This time my maternity leave was quite different…
I was much less anxious about how to look after the tiny human and could enjoy the experience far more. On the flip side however, I had taken on a few projects which continued to simmer whilst on leave including launching the new e-learning programme for Intensive Care Medicine (e-ICM) and agreeing to edit a book. Simples I thought!…in reality not so much, when you factor in a non-sleeping baby who doesn’t like being put down, and looming deadlines for written work that kept appearing like tsunami waves. I also continued to run the FICM exam preparatory course which number 2 attended strapped to me at 10 weeks old. Madness. In some ways I regret not being able to switch off completely from work and just do “all things baby” as it definitely added an extra level of stress to an already simmering pot. But, on the other hand, I had been given some amazing opportunities that I didn’t want to say no to as those doors may not have opened for me again, and importantly for me it kept my brain ticking over too. This later point was actually invaluable when I eventually went back to work after 15 months as although I had been away from work, I still felt involved in it. My muscle memory came back quickly and thanks to all the extra bits I’d been doing in maternity leave my knowledge base was still pretty solid.
This time on my return I developed a return to work programme that was much more structured. I had a phased return over 3 weeks which included time being supernumerary and being able to float between learning opportunities to aid my development. I also spent time doubled up with other consultants so they could watch over me to make sure my practice was sound. My department is fantastic and very accommodating, and I had no qualms at all about asking for help from my colleagues.
Lesson 4 – Make sure you have return to work plan in place, and even a mentor to guide you through if you feel you need it, it really, really helps.
Two months after starting back I became pregnant again. I felt enormously guilty as I’d only just returned and knew it probably wouldn’t be long before I had to go off again. Not only did I have to factor in my performance at work, but also needed to consider the impact of looking after 2 young children as well, and all that that entails. I was therefore much more sensible this time about the process. I saw occupational health much earlier and was given lists that required much less geographical travel around the hospital. I moved my on calls forward as much as possible and took maternity leave from an earlier point. Whether it was because I did take things easier or maybe because it just wasn’t as severe this time, I wasn’t as debilitated as I had been the second time around.
Lesson 5 – You must look after yourself. Not only so that you can work well and safely, but also so you can continue to function within your family unit, as they need you too.
And so life with 3 boys (well, 4 if you count the big one) then began. What a roller coaster. Having 3 has definitely added far more complexity to life than I had anticipated. With my return to work now looming again, I have had to review the way that I will work and the number of projects that I have ongoing. My first port of call was my clinical lead to see if I could go less than full time (a first for me). By doing some little tweaks with my job plan such as working 3 session days, I have been able to free up some non-clinical days without dropping too many PAs. I have drafted another return to work plan where I plan to mirror what I had done previously – supernumerary time with training opportunities progressing to more independent practice. Very importantly, my first on-call won’t be until I’ve been back at work for several weeks.
There are some excellent return to work courses out there such as Giving Anaesthesia Safely (GAS) Again and a number of resources online from the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, RCoA and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges about the process and how make your return as successful as possible. Health Education England also have a huge amount of information online for trainees to support returning to training. Keeping in Touch days were also recommended to me by a colleague. These days are exactly what they say on the tin – an opportunity to return to work to refresh yourself prior to your formal return. Up to 10 days can be taken and can be used for clinical work, study days for courses, mandatory training or even team meetings. The time is also paid. “KIT” days must however be taken during your maternity leave and not in the period of accrued leave, which is added onto the end of maternity leave.
Something that I have found is that whilst there are increasing resources and processes for trainees returning to work, there is little out there for consultants. A lot of the information however can be applied to consultants, but it’s definitely an area that is less well catered for. Returning to work as a consultant following an absence of whatever kind does add a certain complexity to the situation. As a trainee, it’s perfectly normal to be supervised, to undergo assessment and to be critiqued, but this is not true of a consultant. There is a potential awkwardness about being “watched” again, or feeling able to ask what may be perceived as a stupid question. I am lucky to work in a great department with colleagues who I consider as friends, and have no “shame” about doing the above as I’m not worried about feeling judged by them. This may not be true for others however and I can see how difficult the transition to return to work for a consultant could potentially be. Women in ICM are drafting a return to work policy that will aid anyone returning to work for whatever reason in ICM, male or female. There is work to be done on this subject and hopefully this project will form part of that for ICM.
So in summary…
- Be kind to yourself – give yourself a break as the process of growing and raising a human is quite hard.
- Don’t bury your head in the sand if you need help for something.
- See your clinical lead (and occupational health if needed) early to discuss the future.
- Have a look at the online resources so that you have an idea about the due process.
- Make a (sensible) plan for your return.
- Above all, try to enjoy this time! It sometimes (most of the time) feels like a battlefield out there but it’s oh so worth it (when they’re asleep)!!
Sarah is deputy chair of the WICM and education sub-committees of the FICM. She is also course director for the FICM’s exam preparatory course.