decrease working mom turnover because it can be used when work demands arise," said study author Dawn Carlson, PhD, professor of management and chair of Organizational Development at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University in Waco, TX.

"When confronted by one or more job demands, a flexible schedule provides working moms with alternatives for meeting those demands while caring for their newborns. When working moms are better able to control their work environment and adapt, work-related stress is less likely to become a family issue," she said.

Nearly three-fourths (71 percent) of women with children under age 18 are working or looking for work, according to 2008 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and nearly 60 percent of women with young children were employed. However, a large number of mothers who return to work after childbirth subsequently leave the labor force. Very little is known about the factors that play a role in women's work decisions after childbirth.

The transition back to work is pivotal for new mothers, and this study offers important insight into understanding how a job can contribute to or detract from their decision to stay with an employer after returning to work, Dr. Carlson said.

The researchers surveyed 179 full-time working mothers in North Carolina with an average age of 31. Of the group, 72 percent was white, 27 percent was black, and 1 percent was Asian. Most (79 percent) were married. They worked an average of 39.7 hours per week and planned on returning to work 30 or more hours by four months postpartum. The duration of maternity leave was six weeks, but only 48.1 percent reported having paid maternity leave. Among new mothers, 40 percent reported the recent birth was their first child. Study participants completed an interview survey at four, eight and 12 months postpartum.

Job security also plays an important role in decision-making. When it is high, workers are not distracted by worry or exhausted by strain. They are able to engage more fully in responsibilities within and outside of the workplace.

"Job security heightens motivation and energy, particularly for mothers who are sensitive to the security of their jobs after returning from maternity leave. When working mothers believe their tenure with an organization is not at risk, they will have more energy and other resources with which to fully engage and perform both at work and at home," added co-author Merideth Ferguson, PhD, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship.

Results suggest that employers may be able to promote beneficial outcomes through systematic attempts to increase the use of a working mother's skills by cross-training her for multiple functions. Mental and physical health play an important role in retaining working mothers and deserve attention, such as through employee assistance programs, support systems or more integrative work-life initiatives, Dr. Carlson stated.

"Although further research is needed, the results of this study indicate the impact of job characteristics on work-family relations that play a role in the mental and physical health and retention of working mothers as they make the pivotal transition back to work after childbirth," she said.

Also participating in the study were Emily Hunter, PhD, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Baylor, and Joseph Grzywacz, C. Randall Clinch and Thomas Arcury of Wake Forest School of Medicine.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.

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