should I stay in touch while I’m on maternity leave?

A reader writes:

I manage a team of 7, and I have worked hard the past 6 months to prepare for my 12 weeks of maternity leave. I feel like I’m leaving everyone in good hands and will a well-thought-out plan.

My question is, should I keep in contact while I’m on maternity leave? Or is it possible to disconnect my email from my phone and resurface in 12 weeks? Or should I have some sort of hybrid plan where I disconnect for the first few weeks and then say I’ll check in once a week, or have people call my cell if it’s urgent or something they can’t figure out.

What’s your advice in this situation?

It really depends on your job. There are lots of jobs where it’s possible to truly disconnect for the whole 12 weeks, and there are some where your own life will go more smoothly if you do check in occasionally.

The trick is in accurately assessing which one you have. People tend to fear that things will collapse if they don’t at least check in periodically, but in reality, this often isn’t the case. So try hard to be realistic about this … and because it’s such a common trap to fall into — thinking that you have to be in touch when in fact you don’t — start by erring on the side of assuming that you can stay fully out of contact.

That said, it’s also legitimate to think about your own comfort level. Will you feel better with the occasional check-in phone call, just so that you know that things aren’t collapsing or in crisis? If so, and if you can’t talk yourself out of it, it’s legitimate to make that part of your plan.

However, if you do decide to go with occasional check-in’s, ensure that they’ll be on your schedule, so that you’re not subject to random calls at home. You don’t want to have just laid down for the first sleep you’ve had in 24 hours and then get woken up by a phone call that could have waited. So have a system that prevents that. For instance, you can tell people to email anything that you truly must weigh in on to your personal email address, which you’ll check at least once a week. (And I’m saying your personal email address, because if you have to check your work email, you’ll get drawn into all kinds of things that you don’t need to get drawn into.)

Additionally, whatever you decide about your own degree of contact, make sure that you do a lot of planning before you leave. You want to make sure that all your staff members know what they should be accomplishing while you’re gone, that they know who will make decisions in your absence, and that the interim decision-maker has as much context as possible for issues that are likely to come up while you’re away. And if you are going to have some contact, you also want to be very clear about what things are important enough to interrupt your leave with — and give people specific examples of what would be and what wouldn’t be.

What other suggestions do people have?

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. Andrea

    Also, make sure you follow your company’s and your state’s rules regarding your leave. Mine utilizes disability for maternity leave, and the rules require you to not work under any circumstances while you are being paid through disability. Even an email or phone call that could be construed as working could count against you!

  2. Brook

    Rather than referring multiple people to my personal email, I’d make sure that my “Away” message referred urgent issues to one individual. Who then could act as gatekeeper and alert me to issues that truly required my attention.

    1. The Other Dawn

      I agree. OP definitely does not want seven different people making the decision as to what is considered important enough to call you at home about. What’s important to one person is very minor to another.

  3. Joey

    1. Check with your employer to see if there are any policies that affect you while on leave. Frequently companies don’t want you making contact while youre on this type of leave.
    2. And Id suggest designating a point of contact so that everyone can funnel all of their communication through that one person if for some reason they do need to call you.

  4. Pregnant

    Thanks Alison for the reply to my question and to the others that are weighing in on the topic. Its a very good point about the laws around my leave. I will be collecting short term disability during the time I’m on maternity so I will look into that.

    I have directed my team on who they will contact while I’m out for support and helped get those people trained to cover things. The projects that are in motion seem to be solid, so I believe they can continue on without me.

    I’m inclined to disconnect completely and tell my boss to email my personal email should something urgent arise. I do not want to even peak at work email while I’m out because it will suck me in.

    Keep the suggestions and tips coming.
    Thanks.

    1. Zee

      Congratulations on your upcoming baby’s birth! Best wishes and health to you all!

      Maybe at first you can disconnect completely. You probably won’t have any time or desire to check on work. But then maybe as you adjust and start to prepare to return to work, you can slowly start resurfacing on the scene with emails and taking urgent messages. I think it depends on your job, your situation, and you. It’s totally your choice.

    2. fposte

      Just to clarify–short-term disability is generally just an insurance policy, not a law thing,so there you’d check the terms of the specific policy/company (so don’t assume anything you find online generally will be true about your policy). As Elizabeth notes below, FMLA is the relevant law (I’m guessing from your leave time that you’re not in California, which has state laws conferring additional pregnancy leave), but your office may have specific policies to ensure that they don’t end up breaching the law.

    3. Jen M.

      I really think this is the very best approach for you. You will be very busy with your own concerns!

      Congrats and good luck!

  5. -X-

    I was on paternity leave for two weeks (not the the same as maternity leave in terms of demands on my body/time but perhaps relevant). And I did not have a designated backup person or replacement while away.

    Still, I kept in touch, spending 10-60 minutes a day on email or reading related to work and felt that was a good thing. It made it easier to jump back in. My colleagues knew not to wait for my input before decisions, but when their was time they’d get it. This was all a bonus – my boss didn’t expect it and there were a few days it was impossible. But it was good.

  6. -X-

    Of course if you don’t want to look at work email, I think that should be a new mother or father’s prerogative.

  7. Cat

    It’s routine in my office for moms to bring in the new baby for a visit about 2-3 months into leave (typical leave is 3-4 months, including tacking on vacation time). It kind of reminds everyone that they’re coming back, lets them catch back up on office news, and gives everyone a cooing break. I’m sure the amount of contact during leave varies wildly by mom, though.

  8. Elizabeth

    Ditto the “check the policy.” Our HR policy is that if you’re taking FMLA, your access to work is effectively shut off. We disable your access to sign onto the network (so no email), and the phone guy sets your line to go directly to voicemail. HR then requires the employee to give 2 business days notice that they will be returning to work, so that the IT team & phone guy can restore access. The email is all there waiting when you get back, as is all of the voicemail. (I was out for a month’s medical leave in June, and I came back to over 1K emails and 4 voicemails.)

    The reason for this is that we got fined by the US Dept of Labor for having people work while they were on leave, especially maternity leave. We had women who were higher in the organization on the finance side who were contacted by their boss’ about “can you log in and take care of {X}”, when {X} was something that their subordinates were perfectly capable of taking care of, had the boss thought to ask before assuming they needed the person on leave.

  9. TL

    When one of my coworkers went on maternity leave, we got a “do not contact her – if there is something urgent, really urgent, you may send one email. Do not phone her. She is on leave, so leave her alone.” from our boss. (We emailed her once, and she never responded, and that was absolutely fine.) Definitely check, because in my case, the boss would’ve gotten in trouble for us contacting her for work stuff.

  10. lindsay

    I’ve recently completed covering for someone on maternity leave. What we did was if I really needed assistance with something (and bounced it off our supervisor first for her opinion), I’d email her with the subject line “Please Read: xxxx.” She’d know it was important and not just routine mail, so when she did check in within a few days, she’d know to look at it. It usually was for her advice on a situation, and I tried to keep it as hands-0ff as possible for her. I only emailed her 3-4 times while she was gone, and not until after 6-8 weeks.

  11. KellyK

    Wow, I didn’t realize you could be fined for having people work while out on FMLA leave. Good information. Is it because they’re on unpaid leave, so having them work during that leave is unpaid work, or is it something else?

    My understanding was that you could take FMLA time in less than full-day increments, so would that be an option for someone whose job requires check-ins or where emergencies come up? That is, plan for a couple hours of email checking each week and get paid normally for those hours, and use less FMLA time.

    1. Joey

      If they call in or do other work during a period of approved fmla they could claim that they were required to work and you are interfering with their protected fmla leave. And most short term disability programs require the leave to be uninterrupted.

      1. KellyK

        Ah, okay. That makes sense. So if you were going to do some sort of partial-time arrangement, you’d really want it spelled out in writing ahead of time to verify that you weren’t interfering with protected leave *AND* they’d have to either have a short-term disability program that allowed it or they’d have to take the time unpaid. With all that, I can see it being more trouble than it’s worth.

    2. fposte

      I think the theory is that the government is guaranteeing you leave , and if they allowed employers to request work from you that time, then it’s not leave. It seems benign when you’re thinking a new mother who’d kill for a little adult conversation, but if you’re home sick from abdominal surgery, you don’t want your boss to be able to insist you create piles of spreadsheets.

  12. Pregnant

    Great insight all. I am on FMLA for the 12 weeks with a short term disability policy. I tried to call my HR but his mailbox is full. Go figure!

    I did a trial a few months back during my vacation where I shut off completely. It isn’t like me but I was leaving the country and thought it was good practice.

    All was very well taken care of when I returned. I’m hoping the same goes when I’m in maternity.

    Keep the suggestions coming!

  13. Gretchen

    I can’t tell from other’s replies if they have actually been out on maternity leave but I’ll throw in my two cents as a mom whose been through two maternity leaves. The first couple weeks with a newborn are exhausting. Mind numbingly exhausting. Honestly, both times I really didn’t think about work for the first couple of weeks and I am normally connected to my blackberry. If you go with some sort of hybrid arrangement where you check in periodically I wouldn’t plan it until about 6 weeks out. And honestly, it sounds like you are well prepared have a great team – allow them to step up and show you what they can do. Very very few work “emergencies” are actually “emergencies” 12 weeks is a very short time, enjoy it work free. Trust me that there will be many many days when you can multitask working with being a mom, I wouldn’t start before you had to! Good Luck!

    1. Duv

      I totally agree!! I just got back from my last maternity leave in August. While being home is nice, I couldn’t imagine having to take care of my three kids and answer work questions in between. Enjoy the time with your baby and don’t worry about work. It will be there when you get back.

    2. snippet

      Another mom here – I went through two maternity leaves (12 weeks FMLA each time) within two years. Don’t check in. Maternity leave (it’s a joke that it’s even called that – but that’s a topic for another time!) is short enough as it is. And you will be exhausted!

      It sounds like you’ve done a great job preparing everyone for your absence. Don’t check in. Stop in after 8-10 weeks to show off the baby, and you can get a quick update then. :) Also, everyone is right about the legal issues with FMLA, you and the company could “get in trouble” if you are working while on disability/leave.

      In the meantime, enjoy your new baby! Good luck!

    3. Working Mom

      I’ve been back to work for three months, and in addition to what’s been said, I’d offer this:

      –Unsubscribe from any non-essential email lists.
      –Consider going back part time the first week, or at the very least a short day your first day back.
      –Seconding the advice from Gretchen that the first few weeks I didn’t even think about work for a second, let alone check in on things.

      Best of luck!

  14. KayDay

    I’ve only had one co-worker ever take maternity leave, and I was told (by a different senior staffer) that we were not allowed to contact her and she was not allowed to check in due to the disability rules.

    Honestly, we had no desire to interrupt her maternity leave. (She did bring the baby by after about 8 weeks, and that was the only time we spoke with her). However, when she was about to return from leave, it was kind of a pain that she could not simply read over emails/docs regarding projects she was involved in–it would have been nice if we had been able to “re-integrate” and brief her about the projects slowly, instead of going from completely un-involved to managing a project in 1 day. (She was a manager, so there were projects she was in charge of that had been begun by a subordinate while she was out.)

    I’ve never had a baby, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but if it were me, I would asked not to be contacted until 1 or 2 weeks before I return. And then I would ask to use vacation or something for the last week or two so that I could check in and slowly re-integrate myself into projects. But that’s just my personal working style, and I understand that some people would prefer to be completely unplugged until the day they return.

    1. Blinx

      I agree, it would be beneficial if there were a transition period regarding leaves. Even for medical leaves, if you’re recovering from a major illness or surgery, some companies will not let you return until you are able to work the full 40 hours. It might be easier on the patient to transition with half days or half weeks, but not possible if the company has an “all or nothing” policy.

  15. Anonymous

    There is something that bugs me about having to use short term disability for maternity leave. It just sounds off. Know what I mean?

    1. NewReader

      I guess the thinking on that was it was easier to make pregnancy a disability than it was to make a whole new category for maternity leave and cram that new category into an existing system.

      But you’re right. It boggles the mind. Having a baby is a disability???

      1. Anonymous

        Well, in a strict sense, it ‘disables’ you from working. If you can have a baby and work on the same day, more power to you…

        1. Guesty

          I think the theory is that late-stage pregnancy and childbirth are very tough on the body, physically, and that will preclude a person from working.

          1. Rana

            True. Though that then makes it tricky to extend that justification for paternity leave, or for maternity leave past the initial recovery period.

  16. Suz

    I recommend having a backup plan in case the baby comes early. I recently covered for a coworker’s maternity leave. We thought did a good job preparing for it. But the baby came 2 weeks early and all the last minute things she was going to wrap up didn’t get completed. It made the 1st few weeks of covering for her pretty chaotic.

    1. Anonymous

      This. My coworker gave birth so early that she ended up returning around the time she was originally scheduled to start maternity leave.

  17. May

    I was on maternity leave for 6 months and was able to be completely disconnected. While everything work-wise was covered, I think it would’ve been smarter for me to initiate some contact just to stay on the radar. There were a lot of changes that happened while I was out to our program and staffing, and it would’ve made the transition back easier if I was kept abreast of some of this stuff as it happened rather than coming back to everything 6 months later.

  18. Hello Vino

    I’ve always thought that disconnecting completely at least in the very beginning is a good idea. That way, you can initiate the check ins when it works best for you, and your coworkers won’t assume that you’re always there to answer questions immediately. Also, it might be helpful to make the check ins more frequent toward the end of your leave to ensure that you’re up to speed on everything before you’re back in the office.

    That’s the approach my manager took when she went on maternity leave. It worked extremely well for both sides, and she was all set to jump right back in after her leave.

  19. KP

    My supervisor took maternity leave once and she did the occasional check-in (non-work related of course). She sent a few baby pics to the other supervisors/managers who then forwarded it along to the team.

    I thought that was a nice way of staying in touch, and I think it’s especially important to do so when you are in a leadership role. If you were just an office worker, then who really cares, you might send pics to a few of the people you are close to but not the whole team. I think keeping in touch with your team, especially when it’s a small team is better than just showing up out of nowhere after 12 weeks.

  20. YALM

    I echo the suggestions that you unplug from work. Keep in touch socially as you want to with pictures and stories, but try to stay away from work for the bulk of your leave. A week or so before you come back is a good time to check in for serious work conversations so you can get a feel for what’s going on.

    The best thing you can do for yourself and your team is to have work as prepped as possible for when you’re out. And hopefully you have a point person on your team who you trust to drive the work and be the main point of contact in your place. If there’s a crisis, that person can contact you. But I wouldn’t set the expectation that you’ll check in once a week after a certain time, or that you’ll be checking email with regularity. No matter how well-intentioned everyone is, it invites invasion into your personal time, time you’ll need with your newborn and time you’ll need for rest.

    Maybe you’re just not wired that way, or maybe your workplace is too chaotic, but you indicated that you had good results when you unplugged for a vacation. I’ve never completely unplugged for a long time, but I’m working on changing that, incrementally, with each time out. The more I unplug, the better I feel when I’m out and when I get back. No one solution works for everyone, but the bulk of advice I read and hear is to cut work off and focus on what’s most important outside of the office. I’m finding a lot of truth in it, and I saw it work well for my team lead who was out on maternity leave earlier this year.

    Just my two cents…

  21. Frenchie

    I was out for 8 weeks with my first child and 12 with my second. The company disconnected my email both times which alleviated any temptation to stay connected online. Between lack of sleep and difficult deliveries I was too tired to consider working. I organized everything before my leave and people managed just fine without me. As I recall my leave started two weeks prior to my due date but there was a meeting I wanted to participate in. Bad move as I was in a car accident on the way to the meeting. I wasn’t injured but EMTs and healthcare professions don’t mess around when it comes to pregnant women and accidents. I was required to be transported by ambulance to the hospital and remained there for a few hours to be monitored. My son had to be induced two weeks later. A month into my leave my mgr had an offsite staff meeting and asked me to attend. I went with my son who slept most of the time. I am definitely in the camp that you should be disconnected and take advantage of this very special time to bond with your child.

  22. Andrew

    The OP needs to be careful with how this is handled. There is pretty clear guidance on FMLA interference and how much/often an employer can contact an employee who is on FMLA leave. If the OP initiates this contact, and the employer begins to take advantage of the situation, the OP may have inadvertently curtailed her own rights under FMLA.

  23. Catbertismy hero

    We average 3 babies a year in our office. Since I am responsible for HR, we require no contact during short-term disability, since any work potentially restarts the clock. This was crucial for one person who went into long-term disability due to complications. We also encourage new mothers to use the full FMLA period if they can afford it, and to ease back into the office either part-time or telecommuting (or both) for the first few weeks back. Unfortunately we cannot afford to pay for maternity/paternity leave; however, our vacation/sick policies are generous enough to cover most of the FMLA time with good planning.

  24. Jill

    A lot of answers here are assuming that your job is your #1 priority. Is it? Maternity leave is supposed to be a time to bond with your new baby, get your household into the routine of having a baby around, and mostly help mom heal from the labor and delivery process.

    OP needs to ponder which is her priority. If it’s bonding/recover/spending 1-1 time with baby….then I think she’s done the right thing by preparing her staff well in advance. Checking in and worrying about work too much will defeat the purpose of maternity leave. I say disconnect and check in about a week before you’re due to go back.

    1. Jamie

      I think it’s good to disconnect – and like many others checking in for work wouldn’t even be optional for us if we were using FMLA or the short term disability. Email/phone disabled until your return.

      But I wonder if it’s the OP’s first baby. I know with my first I really loved the whole nesting process and getting everything ready, but nothing prepared me for the mental flip that happened once the baby was born. He was my entire focus – nothing else outside of him mattered for quite some time and had I been working I know I would have gone into it thinking I could remote from home and then not giving a crap about anything at the office once he arrived.

      That doesn’t last forever – but especially first babies really cause a reconfiguration of your entire life and I hope you give yourself permission to indulge and adjust to the changes while on maternity.

      Just as not to offend – I am not saying all women react the same way, nor am I saying it’s wrong if you are up to working sooner. There is no right or wrong in this – there is only finding out what is right for you and your family. But my experience isn’t uncommon so I thought I would mention it.

      Good luck – and congratulations on the new baby.

      1. khilde

        First time mothers have no idea what’s about to hit them. “Mental flip” is exactly the right phrase to use! Whatever you *think* you will do once baby comes probably will not work out as planned. I echo what most have said and just say sayonara for the maternity leave. You can’t get that time back.

  25. Grace

    Unplug if you can!

    On my maternity leave, I was kind of a mess. Or at least, I didn’t feel like I could accomplish much of anything, outside of watching reruns of The West Wing while breastfeeding. The pre-baby visions I had of multi-tasking never happened. There was no doing dishes while baby snuggled against me in the Bjorn, and there was no joining a conference call while baby cooed in her swing. Now granted, my child had serious colic, and if she wasn’t being fed or walked, she screamed – for 12 weeks.

    But at the same time, this is a great opportunity to bond with your newborn, take long strolls in the autumn weather, take insane amounts of pictures, and wear your comfy clothes all day long!

  26. JLH

    Do not follow up at work on your maternity leave. Your job for the little (probably unpaid) time for that is to get to know and nurture your child, a brand-new human. Do whatever you (reasonably) can do to prepare your staff for your absence, and have the bulk of it done a month before your due date (it’s not uncommon to go into labor at 37 weeks.)

  27. andrea

    Absolutely yes. I left for my maternity leave and an employee took the opportunity to steal time and do a variety of things that I had no idea. Bottom line is if there’s opportunity some people will take advantage and undermine all the hard work you had the team achieve up to that point. Sheesh.

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