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Supporting women on maternity leave

There are a number of things employers can do to help women transition smoothly back to work after maternity leave

A recent report by Citizen’s Advice recorded an almost 60% rise in the number of women seeking advice about maternity leave this year, including discrimination, redundancies and unexpected changes to terms of employment.

So what do employers need to know to not only avoid discrimination, but also ensure those on maternity leave feel supported, valued and able to return to work when ready?

The benefits of supporting women who take maternity leave

Fifty-two weeks out of work can feel like a lifetime, and is certainly long enough for new mothers to feel disconnected, de-skilled and under-confident. Add sleep deprivation, career worries and the nightmare that is childcare arrangements, and returning to work can be exceptionally daunting.

More progressive employers recognise the benefits of supporting women back to work and offer structured schemes, including mentoring and counselling. Not only is this a positive strategy to improve workplace diversity but investing time and money in supporting mothers is well worth the return (think talent loss, replacing skills, recruitment, etc.). There’s also the danger of litigation, reputational damage and the lack of high-level women in business to consider. Ultimately, properly managing maternity returners is great for the bottom line and for the company. Here are some top tips:

Understand the law & training

Employers must understand maternity rights and how to avoid pitfalls.

  • Discrimination awareness training is a critical measure to protect the business and make equality and diversity a reality. Managers must be upskilled to manage unacceptable workplace behaviours, inappropriate banter and attitudinal barriers for mothers.
  • A woman is protected from discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity for the whole of her pregnancy, right up until she returns to work: this is the Protected Period.
  • When she returns to work she must not be treated less favourably and must be given the same opportunities in terms of career development, training and promotion.

Keep in Touch days

KIT days are a useful way to keep employees in the loop at work and can make a return to work less daunting. The law allows up to 10 days’ work during maternity leave without bringing statutory leave or pay to an end. Invite her to use a KIT day to attend training, important meetings or other key events.

Transition back smoothly

Establish contact by writing to your employee shortly before she is due to come back and arrange a return to work meeting. Make an occasion of it!

  • Update her on what to expect on her return so there are no surprises. Has her desk moved? Are there any new people in the department? What else does she need to know to feel involved again? Remember that wider changes to her job role and redundancies need to be handled differently and will require formal consultation.
  • Don’t throw her in at the deep end on her first day back. If possible stagger her return to full duties. Allow time for her to remind herself how things work.
  • Arrange a handover session with her maternity cover.
  • Ask her if there is anything else she needs, i.e. additional training, facilities for breastfeeding or expressing milk (access to a private room and fridge).

Health and safety

Conduct a workplace health and safety risk assessment for mother and baby. Either take steps to remove the risks or adjust the work.

Flexible working

Too few employers recognise the advantages of flexible working. It helps retention of experienced and skilled staff and is also proven to increase productivity, lower absence rates and promote commitment and loyalty.

Consider how flexible working could work at your business. If it could, the return to work meeting is a good time to talk about flexible working opportunities and how to apply.

Welcome back maternity returners

Ultimately common sense dictates welcoming maternity returners. Women are acutely aware of the potential career impact of maternity leave. The role of an employer is to reassure a returning mother that she remains valued and that nothing has changed for her in terms of career prospects. Employers can and should help mothers transition back to work and alleviate the stress of juggling job and baby. It’s pretty simple stuff and all about communicating well: attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

Karen Jackson and Pritti Bajaria are expert discrimination lawyers at didlaw