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Tips for a smooth return to work after maternity leave

Dr Surina Chibber 3x2

Returning to work as a sessional GP after maternity leave can be an incredibly demanding time. You may feel guilty about returning to work, or you may be a little too excited by the prospect of having some adult conversation and a hot cup of tea for a change.

It can also be a huge challenge professionally, whether that is gaining back your clinical confidence, or planning childcare logistics. But with some initial domestic rejigging and the right support, you can reach some form of work-life balance that works for you and your family.

I’ve put together some tips shared by hardworking GP parents to help those of you facing a similar transition after maternity leave.

Try to overcome guilt. You may feel guilty about enjoying being back at work and having baby-free time or you may be riddled with guilt about leaving the baby to return to work. Accept that this is a period of transition, it is so much harder being a working parent due to the added responsibilities that it entails. Life will become a constant juggle and it is important to give yourself recognition and credit for all of the roles that you undertake. With some preparation and planning you can reach your family’s ‘new normal’.

It’s all in the planning. Your return to work will likely involve more logistical planning than a duty doctor during a flu epidemic. Here’s some key pointers:

  • Childcare – I always get asked ‘when should I start looking into childcare options?’. Be mindful that it can take time to get a place in a nursery or find a good nanny that you gel with. Whether you opt for a nanny, nursery, childminder, partner or family member it is helpful to arrange your childcare options early on and consider having a period of ‘practice runs’. Also bear in mind most good nurseries and childminders have long waiting lists so it is worth initiating your search early. And consider starting childcare for at least a month or so before you return to make the transition easier.
  • Contingency – Consider what you will do if your child is sick or if you’re delayed at work. For my locum work I have found it useful to have phone numbers of other locums to help cover each other at short notice.
  • Plan your annual leave to allow regular breaks, book off birthdays and special anniversaries and have some dedicated family time to look forward to.
  • Plan your return so it’s not coinciding with switching to bottle feeds or weaning. Many new mums report finding it harder returning in the winter months when days are darker and there is an increased incidence of coughs and colds. You may want to consider this when thinking about your return start date. If you are a salaried GP you will have accrued annual leave over your maternity leave, so you can add this time off at the end of your maternity leave or spread it out over a few months so you have a shorter week in the beginning.

Get ahead with work-related admin. Consider ‘keep in touch days’ during your maternity leave to keep in the loop. This can be a great way of preparing for your return. Perhaps consider a phased return where you build up your sessions until you are back in the flow of work. Discuss with your practice about a phased return where you have longer appointment times initially or extra catch up slots. This is a great way of getting your clinical confidence back. 

Ensure your passwords, logins and smart card are all are set up and working prior to your return. Your practice manager can be a great support in helping with this. It is worth reviewing your appraisal and revalidation dates as well as ensuring your details are updated on the performers list. Don’t forget you will need to reactivate your indemnity/GMC registration.

Consider new ways of working. You may even find that your return to work opens up new opportunities like a local GP retainer role or more flexible working. It may help to discuss the option of working more child friendly hours. Make sure you allow plenty of time to think about your ideal working pattern and introduce the idea to work colleagues as early as possible in the process. When I first returned to work I worked regular Saturdays and arranged my weekday sessions between 10-2pm and evenings to coincide with my childcare options.

Be realistic. Think carefully about how many sessions you can actually manage – don’t overstretch yourself.

Master online tools. Use time effective podcasts and webinars whilst on the go to catch up on work related tasks such as CPD and clinical updates. Pulse Learning, My Locum Manager and Red Whale GP Update offer lots of webinars that you can tune into once the kids are in bed. Wine and CPD – what’s not to like? 

Get a checklist. If you are a locum, compile a checklist of necessary paperwork you’ll need to keep on top of. Have a system for logging all work, invoices, pension, receipts and expenses so that your tax return process is simplified. Find a good accountant and have a way of streamlining your sessional admin so you save those precious hours in the day. Online software like excel, Microsoft money or more bespoke software can help streamline all your locum and portfolio GP administration, saving you precious hours in the week.

Learn on the go. Try out apps from the App Store like Evernote and family planning apps. Pulse Learning has great videos that you can watch from home and gain knowledge and CPD. Red Whale GP Update offers a great update course which takes away the baby brain cobwebs and gets you ready for your return to work. You can also save a lot of time by bookmarking the BNF online link on your desktop to easily access drug doses and interactions.

Apps to record CPD points and capture learning so you can simplify your appraisal process also help. NICE CKS and Mimms offer great bites of up-to-date clinical information to get you up to speed with latest guidance. Your local First 5 group can be a great support. I recently had the pleasure of meeting the innovative NELGP Parents group in North East London (@NELGPParents) which offers huge support to local GP parents in the area.

Get support. Consider enlisting family and/or friends to help out with the initial transition back into work. Perhaps your partner could take leave during this time to make the process less daunting? Perhaps you want to reduce your sessions so you can juggle the early years of parenthood better? You may even want to use this time to explore new portfolio roles from CCG work to education roles that work around childcare and allow you to work from home. Sign up to the Pulse sessional newsletter to stay up to date and become part of a growing community of sessional GPs.

Remember you are aiming for a happy work-life balance rather than organised chaos! So ensure you look after yourself as much as you would the baby or your patients. Keep in touch with other working mums, develop your skills with additional courses and training and give yourself a pat on the back for being the multi-tasking maestro that is a working parent.

When I reflect on my initial return to work after having children I recognise what a steep learning curve it was. I have had my fair share of calls during a busy surgery to pick up my pyrexial toddler, sleepless nights battling teething only to have a full-on work schedule the next day. My biggest learning points in all this were to look after myself, set boundaries and work within my comfort zone. These simple tips have helped me to create something that resembles work-life balance, a career I enjoy and a little family that is one of my greatest achievements.

Dr Surina Chibber is a locum GP and co-founder of MyLocumManager