Returning to work after a long period of maternity leave can be difficult. I’ve recently returned from my own maternity leave after having baby number two…second time round doesn’t make it any easier!
So what can employers do to ensure employees returning from maternity leave feel fully welcomed back at work? As well as ensuring the employee’s legal rights are met, it’s important that they/we feel fully supported in returning.
Some employees might slot straight back into work after maternity leave, but others may struggle both with being apart from their baby and also more personally. I probably fall a little bit between the two. For me, reaching the end of my maternity leave felt like I was nearing the end of a major chapter in my life, so naturally this was going to generate some big emotions. However the enjoyment of workplace (hot!) coffees, the interaction with colleagues and the satisfaction of going back to a job that I love balanced that out for me. Having conversations about career goals when a new mum returns to the workplace and making sure she knows the value she can add to the company will help address any concerns that she may feel about ‘slotting’ back in.
Making use of ‘Keeping in Touch’ (KIT) days can be a great way to reintroduce your employee to the workplace and reduce the apprehension of returning. During my first maternity leave, I used one KIT day. This was in part due to the pandemic, however I was also just enjoying my time at home with my baby and I didn’t think (or want to think!) too much about my return to work until my end date approached. Second time round, I used KIT days regularly for training sessions, strategy planning days and to meet new team members. There is no right or wrong approach and you should be flexible to what works best for both parties, but be sure to communicate this to the employee. You and your employee can potentially have up to 10 KIT days during the period of maternity leave, but remember, there is no legal obligation for an employer to offer, or for an employee to accept these.
The Legal Stuff
If the employee has taken up to 26 weeks maternity leave, they have the right to return to the same job. If they have taken more than 26 weeks maternity leave, they have the right to return to the same job unless the employer has a genuine reason to offer them an alternative.
A lot can change within the business during a period of maternity leave. So, if it is not possible to offer the same role then you should ensure that the following is the same:
- Holiday entitlement
- Where the job is located
If an employee wants to return before taking all their maternity leave, they must tell you in writing at least eight weeks before the date they want to return. This time I chose to return before my leave was due to ‘officially’ end, however with my first child I added accrued holidays to add on to the end of my maternity leave, extending my time out of the office. Remember, employees accrue paid holiday as normal during maternity leave, so you will need to work out with them how they wish to take their holidays.
An employee might also choose to work differently after having their baby to balance their job with family or childcare needs. Personally, I moved from a five day working week to four days (Monday to Thursday) after having my first child, a pattern I am continuing this time round too. Finding a good work/life balance is always difficult and for me, and this helps make our family life a little easier. All employees are entitled to request changes to their hours of work, days of work or place of work after they have been with the company for at least 26 weeks.
Supporting New Mums Upon Their Return
When it’s time for the first day back, it’s always a nice gesture to set up a meeting with the returning employee (or even better, organise a nice lunch date to welcome them back!) to check in on how they are feeling and whether any further support is required. If the employee is still breast feeding then you will also need to ensure suitable facilities exist for the employee to express milk throughout the day.
Often the return to work will be coupled with an introduction to a childcare. A mum’s first day back might also coincide with her child starting a new nursery, or a routine that enlists the help of grandparents, friends etc. Be mindful that this in itself is challenging, and as long as it doesn’t impact on the working day, the employee may find comfort in being offered the opportunity to ‘check in’ occasionally too.
My return to work last week was made so much easier for me by my supportive employer and lovely colleagues and I’ve loved being back more than I thought I would. And those hot coffees just never get old!
I have written this from my perspective a a new mum, but naturally much of this advice also applies to dads returning from paternity leave or any parents returning from adoption leave too. The more family-friendly a workplace can be the better!