(By an employment lawyer returning to work following maternity leave)
I know my rights (of course I do), and I’ve done this before, but still the prospect of returning to work following a year of maternity leave filled me with apprehension.
There are many mixed emotions. It’s a tear. Life at home is not as it was before. I’ve enjoyed being at home and managing my “home team” (which now with two children feels like a job in itself!). I’m keen to get back to work for the “me time”, the “mind time” and the “managing to drink a hot cup of tea” time, but my mind is also filled with thoughts of: “What has changed?”, “Will I still fit in”, “Will I be treated differently?”. Afterall, everyone is used to me not being there now and everyone is managing without me…
It’s kind of like starting a new job, but where you have the before to compare it to. There are new staff, new working patterns, updated systems (in my case before I’ve even started on the law). As is repeatedly uttered in the markets in Thailand: “Same, Same… But different!”. Without any negative action from the employer, this can still leave the returning employee feeling like an alien in their hometown.
According to a survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2017, three in four mothers surveyed said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, and/or on return from maternity leave. Not great when you think of the inevitable relationship between this statistic and factors such as tribunal claims, settlements, productivity and staff turnover.
So, not just from a lawyer, but from an employee who is living this right now, here are my top tips for employers on helping your star players get back in the game (and avoid allegations of discrimination).
- Plan – How you treat the employee before their departure can set the tone for how it will be when they come back. Explain how their role will be covered and how it will be handed back. This will help the employee to feel more confident in their return, and to settle back in more quickly.
- Reassure – It is likely even before the parental leave begins that the fear of being treated differently because of daring to have a baby (or take time off to care for a child) is starting to creep in. So, do not treat them differently (risk assessment permitting of course): Do the appraisal, continue to let them meet the key clients or customers, discuss any issues (whilst also being mindful of any pregnancy-related problems that may be affecting things). Yes, they will be gone for a while, but it’s most likely a year max. It will go quickly. There is much, much more working life ahead of them in the grand scheme of things.
- Remember – Don’t forget about them whilst they are off. Update them on any changes the organisation that affect them (especially matters like promotion opportunities of which it would be discriminatory not to inform the employee). Invite them to “Keeping In Touch” (KIT) days or even a catch up chat over a coffee with the baby if the thought of a KIT day is making them go white. They may not be sleeping much, but they may still be interested in what’s going on and this will help to keep them engaged.
- Compromise – If a flexible working request comes your way that you are concerned will not work, try to find a compromise if you can. Effective communication with the employee so that, whatever the outcome, they understand that you have tried to accommodate them and why you can’t make it work. A disgruntled employee is unlikely to be an effective one and is more likely to ultimately end up leaving. Will a new starter be better than the established employee in part-time or flexible hour form? After all, a working career is potentially many, many years. They may not want to be part-time forever.
- Empathise – Returning to work will be a massive adjustment for the employee. There will be balls in the air everywhere, not much time to sit down to think and, a lot to process (perhaps on very little sleep). They may still be breastfeeding and need some support around this, and it may just take a bit of time to get back into a routine, but again a bit of reassurance and some checking in can go a long way.
If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, Melanie Rowe, Senior Associate, would be delighted to hear from you. You can reach Melanie on 07854029922 or you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The information provided in this article is a summary for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice and cannot be relied on as such. Any law quoted in this article is correct as at 4 October 2022. Appropriate legal and financial advice should be sought for specific circumstances before any action is taken.