Supporting employees’ return from maternity leave

When new mums come back to the workplace, it can often be a daunting experience.

It is common for some mothers to feel guilty about leaving their child after maternity leave. They may be anxious about all the changes that have happened in the workplace in the past 12 months and apprehensive about slotting back into their normal professional routine and being around their colleagues.

A simple ‘welcome back’ or an informal meeting is not enough. Employers need to take steps before and while the employee is on maternity leave to pave the way to a smooth return. By being prepared, you can minimise the risks of grievances, resignation and claims.

Here are some things employers need to think about:

Use KIT days wisely

An employee can also work up to 10 days during maternity leave through Keep in Touch (KIT) days.  They can be a fantastic way to prepare the employee for their return to work and ease the transition process. 

Contact the employee during maternity leave

Before they go on maternity leave, you should agree on how much contact they should be, who will contact the employee and the best way to do this. Some may want to come into work to show off their new baby and others may prefer to just call or email. You need to ensure there is an appropriate balance – they shouldn’t feel isolated but they also shouldn’t feel harassed.

Keep the employee in the loop of the developments in the workplace, for example, how their projects are coming along, any changes to the team and whether new equipment has been introduced.

You also need to inform them of any redundancies and promotions otherwise there is a risk of claims of unlawful discrimination.

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Invite them into work events

It’s good practice to invite all employees to the work events, such as the summer and Christmas party, including those on maternity, paternity or parental leave. But don’t press them to come.  Sometimes their family commitments mean that it may be too difficult.

Take flexible working requests seriously

Employees have a statutory right to request flexible working, but there is no right to flexible working. This means that new mothers have the right to ask, but they do not have an automatic right to demand that their hours are changed or reduced when they return to work.

Employers must, however, consider the request in a reasonable manner and can only refuse a request for a clear business reason.

In the meeting, you can discuss the request, whether there are any issues in accommodating the request if there are other working patterns which could be explored and the advantages, disadvantages and costs of the change for the business.

If you are not sure about how their proposed flexible working arrangement will work out in practice, you may decide to allow them to try it for a few months to see how it goes. You should agree on a time when to review this to see whether it is a sustainable working arrangement.

This can help you retain your skilled staff who were thinking of leaving because they couldn’t do the standard hours, start at the time expected or deal with the lengthy commute.

[infobox]Exclusive bonus: Get the free Employer’s Definitive Guide to Flexible Working to discover how to stay on the right side of the law when handling flexible working requests.Download Now[/infobox]

Think about breastfeeding

All mothers have different views about breastfeeding. It is up to new mothers to decide whether they wish to continue breastfeeding when they return to work and for how long, but they should inform you that they will be breastfeeding during a Keep in Touch day or during a meeting to discuss their return to work.

By law, you must provide suitable rest facilities for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Where required, it should include a place where the employee can lie down and should be close to the toilets. However, there is no legal duty to provide them with a suitable place to breastfeed or express milk and you are not oblige employers to provide employees with paid breaks to breastfeed or to express milk.

However, taking a more flexible approach can help make the employee feel more supported and put them at ease.  If you can, think about providing a private and safe place for employees to breastfeed and express and store milk.

Think about her role

Remember employees returning from maternity leave have certain rights when they return to work. If an employee returns during the first 26 weeks, the employee is entitled to return to the job they held before they commenced their maternity leave – same job, same terms and same conditions.

If the employee returns between 26 and 52 weeks, they have the right to their previous job. However, this may not always be reasonably practicable. For example, you may have restructured the business while they were on maternity leave and their job now no longer exists. If you cannot offer them their previous job, you will need to offer them a suitable similar job, which must have the same or equivalent terms and conditions.

Deal with any grievances that arise

If the employee is experiencing negative comments related to her maternity leave or flexible working arrangements you should ensure that all her complaints are dealt with seriously and in line with your grievance procedure.

If you like to obtain specific advice about how to manage an employee’s return to the workplace or how to deal with requests for flexible working, contact your Employment Law Adviser who can offer you guidance and support.

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We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

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