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In some ways, I am ‘lucky’ as running your own business means you never really disconnect from work during your maternity leave so I won’t have such a shock on my return. However that isn’t the case for most mothers returning from maternity leave who have often taken 1 year away from work following the birth of a child. During that time they have had the stresses of feeding, sleep regression, teething and creating routines to contend with rather than the stresses of work. This month’s blog will explore returning to work following maternity from both the employer and the employee perspective and provide some helpful tips for employers to help support (and hopefully retain!) returning mothers.

During my years in HR, I have noticed many employees, colleagues as well as friends not wanting to go back to work after maternity leave or wanting to significantly change their working arrangements. While this is understandable, it does present significant challenges for employers. With the end of my maternity leave coming ever closer, I have more of an understanding as to why is this the case and this blog will explore what employers can do to help retain these valuable members of staff?

What are the possible reasons?

While this may seem obvious, there are a number of reasons why people don’t want to return from maternity leave but in many cases have to begrudgingly for financial reasons. As well as the obvious financial incentives (requirement!) to return, some of the other reasons are;

  • Change – some employees have stayed in their job for some time, perhaps to get maternity pay and company benefits however having a baby has now become a catalyst for change and they may have no intention to return following their maternity leave (but could have indicated they would to get maternity pay – not always but we have to be honest, this does happen)
  • Challenge – prior to having a baby some employees may have just been settling for the role they were in whereas now they want a new challenge – are they getting enough from their role?
  • Priorities and perspective – when you’ve had a baby your priorities change, work may not  (and most probably isn’t) the most important thing anymore. When your priority and perspective has shifted it makes employees realise this may require them to have a change in job/role/hours in order to meet their new priorities. While that isn’t to say returning mothers are will not work as hard or be as valuable, they just have a lot more on their plate and adjustments will very likely be required.
  • Cost – having a child in childcare is very expensive. Sometimes employees realise it’s more cost effective to stop working/reduce hours. This can be due to the fact that when the childcare costs are taken out they are left with very little/none of their wage at the end of the month
  • Flexibility – some employees feel the company they’re with cannot/will not offer them the flexibility they require to fulfil all their roles in life – the newest one of these…being a parent.

With the Isle of Man Government looking likely to introduce Shared Parental Leave in one form or another following the recent Consultations on the matter, the above issues will likely start to impact more of the workforce than ever.

The importance of supporting the return to work.

Having good policies and procedures can make returning to work so much easier and less daunting for your employees. Returning to work after a significant period of time can be a nerve wracking and daunting process which can result in resentfulness from employees, particularly when the return isn’t handled well (which is more frequent that you would think). As an employer if you have a good supportive scheme to support women’s return then they will feel valued and you will also retain their talent and skills.

Having seen it from the employer’s side, I do have a large degree of sympathy for employers for whom nothing has changed and in their view, the employee is returning to work and picking up their old job so what is the big deal? Also, some mothers can have quite high expectations on their return which are not always able to be accommodated.

Understand the law – 

Knowing maternity rights and what must be done is essential during maternity leave and returning to work. Remember…

  • 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, breast feeding is covered too so make sure you have appropriate provisions in place for mothers who need to breastfeed / express even when they return to work
  • Training for managers around this is essential to ensure any discriminatory behaviour or attitudes to mothers is avoided within the business.
  • 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.

What can employers do?

Be open – allow conversations to be open and frank. Discuss the difficulties that may be faced when returning and try and find solutions/support mechanisms to allow a successful return. Acknowledging a returning mother will have a lot of emotions and personal matters to deal with will show her the Company understands she has a lot on.

KIT days – Keeping in touch days allow employees to stay in the know about what is going on and any updates that they need to know before their return to work. The law allows up to 10 days’ paid work during maternity leave without bringing statutory leave or pay to an end. By agreement, you can use these days to allow employees to attend training, meetings and any other events that would be useful.

Phased RTWs – some employers utilise a phased return to work scheme whereby employees return to work on reduced hours in the first instance which increase over an agreed period of time (e.g. 1 month). This is a great way to ease returning mothers back into the workplace without going in head first in week one. Some larger employers offer full pay for these transitionary periods and while this may not be possible for smaller employers, it is a very attractive and supportive prospect which will help both parties adjust to the change.

Return to work meeting – ensure a return to work meeting is held at least 2 weeks before the employee is due to return. They should have been kept up to date during their maternity leave (as much as they have requested to be so) but this meeting should cover things such as changes that have taken place within the business, current workload / projects, hours of work as well as a New Mother Risk Assessment (to cover H&S matters as well as discussions around requirements in relation to breast feeding etc if applicable.)

At the meeting;

  • provide updates on what has happened during her absence. Surprises upon return aren’t nice and can leave an employee feeling vulnerable. Who’s new? Have any departments moved? What else should she know? 
  • Be enthusiastic and supportive as it can be very daunting for a mother to leave her baby
  • Discuss potential flexible working arrangements – allowing this will help your company to retain staff and has shown to increase productivity 

Do an induction – don’t assume the returning employee ‘knows the ropes’ because they have worked for you before, things change in 1 year and employees should be inducted back to work. First and foremost, this should be to ensure their system access, passwords etc. are set up and provided to them (I have seen this go wrong on more than one occasion!) but also introduce them to new colleagues, provide training on new systems and processes and provide them with structured work during their first few weeks.

Upon return-

  • Don’t go too hard on the first day back, ease her in by staggering duties or giving her time to get back into the swing of it.
  • Ensure there’s a meeting with her cover so they can handover information so she’s fully up to date
  • Once back ask if she needs any additions support such as a space for breastfeeding (space with a fridge – a health and safety assessment should be carried out if this is to happen) or any additional training which will help the transition

What can managers do?

  • Have open conversations which should start before the maternity leave begins. Talk about how she would like to be communicated with during her leave and also when she is returning. Create a plan for the start and end of leave
  • Be sensitive and understand that this can be an extremely difficult and emotional time for a returner. Ask what time is best for meetings to fit with sleep/feed schedules – you play a very important role in the return to work process and being supportive can make the different between someone feeling welcome and valued to someone who doesn’t want to return.
  • Don’t assume that you know what they will do upon their return. Some employees are happy to go back to work full time while others may need flexible working or changes to the hours they do.

The best way to handle a return to work is by being as supportive as possible to the employee. If you follow the guidance above it gives your employee the best chance of a successful return to work, meaning your company will retain their skills and expertise for the future.

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