09/17/2016 17:00 EDT | Updated 09/18/2017 01:12 EDT

Maternity leave: how to manage the time off, for workers and employers

Having a child can be one of life's most rewarding experiences — but it doesn't come without its challenges.

One hurdle for mothers can be the time they take off work and the uncertainties about how it will affect their career.

According to research conducted by Dr. Laura Hambley, the founder of Canada Career Counseling, 51 per cent of Canadian women felt their maternity leaves were not well managed, while 36 per cent said the leave had a negative impact on their career progression.

Common problems include being bumped down the seniority list, missing out on a promotion, or not having a job to come back to.

"I think it's an angst-ridden journey for a lot of moms," said Hambley. "They're off and they're away from work and they don't know what to expect when they return, and often times communication is cut off altogether."

Hambley sat down with guest host Andrew Chang on CBC's B.C. Almanac to discuss some of the challenges — and solutions — behind maternity leave.

Don't make assumptions

One of the biggest issues that Hambley has seen is that employers and employees tend to make assumptions right out of the gate.

"Each party is making assumptions — the employer is assuming the women may be less ambitious or less career-driven, or want to come back to a lesser degree, or may not come back at all," she said.

"Meanwhile, the mother is making assumptions that perhaps when she announces the pregnancy, or upcoming adoption, that the employer is going to react negatively.

"We kind of assume the worst case by either side."

According to Hambley, maternity leave is a taboo topic in the workplace, and employers are often reluctant to discuss it with employees — ultimately leading to these negative assumptions

Communication is key

"The employer needs to collaboratively work with the woman and communicate right from the get-go," said Hambley "And they need to look at maternity leave in three stages — before, during and after the leave.

"A return-to-work plan should be made so it's very clear what the woman is coming back to." 

Hambley also says that employers and employees should come up with a communication plan for the duration of the leave.

"Some women don't want to be communicated with at all," she said. "[While] others want to know when there's learning opportunities, when there's team-building events. They want to be kept in the loop."

​The discussion should run right through to a reintegration plan, highlighting how the worker will be onboarded after the leave. Hambley admits this can be a difficult task for businesses, who might have to downsize or scale back operations.

"Let's face it: a lot of things can happen in a year," she said.

Hambley says it's better to have an open and honest conversation on both ends. If the employer is in a position where business needs to scale back, let the worker know immediately. And if the worker decides she doesn't want to go back to her old job, she should show the employer the same courtesy.

With files from CBC's B.C. Almanac

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: What to expect when going back to work after taking maternity leave