13 Sep 2019

Supporting return of Maternity workers

Mother with baby 250583120 cropped


Returning to work after maternity leave can be a daunting prospect for any new mother. Employers who take a best practice approach to maternity leave and who take steps to plan their employee’s return properly, will help ensure their return to work is as smooth as possible.

The law

An employee has the right to return to the same job if she returns from taking Ordinary Maternity Leave (initial 26 weeks after commencing maternity leave). If she chooses to take Additional Maternity Leave, she has the right to return to the same job, but if it’s not reasonably practical, to another job that is suitable, appropriate and has terms and conditions that are no less favourable than those that would have applied had she not been absent.

Should she opt not to return to work at the end of her maternity leave, she is required to give notice as laid out in her contract of employment.

Contact during maternity leave

Maintaining contact with an employee on maternity leave can help her to stay in touch with the workplace and ease her return to work.

Ideally you should agree, before she goes, what level of contact she would prefer. Although organisations reserve the right to maintain reasonable contact with employees during maternity leave, some women prefer to be left alone during this time, in which case try and keep contact to a minimum. Contact is usually around keeping them updated on organisational developments, inviting them to attend special work events, and then their plans for their return to work. It’s worth reminding your employee they can attend work (or training) for up to 10 days during maternity leave, without that work bringing the period of their maternity leave and pay to an end. These are known as "keep-in-touch" (KIT) days.

Flexible Working

Employees have the right to request flexible working, and it is very common for those returning from maternity leave to request to return to work part-time.

Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 do not give employees the right to work part time; however, employers should take into account that the refusal of a request to return to work part time after maternity leave may constitute indirect sex discrimination.

It is advisable to encourage these conversations well in advance of their intended return, so that they can provide the required minimum 8 weeks’ notice of the change, should it be accepted.

The request should be carefully considered and discussed with the employee. Should your organisation be unable to accommodate the change, the reasons should be explained to the employee, and should be one of the formal ‘specified business reasons’, for example ‘a detrimental effect of ability to meet customer demand’.

If you permit someone to return to their role on a part-time basis, even if the role is slightly different, she must be provided with terms and conditions no less favourable (on a pro rata basis) than those she enjoyed while full time. The exception to this, would be if she has requested to return to a completely different role of less standing with much less responsibility. It should be made clear that an equivalent senior role is available to them, with the same salary (pro-rated to reduced hours). It is then her choice, if she would rather give up that right, and instead return to an alternative lesser role that attracts a lower salary.

Using accrued holidays

The employee will have been accruing holidays in the same way as if she was working, while on maternity leave, so she will have built up quite a few. She may wish to take them as a block between the end of her maternity leave and physically returning, or it is very usual for her to request to use them up over several weeks following her return. This is useful as a way of helping her to ease back into the role, particularly if her intention is to return back to her full-time role. Requests around using holidays up should not be unreasonably refused.

Just before they return

To ensure a smooth first few days and reduce risk of anxiety:

  • Ensure they have received a letter confirming their expected return date (and new hours of work, if applicable).
  • If she is returning on part-time hours, ensure that the work she can no longer do, due to less hours, has been distributed out to other employees. It’s important you let her know this, so she doesn’t need to worry that she is expected to do full-time work in part-time hours.
  • Ensure her workstation is ready for her return and that she has the materials necessary to do her job.
  • Let the team know of her impending return so they are ready to welcome her back.
  • Have a low-key schedule of work planned for her first week or two back, to help avoid the return being too overwhelming and challenging while she settles back in.

On her return

Conduct a Maternity Returner Risk Assessment

Be aware that it does take time for someone returning from extended leave to get back into the swing of things, particularly if they are still having sleepless nights and other challenges that come with a new baby!