Managing rumination + keeping healthy habits when you’re consumed with problems at work

This is the transcript of episode 83 of COMEBACK COACH, the podcast for people returning to work after a break.

Hello Bright Minds, I’m Jessica Chivers a coaching psychologist, the author of “Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work” and founder of The Talent Keeper Specialists. I’m also the developer of the Comeback Community employee experience designed to keep employees feeling confident, connected and cared for when they take any kind of extended leave from work.

This short “JUST JESSICA EPISODE” is about managing rumination, how to keep healthy habits going when you’re consumed by work and the psychology of mindful meditation. It’s inspired by a particular coaching conversation I had one Tuesday a few weeks ago. I put these episodes together myself without the lovely Chris cleaning up bumps in the sound or adding in the swanky intro and outro and I hope you get something from it. If you do, I’d love it if you shared it with someone else who you think might like it too.


What’s gone well since last time we worked together?

I start all but the first coaching session with my coachees by asking “what’s gone well since the last time we worked together?” There’s some psychology behind this question that comes from the work of social psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson. She developed the Broaden & Build theory which says that positive emotions do much more than cause us happiness, joy, and contentment in the moments we experience them. They also broaden our behaviours (or what she calls “thought-action repertoires” which basically means the range of behaviours we can perceive and subsequently decide to take). The more positive emotions we experience, the wider the range of thought-action repertoires we have – in other words, the happier we are, the more flexible and creative we are in the way that we work.

Imagine a communications manager who’s worried about redundancy. She’s unlikely to come up with daring, innovative, award-winning comms because she’s focused on safety and survival, and not much else.

On the other hand, if we’re feeling good, our broadened behaviours help us build rich work-related knowledge, skills and abilities which Professor Fredrickson refers to as personal, physical, intellectual, social, and psychological resources. These broadened resources outlast the good feelings that initially helped generate them and they also help us cope better with difficult situations.

So by opening coaching sessions by asking “What’s gone well?” since last time I’m aiming to generate positive feelings. It’s also why we encourage coachees to reflect daily or weekly on this same question using the beautiful WGW journal we include in their Welcome Back Box that greets them when they return to work.

Coaching Charlie who was consumed by work problems

One coachee, let’s call her Charlie, answered the WGW question recently by telling me how she’d got through an uncomfortable time at work managing two people out of her team and was pleased that she’d handled it professionally and with as much care and compassion as she could. Although this was a story about what had gone well, she described how her mind had been completely consumed by the situation. This left her less able to get on with business activities in the way she normally would, distracted at home and enduring broken sleep. Our conversation happened a few days after both individuals had left the business and she was feeling enormous relief, was sleeping better and had got a shedload of work tasks ticked off in the two days since they’d gone.

In coaching time Charlie reflected that she hadn’t realised until after the team members had left just how consumed she’d been with the situation and the effect it was having on her. By consumed I mean constantly thinking about the situation, or ruminating, not working on the activities associated with managing the situation.

Here’s what else was happening to Charlie:

• Not exercising
• Drinking alcohol midweek
• Not eating breakfast or lunch
• Fuelling herself with coffee
• Being distracted and distant at home
• Falling asleep on the settee at 7pm
• Waking up in the night
• An aching, tired body

The problem was, Charlie wasn’t noticing these things. And without awareness you can’t change things. The things are a mixture of causes and symptoms (some are both) and taken together these will have put even more load on Charlie’s mind and body on top of the emotional stress of having to performance manage two team member out of the business.

I wondered whether having a ‘healthy habits’ checklist that Charlie runs through at the end of each day – irrespective of whether she feels she’s having a hard time at work – could be useful to help her in the future. My thinking is that if she gets into the habit of checking in with herself every day, she’ll spot warning signs earlier and be able to course correct.

Daily Check-In Tool

So Dear Bright Minds I put together a DAILY CHECK-IN tool and whizzed it over to Charlie for her feedback and she thought it would be helpful, so here I am sharing it with you. If what I’ve described at Charlie’s situation resonates or you’re simply curious, head to to get a copy you can print and use.

Now let’s say a bit more about what rumination is and how to deal with it, because rumination is a problem behaviour in itself.

Before I do, if you’re listening to this before 21st May 2024 you’re in time to join our live Q&A with clinical psychologist Michaela Thomas on HOW TO LIVE WELL WITH ANXIETY AND OTHER MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES. We call these live live Q&As ‘Comeback Conversations’ because they’re informal chats with experts on topics of interest to people coming back to work from a break. They’re part of our Comeback Community employee experience programme that we deliver in some great workplaces to keep their people feeling confident, connected and cared for when they take any kind of extended leave from work. Once our clients have had first dibs we open spare spots to all absolutely free. Incidentally, you can also hear Michaela on episode 81 talking about perfectionism, ADHD and keeping resentment at bay when partners becoming parents in the context of her experience of returning to work from maternity leave firstly as a clinical psychologist in the NHS and then after her second maternity leave, working for herself.

Greg Siegle is a Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Translational Sciences at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and he’s spent 25 years exploring rumination. That’s a lot of thinking about thinking.


Rumination is defined in the Oxford dictionary as thinking deeply about something. I like to ruminate, may you do too. But the concept of ruminating doesn’t have particularly positive connotations – we tend to think of it as a problematic behaviour. And rumination becomes a problem when you’d like to stop thinking about something but you can’t. You might be familiar with replaying an embarrassing or hurtful conversation in your head, mentally dissecting what happened, considering what the consequences might be, why you didn’t do things differently and just going round and round in this horrible loop that takes you nowhere and leaves you feeling sh1t quite frankly and totally drained.

There’s a collection of areas of the brain that have been labelled the Default Mode Network which neuroscientists have found are active when we’re awake but not directing our attention to anything in particular. For example when we’re sitting on a train gazing out of the window day-dreaming. The flipside is when we’re concentrating on something specific such as giving someone directions or explaining to a colleague what to include in a client report, the Default Mode Network is less active.

And why do I tell you this? Well the Default Mode Network has been found to be more active in people who are prone to unhelpful rumination – and by that I mean rumination that gets in the way of daily tasks, our ability to concentrate, connect with others or to experience positive emotions. People who have a clinical diagnosis of depression are likely to have higher levels of DMN activity.


Distraction as antidote to rumination

So what’s the answer? Well according to our friend Professor Siegle from the university of Pittsburgh its DISTRACTION. Distraction is the number one way to move ourselves on from unhelpful rumination he said in the New York Times earlier this year and there’s good evidence for that. And that makes sense because when we’re actively engaged in a task that needs a lot of concentration we’ve reduced the activity of the Default Mode Network, that functional collection of areas in the brain that’s more active when we’re ruminating. Still with me? I hope so.
Right, let’s talk about meditation and how that links to all this. Meditation has been shown to reduce the activity of the Default Mode Network and to be a super helpful way to reduce rumination. Meditation exercises are essentially ways to focus very specifically on the here and now. In mindfulness meditation, we’re learning how to pay attention to the breath as it goes in and out and notice when the mind wanders. This practice of returning to the breath builds our ability to concentrate as well giving us a break from whatever has been racing around our minds. I also like using meditation mantras from the kundalini yoga tradition and I’ve included links to a couple of tracks I find myself returning to time and again.

I’ve put a link in the show notes to a very readable yet packed-with-research references link to an article about meditation and the DMN on the Mindfulness Association’s website.

As with all the episodes of COMEBACK COACH I hope you got something from what I shared today and if it’s left you with questions or wanting to make a comment please do come and talk to me. You can reach me by e-mail or on Instagram using the handle @comebackcommuk.

Comeback Community employee experience

COMEBACK COACH is one part of a broader package of support that we call the Comeback Community employee experience. It’s a blend of online resources, coaching, live expert Q&As, career development tools and line manager support that we deliver in organisations such as CIPD, Lily’s Kitchen, GAM Investments, Federated Hermes, FDM and more. You dear Bright Mind are the best possible person to help make the return to work experience where you work, a better one. There’s a simple, straightforward and quick way you can help us to start a conversation with your HR team. Just visit, fill a few boxes and leave the rest to us.

Until next time,
Stay Bright.

Psychology of, and coaching through, redundancy

Redundancy and how our sense of psychological safety is affected be being ‘at risk’ of redundancy is top of mind this week. The Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023 comes into effect on Friday 6th April.

My thanks to for the following people for their contributions in this piece:

  • Dr Maddy Stevens, Reader in Organisation Transformation, Liverpool John Moores University.
  • Brian Ballantyne, guest on episode 82 of COMEBACK COACH, reflecting on his experience of being made redundant.
  • Suzette Squires, employment lawyers and Partner at Synchrony Law.


The psychology of redundancy - photos of Suzette Squire, Brian Ballantyne and Dr Maddy Stevens

The Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023

Get the lowdown in this quick snippet from my briefing with employment law and Partner at Synchrony Law, Suzette Squires.

COMEBACK COACH – Episode 82 – An uplifting response to redundancy

The latest episode of our podcast, COMEBACK COACH is an uplifting story of how Brian Ballantyne, an ex-Amazon employee, approached gardening leave and his struggle to secure a new role. You’ll also hear Brian in a coaching session with me as we work through how he’s feeling at the half way point of his leave. Redundancy is something we don’t speak enough about yet most of us will experience it. Brian offers such a hopeful lens on a difficult time and you can listen in full on Apple, Spotify and our website.



How psychological Safety is affected by being at risk of redundancy

Redundancy is an experience that seriously impacts a person’s sense of psychological safety and last year I read an excellent piece in The Psychologist – that’s the magazine for members of one of my professional bodies, The British Psychological Society – about the psychological consequences of redundancy. Dr Madeline Stevens wrote the piece and she’s a Reader in Organisational Transformation who teaches on the Human Resource Management programme at Liverpool John Moores University. In the piece she talks about the impact of redundancy announcements in the context of Timothy Clarks’ four stages of psychological safety. Here’s an extract that I hope is useful to as someone who might be going through the redundancy process:

Redundancies impact people at the basic level of physiological needs such as food, water, warmth and rest. It’s a significant psychological shock. The moment an employee is informed that their role is at risk of redundancy the fight or flight stress response will manifest with the release of hormones that will increase the heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing. The impact is immediate and does not only realise if and when an employee loses their job. Employers therefore need to adopt a more proactive approach in how they manage the implementation of redundancies, actively working to re-establish employee levels of psychological safety. The detection point of jeopardy for employers should be that being ‘at risk of redundancy’ alone has a severely negative psychological impact on individuals. I consider the impact of redundancy announcements in the context of Timothy Clarke’s 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.

Stage 1 – Inclusion Safety: In this stage, employees experience a connection with other employees through a sense of belonging. Redundancy announcements could lead to employees questioning their own unique attributes and contribution to the organisation.

Stage 2 – Learner Safety. When an employee is in this stage, they feel safe to embrace learning by asking questions and giving and receiving feedback. When employees feel that their jobs are at risk, they are more likely to be protective of their knowledge and more reluctant to experiment and drive innovation. Asking questions to drive learning will be limited as employees will be reluctant to demonstrate any perceived weaknesses in their own knowledge and skills.

Stage 3 – Contributor Safety: At this stage, psychological safety is established through employees being safe enough to use their skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution. During redundancy situations, employees are more reluctant to share their contributions and work to their full potential due to feeling organisational betrayal as the psychological contract has been breached and the trust relationship damaged.

Stage 4 – Challenger Safety during this stage employees drive continuous improvement by challenging the status quo. Feelings of job insecurity and low self esteem caused by redundancy announcements have a negative impact on employees’ confidence.


How employers can support ‘survivors’ of a redundancy process

Snippet from end of COMEBACK COACH episode 82 – the podcast for people returning to work after a break – with Dr Maddy Stevens, Reader in Organisation Transformation.


Coaching for colleagues affected by redundancy

We are a team of coaching psychologists and executive coaches skilled in supporting the professional performance of wellbeing of employees in times of change. Contact us on +44 (0)1727 856169 and e-mail to start a conversation with us about what’s happening in your team and how we can help.

Why Don’t Men Take Shared Parental Leave in our Business?

For International Men’s Day we asked Ian Dinwiddy, specialist fatherhood coach in our executive coach team, for his reflections on why men don’t take Shared Parental Leave. We also spoke to new father Phil Bush from Euromonitor who took a sabbatical to help support his partner’s return to work from maternity leave, instead of taking Shared Parental Leave. Here’s a snippet from our conversation with Phil on episode 75 of COMEBACK COACH.

Why do businesses who have a female attraction and retention issue need to focus on men?

A paper in Harvard Business Review reports men and women equally ambitious, but the drop-off is faster for women in organisations where gender diversity isn’t valued. 80% of men become fathers and if we encourage men to take Shared Parental Leave we start to see men in a very different way; we start to change what success looks like in the workplace. Importantly, if employers can’t tell which individuals are going to take leave (women taking maternity or men taking Shared Parental Leave) we start to change the expectations and the culture within business. We make gender diversity and equality more likely.

Why don’t men take Shared Parental Leave in our business?

In a nutshell, men need their own protected period of leave, not a piece of their partner/spouse’s maternity leave. It needs to be well paid and men need to be actively encouraged to take it.


In 2017, two years after Shared Parental Leave was introduced to the UK with little success, coaching psychologist and founder of The Talent Keeper Specialists, Jessica Chivers, wrote on LinkedIn what employers need to do to encourage men to take it.


How to get men to take SPL in a nutshell

Ask expectant fathers to tell you they are an expectant father.

Jessica writes:

If employers really do want fathers to take-up SPL they need to start asking these employees to let them know that they are expecting (a voluntary “DADB1” form alongside the “MATB1” form women are given by the NHS to pass to their employers?). This is the start of cultural change and can be achieved through some simple internal comms, including stories of high profile men in the organisation or wider industry who have taken time out. This raises awareness of what SPL is, that it’s OK to take it and how it could be of benefit to the individual. Women returning from maternity leave are fresh, motivated and come with new perspectives and solutions to their organisation’s challenges – and with support they quickly return or exceed their previous peak performance. They’re assets and it’s about time we treated them as such and encouraged fathers to get in on the act too.

We can’t afford to extend our paternity leave offering, what else can I do to support our new dads?


How can line managers support new fathers in their team?

The main things:

  1. Show an interest.
  2. Make no assumptions.
  3. Know the daily pressure points for the father(s) in your team.


Coaching fathers for sustainable performance & wellbeing

Talk to us about coaching fathers and small group workshops and webinars: and +44 (0)1727 856169.

Comeback Coaching Research

This research request has been e-mailed to past coachees who meet certain criteria. Please only REGISTER HERE if you have received an e-mail inviting you to be part of this research.

Summary of Research

Qualitative research methods will be employed to follow-up with, and understand the experiences of, women who had ‘comeback coaching’* to support their return to work after maternity leave. Specifically, the research will explore:

  1. What endured from the coaching experience at the follow-up point (6-24 months post cessation of coaching programme).
  2. If there are things not explored in the coaching at the time which in hindsight would have been useful to them.

The study will explore the experiences of 10-20 women who were coached by one of the associate coaches in the author’s business (but not by the author herself) via semi-structured interviews. Thematic analysis will be used to make sense of their experiences.

*Comeback coaching is a term first used by the author around 2012 to describe coaching with people returning to work after an extended period of leave. The author’s work at the time was primarily with women returning to their jobs after maternity leave. “Maternity coaching” is a term used in the executive coaching community and in the literature to describe coaching a woman during the time she is peri-natal (before and after birth) with specific reference to her work.

The author believes the term is open to misunderstanding because the word ‘maternity’ is more closely linked to the act of giving birth and physical changes in a woman’s body during matrescence, than to a woman’s work whilst she is pregnant, and therefore it could be assumed that the coaching is about supporting women through these things.

The author developed the term comeback coaching to both better represent the focus of this type of coaching and in acknowledgement that this type of coaching is applicable to employees returning to work after other types of (planned and unplanned) periods of extended leave, such as sickness absence, adoption leave, shared parental leave and carers leave.

The author describes comeback coaching to potential coachees and the HR professionals as “A collaborative solution-focused, results-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee during the time of preparing for and/or coming back from a period of leave from work.” This is adapted from the Association for Coaching’s definition of personal coaching: “A collaborative solution-focused, results-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee.”

The author is the founder of a business which has a mixed team of executive coaches and coaching psychologists. Because not all of the coaching team are coaching psychologists we use the AC definition with coachees and clients (the HR professionals/business leaders who contract their services) rather than the BPS DoCP definition of coaching psychology.


Interview Questions

Participants will be asked to share their reflections on comeback coaching in a semi-structured interview with the author. Questions will be sent to participants ahead of the interviews. Sample questions:

  • Thinking back to the coaching time you had with [name of coach], what were the main effects of the coaching?
  • Thinking back to the coaching time you had with [name of coach], what effects have stayed with you over time? OR what learnings have stayed with you over time? OR what effects have sustained over time?
  • Thinking specifically about your wellbeing, what effects on your wellbeing, if any, did coaching have?
  • BUILD Q: To what extent have those effects sustained over time?
  • Thinking back to your coaching experience with [name of coach] is there anything you wish you had discussed or worked on with [name of coach] that you didn’t or didn’t do, to the extent that you think, with hindsight, would have been useful?
  • What could you and [name of coach] have talked about back then – that you didn’t talk about or didn’t talk about to the extent that with hindsight it could have been useful to – that would have prepared for what is going on in your career right now?
  • Trying to put yourself back into that moment, if your coach had brought that to your attention, do you think it’s something you could have meaningfully or usefully talked about that then?
  • What changes to the coaching programme, if any, could have made it more beneficial to you?
  • What positive effects, if any, do you think you having that coaching had on your colleagues at [name of organisation] or the wider organisation?
  • Is there anything else you would like to say about your experience of comeback coaching?

Caring For Employees With Neurodivergent Children – Responses to 7 Qs

Caring for employees with neurodivergent children is close to my heart, writes Jessica Chivers, coaching psychologist and founder of The Talent Keeper Specialists.

“Last year my son was permanently excluded from school four months ahead of his GCSEs for ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’ and six weeks later my daughter was diagnosed with anorexia. My son was diagnosed with atypical autism, ADHD and secondary anxiety when he was 11. He smashed his GCSEs and my daughter is back in the right weight for height bracket…and I’m on my own journey to a probable ADHD diagnosis this autumn”.

That’s how I opened the session I did last week with one of our client organisations for their employee resource group (ERG) for colleagues with neurodivergent children. What follows are the notes I prepared for myself in response to some of the questions that were sent in advance.

This is a picture of me and my son on GCSE results day on holiday in Kos. I posted his story – with his permission – on LinkedIn the same day and the response was phenomenal.

Line manager trust & WFH = two vital ingredients for employees with challenging home lives

What emerged in the Q&A, which was extremely well-attended might I add…more employees are affected than you might think, is the career-changing magic of a line manager who trusts you to get your job done and a culture which is supportive of WFH.

When the sh1t hits the fan at home and you’ve got the ability to WFH + a line manager who trusts you, the Sh1t doesn’t smell as bad, doesn’t take as long to clean up and doesn’t derail you as much as it otherwise might.

The Economist reported last month that whilst latest research on remote workplace productivity shows a decline when working from home, there is more to work (and life) than productivity. I quote: “Perhaps the greatest virtue of remote work is that it leads to happier employees.”

7 Questions from employees with neurodivergent children

Due to many reasons my mornings might not go to plan, something might throw me off like suddenly the PE shorts that my daughter has been wearing feels too uncomfortable and can result in overwhelm whilst trying to hurry out the door. How do you stop that moment impacting your whole day, whilst trying to be there for them but also knowing that she needs to get to school and I need to get to work and not all be late?

  • My approach was to start building in buffer at the start of the day in case something went wrong. When we’ve been through our worst times I would get my PA to start my day at 9.30am so I had time to soothe myself, re-do make-up if there’d been tears and just get my head together.
  • I think it’s good to have someone you can be really honest with and who can perhaps speak for you on these occasions – this is someone you can call and say “I’ve had a shit start, I’ll be in at X time and I am fine and don’t need to talk about it OR I’m not fine but I don’t want to talk about it.” This person can then do that necessary communication for you.
  • It’s worth taking 5-15 minutes longer than you need to get your head together before going into work. I think it’s better to be fractionally later than you need to be and present yourself in a better state than get there 5-10 minutes sooner but still be mentally jangling.
  • Journalling, singing and dancing, walking and some vigorous cleaning have all been my quick go-to solutions to getting my mind in a better state.
  • In this specific situation about the shorts, I learned that when things like this happened to be able to quickly think of two options that are both palatable to you:
  • “OK, I hear you and we can get new shorts at the weekend. Today you’ve got two choices: 1) you can wear those shorts for your PE lesson for 50 minutes even though they’re a bit tight OR you can wear your tracksuit bottoms and I will send a note. I’ll give you five minutes to decide.” This would have worked with my son because I: a) acknowledged him, b) showed I understood where he was coming from, c) gave him some power and d) showed him a solution was coming and when it was coming.

How do you get ready mentally after a busy day at work and need the energy to parent when there are other challenges awaiting for you at home with a child that has masked all day, tiredness, sensory issues.

Give yourself a physical and mental breather before you enter your home or step out from your home work space.

With young children as soon as they see you they think you’re available so it’s probably easiest if you take your rest before you enter your home (if you’re working outside of home) or if you’re working at home, to take it inside the room you’ve been working in. Or sneak out of the front door!

With older kids you can ‘train’ them to understand and respect that although you’ve finished your work, it’ll be X many minutes until you’re ready to come and give them your attention. This is then your space to leave the house for a walk; go into the garden to pull some weeds or do something else to refresh and reset yourself – like lying on your bed with your eyes closed with a meditation app or some music.

What advice would you give to parents when their child goes mute and won’t communicate in any way?

I can’t speak to this I’m afraid – The National Autistic Society could be a useful port of call.

Speaking to school about what they notice there is probably a good idea.

Is there someone in the family or a friend that the child is communicating with?

In your opinion what is the best way to communicate with a child’s school?

Honestly, as frequently as need, with respect, acknowledging what they HAVE done that’s been positive; be clear about exactly what you want to happen (if you know what that is). I fell into a bit of an apologetic pattern with my son’s school and felt terrible about the amount of time the DH was spending sorting situations out, thinking “Imagine if every child was like mine and he had to do this much work for every child?” but of course my son was an outlier, the school wasn’t dealing with 200 kids per year group like my son.

I think documenting everything is a really smart idea. Follow-up in-person meetings with an e-mail saying thank you and bulleting key action points or agreements.

How do you make sure you have time for yourself?

If you have a very, very difficult situation at home it’s vital to build in time for you to be away from the complexity and the burden. I have learned this through experiencing times when I didn’t feel good at all. Taking time out can mean the difference between life and death at its most extreme. Less seriously it can mean the difference between staying married and getting divorced. It can mean the difference between staying physically and mentally well and using wholesome coping strategies and becoming addicted to alcohol, drugs or food as a comfort.

What do you say to people when they say “But isn’t everyone a little bit autistic?”

I say that’s not true and it’s called Autistic Spectrum Disorder because the severity exists on a spectrum. The spectrum doesn’t mean everyone is on it. I think people who say this are well meaning and they’re trying to be inclusive but it’s not true and I don’t think it’s helpful.

You might have heard of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – this is the ‘Bible’ for psychiatrists and psychologists and sets out the criteria for a person being diagnosed with any mental condition.

You’re not on the spectrum until you hit certain criteria.

Anxiety and being Neurodivergent seem to go hand in hand, why do you think that is?

Trying to fit into a neurotypical’s world.


A flavour of resources we flagged in the session:

How can we help you?

Q&As like the one we were part of at Stantec is great for building a sense connection between colleagues. As the number of children being diagnosed grows (because of greater understanding and recognition) the more this is a matter of interest to your parent employees.

Parents who have challenging circumstances do well to have a listening ear open to them. If you’d like to find out about hiring some of the team to provide ad hoc coaching sessions one day a month, please get in touch. There are three of us who are very well versed in the challenges of parenting non-neurotypical children.

How Working From Home Could Close Your Gender Pay Gap (And Why Male Leaders Should Talk About Housework)

Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom thinks remote working is so relevant to today’s knowledge workers he’s co-organising a two-day remote work conference this autumn. He’s the researcher who found working from home led to a 13% uplift in performance among call centre staff at the 16,000-employee, NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel agency, CTrip1.

Working from home is of particular significance to parents and specifically mothers. It’s my contention that if you want more women in senior roles and a smaller or non-existent gender pay gap you need to offer unlimited work from home and encourage male leaders to talk about housework. I haven’t checked but I’m sure Professor Bloom would agree.

Here are the questions I’m answering in this piece

What factors enable women to stay in full time work when they have a young family?
How does WFH compare to a pay increase as a lever for attracting and retaining employees?
Why do people want to work from home?
Why do female employees with young families want to work from home?
How much more unpaid labour are women doing than men?
What’s the story with male leaders talking about housework at work?
Why is Shared Parental Leave relevant to the gender pay gap?
How does WFH contribute to a narrower pay gap?



What factors enable women to stay in full time work when they have a young family?

We polled people in our Instagram community @comebackcommuk about whether they worked full time or part time and were surprised to learn a higher proportion were full time than we expected. Through a series of DMs with people who responded to the poll, we discovered four key things that seem to enable women to stay in full time work when they have a young family:

  1. An employer who is supportive of working from home.
  2. An employer who is supportive of compressed hours.
  3. Wanting to work full time and enjoying your job.
  4. A supportive partner who shares the load fairly at home.

The nitty gritty of how six mothers make full time work work with a young family is explored in episode 62 of our podcast, COMEBACK COACH. It’s the podcast recommended by HR leaders for people returning to work after maternity and other work breaks.





How does WFH compare to a pay increase as a lever for attracting and retaining employees?

A survey of over 1000 professionals globally in October 2022 and found 63% would “absolutely” look for a new job if they couldn’t continue to work remotely.

This high willingness of professionals to leave their current job for one with remote work shows just how important the freedom to choose where we works is. The pandemic showed us another way of working that helps us blend the totality of our lives and we’re keen to keep it.

The same survey revealed the top factors professionals state they use to evaluate job opportunities and remote working came top:

  • Remote work options (84%)
  • Salary (81%)
  • Work-life balance (79%)

A separate survey in the US 2022 of 4000 people found 63% would prefer better “work-life balance” than higher pay. Specifically, 87% of respondents stated that a remote or hybrid job would or already has improved their work-life balance and 57% stated they would look for a new job if they couldn’t continue to work remotely.

Only 3% of employees want to be in the office 100% of the time (that’s a lot of disgruntled employees at Goldman Sachs) and 65% prefer a 100% remote work arrangement.

Why do people want to work from home?

  • To be more productive by having control over their physical environment – sound levels, lighting, temperature, what they wear, the comfort of their chair.
  • To be more productive by potentially working asynchronously when you’re working on solo execution stuff – that is, when you’re not collaborating with someone else being able to get the work done when it suits you. This might be making a 6am start on something cognitively complex when you’re fresh and then breakfast and an hour of lifting weights 9-10.30am.
  • Cost savings on the commute – no station parking, no costly train.
  • Stress-savings on the uncertainty of the commute – no frustration caused by road traffic, cancelled or late running trains, not being able to get a seat and therefore not be able to do the work on your laptop you thought you were going to plough through.
  • Ploughing the time otherwise spent on a commute into something that benefits the individual and their organisation such as exercise, making an earlier start on prepping for a meeting or a continuing professional development activity.
  • Mental health – in episode 59 of COMEBACK COACH we heard from UX designer, Elena Gorman, how working from home avoids the stress of having to mask how she’s really feeling to colleagues when she’s having a bad mental health day.
  • To keep on top of life admin that would otherwise eat into precious downtime at the weekends.

Why do female employees with young families want to work from home?

For all the reasons above and as Caoimhe describes in the video snippet from episode 62 of COMEBACK COACH, to be able to jigsaw piece all the small but significant extra tasks and responsibilities that go with being a parent as well as an adult with a job. Such as:

  • Sterilising milk bottles.
  • Putting away toddler toys.
  • Hanging out the load of “I wet the bed again” laundry.
  • Steaming and mashing sweet potato to freeze in weaning pots.
  • Putting poo-stained clothes to soak before popping them in the wash.
  • Calling the GP to organise vaccinations (whilst unstacking the dishwasher).

Those gaps between meetings – when research shows you need to give your mind a break with something cognitively undemanding if you are to maintain your performance over the day – are perfect opportunities for completing these tasks. If they’re left until the end of a difficult day after a tiresome commute and with children round your ankles who don’t want to go to bed it’s all too easy to feel completely overwhelmed and say “I can’t do this anymore.”

It’s by being able to keep on top of this huge domestic load that mothers with young children can keep working full time in complex, cognitively demanding senior professional roles. My guess is that having a line manager who trusts you and is supportive of working from home reduces the frequency of “giving it all up” fantasies.

Working from home also provides opportunity for extra contact with children because there’s no commute. This increased time together creates good feelings, reduces guilt and the lack of travel time means the morning is less likely to be frantic and involve cross words (which leads to be more performance-inhibiting guilty feelings as you replay what you said to your five year old as you walk home from the school run).

And then there’s the ability to snatch a brief power nap when required. This dose of rest – which most mothers I know don’t do for fear of being literally caught sleeping on the job – is just what sleep-deprived parents need to be able to function properly and maintain sound professional judgement. Until there are sleep pods in offices and using them is not taboo, working from home gives the greatest chance of getting a rest.

How much more unpaid labour are women doing than men?

Women do 60% more unpaid domestic labour than men and unpaid labour has a worse effect on women’s mental health than men2.

In addition and somewhat surprisingly, research by the University of Bath involving data from 6,000 heterosexual couples found that the more women earn in comparison to their partners, the more housework they do. Dr Joanna Syrda of the University’s School of Management who carried out the research explains it as follows:

“It might indicate that traditional gender identity norms – the notion of the ‘male breadwinner’ and its association with masculinity – are so entrenched that couples may try to compensate for a situation where wives earn more than their husbands. I’m interested to find the effect was stronger in married couples than in unmarried cohabiting parents.”

If women are going to stay in the workforce full time once they have children, social norms need to change and there has to be a recalibration of how things work at home. Mothers who work full time should not be carrying the huge and unequal load at home compared to their partners. It has health implications, it causes marital resentment and there’s an implication for what our children they think is normal for men and women to do.

In my book “Mothers Work!” I offer the reader an important question to put to their partner or spouse as they, the reader, returns to work: “Now that we are about to become a dual earning family, how are we going to share the load?” This is something I reiterate in episode 40: 7 questions for a smooth and successful return to work from maternity leave and other work breaks.

What’s the story with male leaders talking about housework at work?

Even the most committed business leaders to gender equality in the workplace can’t tell their male employees to do more housework. It’s an overreach. But you can talk about the domestic duties you do at home; the ways in which you share the mental load; actively care for your children and the ways in which you support your partner’s career. If you’re not doing these things, when will you start? By talking about what you do at home with other men in your organisation, you signal that that’s what men in positions of professional power do. You normalise senior men being active at home.

Why is Shared Parental Leave relevant to the gender pay gap?

On this note, I recently had a conversation with Times journalist and The Equal Parent author Paul Morgan-Bentley and his husband Robin about parental equality. They had their son Solly through surrogacy and they each took exactly the same number of days shared parental leave. Shared Parental Leave is a significant lever for closing the gender pay gap because it begins to level the playing field between men and women when they become parents (it also helps close the gender pensions gap). It reduces the likelihood of maternity discrimination too because if both genders are equally likely to take leave there’s no advantage in employing a man of a certain age instead of a woman.

As an aside, my personal view is that Shared Parental Leave was a doomed Government policy and fathers need a use-it-or-lose-it portion of parental leave equal to that of mothers. But that’s another story I’ve written elsewhere.

How does WFH contribute to a narrower gender pay gap?

In many organisations with a gender pay gap in favour of men, the problem is due to the far greater numbers of men in the highest paid jobs. Keeping women in full time work and supporting their career aspirations when they become mothers (and most women do become mothers so it’s vital we recognise this) is vital. Only in high trust environments where women can work from home – for all the reasons described above – without penalty and where male colleagues are taking Shared Parental Leave and sharing the load at home will women stay and make those tops jobs.

Your other option is simply to pay mothers for their unpaid labour at home.

References and Resources

1Call centre employees who volunteered to WFH were randomly assigned to work from home or in the office for 9 months. Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which about 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment). Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction and experienced less turnover, but their promotion rate conditional on performance fell. Due to the success of the experiment, CTrip rolled-out the option to WFH to the whole firm and allowed the experimental employees to re-select between the home or office. Interestingly, over half of them switched, which led to the gains from WFH almost doubling to 22%. This highlights the benefits of learning and selection effects when adopting modern management practices like WFH.

2A review published in The Lancet Public Health by a team from the university of Melbourne explored the impact of unpaid labour on mental health. As part of their review they looked at 9 studies that specifically explored housework as a form of unpaid labour, and of these, six reported a relationship between increased housework and poor mental health in women. For men, only three of the studies found a link for increased housework and poorer mental health. The team point out in their paper that the difference might be due to men receiving praise for doing things like childcare and housework whereas women do not. They concluded that policies need to be in place to better spread the division of labour between mothers and fathers such as more equal parental leave, flexible working arrangements and promotion of paternal involvement in childcare.

Are compressed hours fair?

By Jessica Chivers, founder of The Talent Keeper Specialists

How to make full time work, work

How to make full time work work is explored in episode 62 of our podcast, COMEBACK COACH. It’s the podcast recommended by HR leaders to employees preparing to return to work after a break. Compressed hours are one of four key factors that seem to be key.

Here’s a snippet from Carina Hoskisson, back from maternity leave to her engineering role at Caterpillar:

Is your organisation uncomfortable about compressed hours?

HR leaders tell me it’s tricky to say yes to requests to compressed hours. The gist of it is:

Everyone here works more than their contracted hours so it wouldn’t be fair if some people continued to get paid full time when they’re getting a day off. The oft’ unsaid bit is: Given everyone works more than their contracted hours, how would the person who’s compressed their hours do their ‘extra’ (to keep things fair).

The psychology of fairness

You’re right to be concerned about fairness. After all, it’s one of five pillars that the neuroscientist Dr David Rock says is vital to us being engaged at work. His SCARF model, which has emerged from the vast and diverse field of social neuroscience, says we need:

  • Status: How you see yourself and how others see you.
  • Certainty: How confident you can be of the future.
  • Autonomy: How much control you have over your life.
  • Relatedness: How connected you feel to others.
  • Fairness: How reasonable you feel decisions involving you have been.

We share the SCARF model with line managers when we’re coaching them to have better conversations and offer more thoughtful support to team members who are returning to work after maternity and other work breaks.

Compressed hours don’t compromise fairness

Here’s the thing though: compressed hours don’t compromise fairness.

A person who works compressed hours is delivering the same outputs as someone who does their work over five days. All that’s different is the employee who is compressing her/his hours is having a day a week that’s ring-fenced not to be on call/have meetings/commute to work/answer their phone. It’s a day that can be directed to whatever they choose (which ironically, may well be work). This ‘clear’ day is enormously helpful for parents to keep the show on the road at home and as Carina says, there’s a win for her employer too:

Free-Wheeling Wednesdays

I’ve been doing what I call Free-Wheeling Wednesdays for the past 5 years. It’s a day when I have:

  • No fixed appointments.
  • No work meetings.
  • Space to do life admin, exercise and be with my children.
  • A long stretch of time to work on something that requires deep focus.
  • Autonomy to jigsaw the piece the day together as takes my fancy.

How would you spend a free-wheeling Wednesday? Who in your team craves more autonomy do you think? And what’s the best that could happen if you gave it?

Autonomy – pillar of success at work

Author of The 10 Pillars of Success, Dr Josephine Perry, says:

“In the workplace, higher levels of autonomy tend to result in increased job satisfaction because we feel more responsible for the quality of our work. And with job satisfaction, we are more likely to be loyal to our employers and less likely to want to move elsewhere. We are more engaged, meaning that we are more productive, and we are also more likely to have a better work–life balance. The authenticity that comes with autonomy has another beneficial side effect: instead of having to deal with the tension between our values and those imposed on us by others, which can be stressful and tiring, we can just get on with doing a great job.”

And onto a different autonomy…

Don’t confuse compressed hours with the 4 day work week

Last year the research company Autonomy worked with research teams at several universities to study the impact of a 4 day work week on productivity, profitability and employee health in 61 companies (around 2900 staff) in the UK. The outcomes were so positive that at the time the report was published 56 of the 61 were continuing with the four-day week (92%), with 18 confirming the policy is a permanent change.

The 4 day work week is different to compressed hours in that it really is about doing less hours and still being paid full time wages.

Getting more women into senior roles

Retaining women in senior, full time roles – once they become mothers – is a significant factor in reducing the gender pay gap your organisation may have.

Four factors we explore in episode 62 are:

  • The importance of an employer’s supportive attitude towards compressed hours.
  • The important of an employer’s supportive attitude towards working from home.
  • Wanting to work full time and enjoying your job.
  • Having a supportive partner who shares the load at home.

HR perspectives on Comeback Coaching to support careers after maternity leave

Watch the 1 minute film about our work with asset management firm, GAM and ITV. We coach colleagues returning from maternity, Shared Parental Leave, sick leave and other work breaks. HRD Debbie Dalzell and Head of Wellbeing & Development at ITV, Kirsty Duncan explain why.

The Equal Parent

What can two gay dads teach fathers about being a parent? Quite a lot actually.

That was the headline in The Times on Saturday 25/2/23 about Paul & Robin Morgan-Bentley, a husband and husband duo who had their son Solly via surrogacy. Paul is the author of a new book The Equal Parent (digested below) and you can listen to Jessica’s conversation with Paul & Robin on episode 58 of our podcast COMEBACK COACH. Join us Tuesday 28th March 2023 8-8.45pm for our live online Q&A with Paul.

Comeback Coach podcast – ep. 58

Paul and Robin both went through their own work comebacks after taking many months of Shared Parental Leave after having their son Solley through surrogacy.

We talk about:

    • their surrogacy journey
    • why they took exactly equal amounts of Shared Parental Leave
    • how they each prepared to return to work
    • how they share the load at home
    • why new mothers have it so hard on maternity leave and returning to work
    • the uncommon practice things they do to that enables them to have gratifying careers and a happy home life.

Paul & Robin’s 3 pieces of advice (from episode 58)

  • You don’t need to hide work from your children.
  • It’s good for children to experience parents doing things differently.
  • If we want equality in dual earing households both parents must take leave when they become parents – and independent leave (partners having leave at different times rather than together) is the best teacher of all.

The Equal Parent

Paul’s new book, The Equal Parent, is a must if you:

  • Chair an employee resource group connected to family, caring responsibility or gender balance.
  • Head an Inclusion or Culture team.
  • Want societal change around sharing the load of parenthood.

TLDR – The Equal Parent Digested

When our founder, coaching psychologist, Jessica Chivers reads non fiction she underline copiously and write notes about key points/pages in the front cover for ease of reference months/years later. Here are her key page references for The Equal Parent:

  • p.14 Benefits accrued when fathers have skin to skin contact with their newborns
  • p.25 The ideal design of a hospital birth room.
  • p.46 Mothers who sleep train their babies have lower levels of PND.
  • p.50 Men should do night shifts when at work and partners are on maternity leave.
  • p.84 Comparison of cost of childcare in other countries.
  • p.99 Estonia has best education system in Europe and least costly childcare to parents.
  • p.102 Surrogacy explained
  • p.141 The more women earn in comparison to their partners, the more housework they do (University of Bath, data from 6K heterosexual couples).
  • p.142 Pandemic parenting: research by Queen Mary University London + LSE using surveys (n = 1424) and diaries (c 70) found mothers doing much more than fathers.
  • p.144 Anna Machin (academic) independent period of leave when baby born is crucial for sexual equality.
  • p.146 Prof Michael Lamb: extensive research established that both sexes have capacity to be good parents. Key is men actively caring for children.
  • p.151 Fathers are key to child’s mental health in adolescence onwards due to their ‘rough and tumble’ play style and likely to push child physically (no reason mothers can’t do this too).
  • p.159 UK Health Visitor service system only has space to record one parent’s data (thereby perpetuating role model stereotypes and unequal responsibility of child).
  • p.166  Fatherhood Institute research June 2022 “Bringing Home Baby” finds .”…NHS maternity, health visiting and other family services are failing babies by ignoring their fathers during the first postnatal year.”
  • p.168 Even dads in Sweden and Norway feel excluded from health appointments  of kids despite them being progressive countries in terms of parental leave.
  • p.192 New York University researchers find mothers underestimate baby daughters’ physical abilities (the ramp test age 11 months).
  • p.193 Age 6 appears to be when girls switch to seeing themselves less favourably than boys see themselves.
  • p.203-211 Malala Yousafzai and father’s potted history of gender activism
  • p.222 Children appear to benefit most from having three secure relationships (kibbutzim research).

Start your new job by considering your quit criteria

“What if I leave this job and hate the next one?”

This is a fear many of us have experienced in our careers when we’re in a job we don’t like. It’s one we work on with coachees.

Most of us would rather stay and keep hating our current job than risk moving to a new one and hating the new one just as much. Here’s the psychology at play: staying with the status quo is an act of omission (not doing something), rather than commission (doing something).  Humans are much more comfortable living with the downside of not doing something than we are with actively making a change and regretting it. However, successful people quit.

Successful people quit

Remember that staying in a job we don’t like is a choice, just as much as actively moving to a new job is a choice. Both are associated with opportunity costs and both choices can be reversed. In the case of moving to a new job you can change jobs again, even if you can’t return to the role you left.  Humans don’t like quitting because there’s a stigma attached to it. It’s associated with weakness and lack of grit.

But here’s the thing: successful people quit. For instance, professional poker players fold their hands (quit) significantly more than amateurs. See the work of decision strategist, Annie Duke[i] on this.

What will make you happier?

What we should be asking ourselves is: “What’s the likelihood I’ll be happier over the next six months if I change jobs versus staying in the one I’m in?”

When we think forward like this, we’re less likely to get trapped in the sunk cost fallacy which can stop us from moving into a new job. The sunk cost fallacy is the idea that a person, team or organisation is more likely to continue with something (such as your current job) if we’ve already invested a lot of money, time, or effort in it, even when continuing is not the best thing to do.

If this wasn’t your current job, would you choose it?

A question I love to ask coachees who are worried about making a change in their life is “If this wasn’t your current situation/job/home/relationship/insert whatever thing the coachee is wondering about, would you choose it?”

This question gets us to think about our status quo as being something we are actively choosing to continue with and have the power to change.

Start your new job by considering your quit criteria

So how does all this fit with why you should think about quitting a new job before you even start it?

We need to guard against the sunk cost fallacy and bias against quitting by considering what we need to get from a new job before we start it.

We can develop ‘quit criteria’ when we are at our most dispassionate and rational: BEFORE WE START THE JOB.

Identify continue/quit criteria for the impact on your personal life too

Identify the point in the future at which you are going to evaluate the new job. I think six months in is a good reflection point. Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to start thinking about your ‘continue/quit criteria’

We need to think about the impact of a job on our personal life as well as the quality of our experience in the job itself. That’s why I invite you to identify your quit and continue criteria on life outside work as well as inside.

A worked example of the possible QUIT/CONTINUE CRITERIA for a Senior Associate solicitor joining a new firm in the commercial team.


*If these things are happening, it’s an indication you should continue in the role.

**If these things are happening, it’s an indication you should quit.

Be accountable to a colleague

Tell a trusted past colleague[i] about your quit/continue criteria and the date you’re going to review. They can keep you accountable and help you reflect on how the job is measuring up against your criteria.[ii]

Is flexibility trapping you in your job?

On BBC Breakfast a few years ago, I talked about some women we coach coming back from maternity leave being ‘trapped talent’. Talented, skilled, ambitious people who stay in the job they’re in because they’ve moulded a level of flexibility that allows them to combine work and home in a satisfying (or at least not-too-hellish) way, that they are reluctant to give up.

They fear changing jobs (actually, changing line manager) will be too disruptive to their home life because they will have to earn trust and prove themselves before getting the flex they need to make their whole life work.

Changes to Flex Request Laws in UK

We think it’s brilliant that the UK Government is setting out plans to make the right to request flexible working available from day one of employment[iii] (removing the 26 week qualifying period). The date this will come into effect is to be announced. The plans were announced 5/12/22.

Flex Q&A with ITV HR

If you have questions about how to have flexible working conversations, join us 24/1/23 12 noon online. ITV People Manager Simmone Gardiner, Katy Fridman (founder of Flexible Working People) and Jessica Chivers are hosting a live focussed 45 minute live Q&A. BOOK NOW, it’s free. We’re delighted to count ITV as one of our long-standing clients. This session forms part of our Comeback Community employee experience for people returning to work after maternity and other periods of extended leave. When we have spar spots we open them to all. Find out more about Comeback Community here.


[i] Annie Duke is the author of Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away.

[ii] Probably best not to tell a new colleague about your quit/continue criteria in the early stages of your working relationship.


Don’t Fix Women

Our founder Jessica Chivers was delighted to contribute* to “Don’t Fix Women” and join Joy Burnford at the launch at the London Stock Exchange.

When JC reads non-fiction she’s in the habit of marking up key page references in the front cover for ease of reference when she returns to it weeks/months/years down the line).

See below for what she marked from Don’t Fix Women.

Jessica Chivers and Joy Burnford with book "Don't Fix Women"

P5 – PACE framework: Passion, Accountability, Curiosity, Empathy.
P33 – Male job-share story at Aviva.
P50 Net-Walking at Wickes (reminiscent of our awe-walking idea)
P58 – Gender Allies Matrix.
P62 – SPACES model.
P73 Benefits of reverse mentoring at Royal Bank of Canada.
P86 – GSK coaching experiment with female leaders.
P100 – Menopause key facts inc. running men-only info events. Channel 4 publicly available policy for download. Timpsons pay for HRT prescriptions.
P127 – 90% fertility patients experience depression.
P151 benefits of fathers who care.
P168 – Burnout is X2 more likely in women.
P187 – Presentation confidence – give people time to practice.


*Jessica’s contribution to the book was around how best to help colleagues have a confident return from maternity leave before they go:

Suggest recording a video message: Jessica Chivers, CEO, The Talent Keeper Specialists and author of Mothers Work!, encourages women to record a video message to themselves on their phone before they go on maternity leave, which can cover what they’re most proud of, key achievements and strengths. Then when women return to work, they can play it back to themselves as a reminder of their ‘professional self’ and achievements before leaving. 

1:1 comeback coaching – HR perspectives

Watch the 1 minute film about our work with asset management firm, GAM and ITV. We coach colleagues returning from maternity, Shared Parental Leave, sick leave and other work breaks. HRD Debbie Dalzell and Head of Wellbeing & Development at ITV, Kirsty Duncan explain why.