Study shows employer support softens reentry for new moms and their partners

Emotional support lowers mothers’ stress level and can give the whole team a lift

Merritt Melancon | Nov. 02, 2021

Illustration of a new mom being supported by coworkers and supporting coworkers

Takeaways

  • Employers who support new mothers when they return to work reduce the mothers’ stress level, as well as the stress level of their partners.
  • Survey results showed mothers felt emotionally supported when their supervisors and co-workers acknowledged the big life change and recognized their value to the organization.
  • The co-authors indicated supporting new moms can have the added benefit of lifting up the whole team at work.

Coming back to work after the birth of a child can be a stressful period of reentry, and not just for the new moms. Their partners feel the strain too.

New research from Terry College of Business management professor Laura Little shows that companies that support new moms when they return to work not only reduce their stress level but also the stress level of their partners.

“We were looking at how to best support mothers during this reentry period,” said Little, who also serves as the Synovus Director of the Institute for Leadership Advancement. “But what we found is that if organizations help mothers during this time, it’s not just the mothers who benefit. It also benefits their significant other and their significant other’s workplace.”

Little’s research paper, Mother’s Reentry: A Relative Contribution Perspective of Dual-Earner Parents’ Roles, Resources, and Outcomes, was published online by the Academy of Management Journal this past spring and will appear in print this winter.

Little worked with Courtney Masterson, assistant professor of management at the University of San Francisco, to survey new mothers and their partners before they left on parental leave, immediately after they returned and a third time a few weeks later.

Little and Masterson asked both mothers and their partners to rate their stress level at home, the level of support they felt at work, their level of family-work conflict, and their rates of deviant work behavior, such as being rude or snapping at co-workers.

New mothers who felt more supported in their workplaces reported lower stress levels, and their partners reported less stress as well.

If the partner received increased support at work, the research didn’t find that the benefits spread to the mother at home or in her workplace.

“We examined the parents as a team, and we made the argument that the mother was the critical team member during this time,” Little said. “That same support given to the father is not going to be as effective, because the father isn’t the critical member during reentry.”

Although there is some evidence that housework and child-rearing labor has become somewhat more distributed between parents over time, Little contended that the responsibility of caring for a newborn still falls much more heavily on the mother.

“Especially at that time when you have a new baby, it certainly relies more on the mother to meet the needs of the child,” Little said. “There are biological factors, like recovering from childbirth, but the mental fatigue, the scheduling, the physical fatigue — that stuff falls more heavily on the mother.”

Little said support provided to the mother will have the impact of lifting up the whole team — and their co-workers — because she’s the critical part of the family “team” at that point.

In their study, Little and Masterson defined the feeling of being supported as “perceived organizational support,” a clinical term representing feeling like their organization values their contributions and cares about their well-being. Mothers said they felt supported when their supervisors and co-workers recognized their important contributions to the organization; but also that they had just undergone a big change. When mothers didn’t feel supported, it was often that people ignored the challenges associated with having a new baby, Little added.

“Much of the support given was emotional support. Someone saying, ‘How can I be helpful to you?’ It involved making the mother feel cared about as a whole person, not just an employee.”

“There are things you can do as a direct supervisor to show that holistic support,” Little said. “Also, it’s important to recognize the far-reaching consequences of that support. It’s not just her. It’s her spouse, her co-workers. It can affect a lot of people.”


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