Andrea Mara

Official website

Interview & return to work tips from coach Sarah Courtney – and a giveaway

As a coach I act as a mirror to reflect what you are saying to yourself. I am your ally but I am totally independent so I’m not going to tell you what to do the way a friend or family member would. I have no agenda”

Office Mum interview: photo of Sarah Courtney

Sarah Courtney is a Life & Business Coach, with a 15 year career in Human Resources within the Banking and IT sector. A graduate of UCD and the Irish LifeCoach Institute, Sarah is passionate about the contribution coaching can make to individuals in their day to day lives and to the bottom line of business.  Sarah is mom to Kate, a gorgeous and bossy two year old.

She takes time out here to talk about the challenges facing mothers returning to work after maternity leave, about coaching, and provides some great tips for going back to work.

Sarah, could you tell me a little about yourself and how came to start your own business – was your decision based to some extent around your own work / life balance, after you had your daughter?

I worked in HR for 15 years in a variety of roles, through boom time years in London and through tougher years in Dublin, so I feel I have seen a lot of the challenges people go through professionally. Through all the changes, one of the constants has been the pressure people are under to keep work and home life going and even beyond that, to actually enjoy the journey.

After I had my daughter I had what was on a paper the ideal work/life balance, a part-time job which allowed me plenty of time at home. But the reality was different. My husband travels a lot for work and the pressure of managing childcare with a part-time job that really needed full-time attention became too much.

I had qualified as a coach, and I just knew that the world of coaching was something I had to pursue. It encompasses who I am and I felt like I had a new lease of life. When I set up the business I wrote down my vision which was do work that was of value to others, that I am good at, that allows me to be really present in my family life and that generates a great income. I figured it was best to aim high! I want to be there for the school run when Kate goes to school and everything I am doing now is to make that a realistic option, while still allowing me to fulfil my professional goals.

Many people who write articles about work/ life balance are in situations where they have achieved that – because they are freelance writers or business owners. But many people reading are those of us who work in typical corporate or location-bound jobs. Do you think that balance is achievable for everyone, regardless of the type of work they do?

Absolutely. Because for me, work/life balance is about a state of mind.

When we are aware of the choices we are making and their consequences (good or bad) and we start to make decisions from a place of power or consciousness than a place of fear, we stop wasting energy wishing things were different and we start to focus on what we have, what is working for us in our lives, not what we are lacking.

If we choose to think about it, we can always find something positive in a job, even if we feel stuck. We can appreciate working with nice people, we can believe in the product or service, we can see the value in the pay cheque that allows little treats. The reality is that everyone has financial pressures, family constraints and professional responsibilities and no two people’s situations are the same.

What one person might find overwhelming another person might think is a walk in the park. We’re all individual and approach things differently so there’s no right or wrong.  Work/life balance is simply about exploring what needs to change in order to go from feeling panicked, frustrated or resentful to feeling empowered. Sometimes that can be through making very simple changes, it’s extraordinary what a change of mind-set can do.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by parents who work outside the home?

Many! And I think most working parents do an amazing job. I also think the challenges faced very much depend on whether it is a choice to work outside the home or not. But assuming it’s a choice, challenges include the feeling of being on a hamster wheel, simply getting through the day and finding the energy to do it all again tomorrow.

“Being focused on work when you’re at work, and home when you’re at home, and trying to maintain a boundary that allows you to feel you’re doing well at both”

Finding a balance that works for you with your partner where both feel supported & valued and neither feel resentful. Juggling finances, especially in the crèche/childminder years. Maintaining a sense of who you are in everything you are doing. Of course you are a parent, partner and worker, but you’re also an individual and sometimes that sense of self can be lost in all the chaos. And most importantly, making sure that you are enjoying your life, not just getting through.

And specifically, what difficulties do mothers face when going back to work after maternity leave?

If you’ve had six+ months out of the workplace, and given the pace of change in companies now, many women feel low in confidence going back to work. Some are looking forward to putting the suit on again, but others feel guilty about leaving their child and have to contend with that. They may have had very little contact with their employer while on maternity leave, their role may have changed, there may be new colleagues to work with and she may feel a bit left behind as a result. Equally she might also feel driven to deliver as she did before she had the baby. Some may feel judgement from friends or family about her decision to continue her career.

“In my experience, it’s the mum that gets called by the crèche when the baby is sick so whereas before she may have worked any number of hours, she now has the pressure of being there for pick up and last minute dashes to the childminders”

She also potentially faces perception issues i.e. what will it look like if I get up at 5pm and leave when everyone else is still working? Will I still be in line for promotion? Do they take me seriously? What if they ask me to travel overnight? Some women request reduced hours and when this is facilitated by employers, they often feel so grateful that they will never say when the job is really full-time as they don’t want to rock the boat. I know women that literally never refer to their children at work because they don’t want the fact that they are a mother to be an issue.

Can you tell me more about the coaching that you provide?

Coaching is about creating awareness of what we are thinking and how these thoughts are influencing our decisions. As a coach I act as a mirror to reflect what you are saying to yourself. I am your ally but I am totally independent so I’m not going to tell you what to do the way a friend or family member would. I have no agenda. I work with you to help you understand what will work for you.

A lot of us are on auto-pilot meaning we are making choices unconsciously or out of habit. Now auto-pilot is an essential function, no one needs to re-learn every day how to change a nappy or drive to work, but choices made on auto-pilot can lead to outcomes that you don’t want. To make changes and to get what you want, you must make different choices and that is my role as your coach.

Are there things that mothers can do in the run up to returning to work, to make it easier?

There’s lot’s that can be done, the goal is to take the fear out of returning to work so that you can start looking forward to it and focus your attention on the positives

  1. Before you even go on maternity leave, agree with your manager what level of contact you would like to have, if any, this will differ for everyone. For larger organisations that have things like newsletters, make sure that they send these out to you and that they let you know when the Christmas/Summer party is going to be. Find a nice dress and go!
  2. Plan your childcare arrangements early. It’s never too early to get this sorted. Knowing who will be minding your baby and feeling you can trust them makes things so much easier.
  3. Have back up. Where possible have some sort of plan B for when your baby gets sick. Inevitably coughs  & colds will kick off once your baby starts going to crèche so remove the stress that happens when you get that crèche phone call by having back up. If back up isn’t possible have the conversation with your partner, and if necessary your employer, about what flexibility may be needed e.g. working the odd time from home, taking last minute annual leave etc.
  4. Involve your partner. You’re a team and you returning to work means your family dynamic is about to change. Don’t feel like you have to take on all the responsibility by yourself. Talk to your partner about your concerns and agree together how you will get through them.
  5. Make contact with your employer prior to returning, pop in to catch up with colleagues, do something to help you get a feel for what’s been happening while you’ve been gone. If there are any significant changes to your role, organise a 1:1 with your manager so that you can start to understand your new responsibilities. This gives you the advantage of mulling things over before you get back to work. I would also recommend that when you are back to work, you schedule another 1:1 about a month in, to get some feedback and to chat through how things are going. Communication can help iron out potential problems.
  6. Think about going back to work on a phased basis, maybe 2 or 3 days the first week and gradually build up. Easing gently into your new lifestyle can help.
  7. Get into a positive frame of mind. Simple things like affirmations can really help if you feel nervous about returning to work. Start a couple of months before you go back saying “Going back to work is a great success and my baby is safe and well”. After a while you will start to believe it! List the advantages that going back to work will bring you and your family. Writing things down makes it real. List your concerns as well and how you are going to address them.
  8. Plan a reward. After you’re back at work a month, plan to do something nice. You’ve achieved a lot and you deserve some recognition. It could be a bit of ‘me’ time, it could be a nice meal with your partner, or some fun family time. Whatever it is, agree when it will happen before you go back, have it up on your calendar and look forward to treating yourself.

Would you have any advice for mothers thinking about stepping away from a stable job to follow a passion?

They say that doing what you love means you’ll never work a day in your life. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that doing something you believe in and that is meaningful to others is incredibly rewarding, even if it comes with the constraints and responsibilities of a job. It is a scary thing to do and you need to have the courage of your convictions to get through the days when you’re having a wobble and wondering why you were mad enough to leave the stable job. But, if you do your research, do your numbers, understand the pitfalls and the consequences of making the change, have the support of your family and go into it with your eyes open, I don’t think you will ever regret following a passion.

I couldn’t have followed my passion without 100% support from my husband and for that I am truly grateful. While I wouldn’t focus on a negative, it can be practical to have a backup plan if it doesn’t work out.  My rule of thumb when making decisions is if it takes me towards achieving my vision then I go for it, if not I don’t.

Thank you Sarah for taking part in this interview. So much of what you said here and when we met resonated with me. I was particularly struck by what you said about auto-pilot – about how we need it to an extent, but may be making decisions on auto-pilot too. The riskier, more daunting decision is to make a change, but ultimately, if we’re not happy with what we’re doing, the right change will be more rewarding. And I love what you said about looking at each decision to see if it brings you towards achieving your vision or not – that will be a take-away for me. Thank you again, and I wish you every success in your new business!

Giveaway time!

If you’d like to have one free career-coaching session with Sarah, just comment below, or comment on the Office Mum Facebook page to say that you’re interested.

Sarah can provide coaching in person (in a mutually agreeable location) or via Skype if preferred/ if you’re outside Dublin.

Having met Sarah, I can say that she’s passionate about what she does, and very inspiring. So if you have niggling thoughts of making changes, or would just like to validate what you’re currently doing, a coaching session might be for you.

The competition will close on Tuesday June 3rd.

You can find out more about Sarah, or contact her directly, via Linkedin.

Winner: Edel B who commented here. Congratulations Edel!






Click the button below to sign up to my Penguin newsletter.