Returning to work after maternity leave : An employment lawyer’s own experience
Returning to work after maternity leave : An employment lawyer’s own experience
Having just had the experience of returning to work after maternity leave myself, I thought I would write a useful blog.
I am an employment lawyer with over a decade of experience advising on all sorts of employment matters, but in particular, on maternity and pregnancy related discrimination. I have advised on contentious cases but also in relation to advisory working implementing best practice.
6 points to think about when returning to work after maternity leave
I took maternity leave last year and I wanted to share my learning from this, both as an individual but in context of my knowledge and career. Below are six points to think about as you are returning to work after maternity leave.
Prepare for the emotions
Importantly, be prepared for the emotions of returning to work. Many people feel returning to work difficult in different ways but I felt a terrible tear of leaving my child in childcare. I queried to myself how anybody managed to do this before and, of course, its just something that takes a little getting use to. It will depend on how you’ve spent your maternity leave, the levels of support you’ve had and the childcare during that time. Being a parent is a constant mix of emotions and returning to work is no different. However, if you acknowledge that you will potentially have some mixed emotions then it’s so much easier to deal with.
I personally found returning to work liberating but tinged with sadness. I knew I could not stay at home all the time and I was passionate about my career, but at the same time did miss my baby terribly. I think this is completely normal. Feel reassured that this is completely normal for anyone.
What I have learnt from going through my own personal maternity journey is that as a manager, it is right to expect this, it is right to support it and together employees and managers will figure it out in time. You will be able to be as productive and engaged as you were previously.
Think about KIT days
It is trite advice to consider KIT days, but it is good advice to use them as much as you can. It’s a great way of staying in touch in a non-pressurised environment. Often those lunches with your baby, with the team meeting them can be quite intense. What if the baby cries all the time etc. So therefore being in work either on a training day or working on some project work can really help.
Many people advise using KIT days and then not really understand how to use them. However, I really recommend a manager and an employee having a good talk about what will be a possible KIT day in the role. Of course some employees won’t want to use this, but it really does help you keep in touch and your hand in with work. It stops you feeling so overwhelmed when you return from maternity leave. Now you need to be sure of your childcare to enjoy it. You need to be sure that you are happy that the child or children are being looked after with safe hands but if you have that reassurance, you can really enjoy a few days at work. It is the perfect opportunity to enjoy a hot cup of tea or coffee.
As managers, talk about how an employee would like to be notified that a KIT day might be possible. Also, talk about money. 10 KIT days can be paid, however, you only get paid for the hours that you work. These payments don’t interfere with an employee’s maternity entitlement. It therefore has a small financial incentive as well. I really strongly suggest that people consider these as more than just the communication you want with your team but as something you can really get your teeth into.
Think about a phased return
Right from the very beginning, I thought it would be sensible to have some sort of phased return from maternity. I had advised on numerous long term absence cases either for sickness, maternity, sabbaticals etc and its generally overwhelming for the person returning if you ask them to do their full hours immediately.
Many maternity returners want to work part time upon their return and that’s a separate issue in itself, but actually phasing back to your arrangement really does make sense. There are some advantages mentally. It will give you confidence that you can do this, to stop people feeling overwhelmed, to test out that child care and see if it really works, but also build up stamina to perform at the same level you did before. I phased back over a two-month period, simply because that worked out well with my dates of maternity but actually I don’t think you need to have that long. I would say a four-week phased return would be satisfactory. This is similar to most phased returns from ill health etc.
It’s something as a manager you may want to suggest to a person going onto maternity using some of their holiday. During both sick leave and maternity holiday accrues and sometimes is difficult to use up. Employees can use up this holiday during a phased return back to work. The other option is to take some form of family friendly leave, such as parental leave upon your return. Please remember that once you come back to work, other than using your keeping in touch days (KIT days), will end maternity leave so you need to think about this towards the end.
It’s also smart to work on some project work at the time, something you can do, pick up, feel that you’re building your confidence before you start the full job again. Of course it may also be helpful to have a handover where your employer has had maternity cover so that work is transitioned back in a manageable way.
You can do this!
I want to be honest with you, I don’t think there is a new parent out there who doesn’t think that they have bitten off more than they can chew in having a new child, or a subsequent child, and working. If you feel that you’ve got this covered, I have total respect for you but if you don’t, know that that is entirely normal.
Everyone has moments where they feel that they can’t do things. Everyone has moments where they doubt their own abilities. It is such an overwhelming responsibility being a parent, it is understandable that it seems very difficult to deal with other pressing demands upon you. I would suggest you lean into this problem. Speak to others who have gone through similar situations and try and get support from elsewhere.
Ultimately, work on the basis that you must try to do it and if you don’t know that you can do it, give it a go and see how you get on. Please don’t feel alone in this and importantly managers, having just read that and perhaps not gone through those experiences yourself, be mindful that maybe low confidence could be at play with some of the issues and wishes of a returner from maternity leave.
Plan, review and revise
I think an absolutely key point around this is to plan, review and revise that plan again. Importantly, many first time mothers or subsequent mothers feel very uncertain about the maternity leave process. People may have had difficult journeys to pregnancy or it may be somewhat unplanned. Therefore, sometimes it’s very difficult for mothers to plan for the future. What I would suggest, as a manager, trying to encourage planning of any process. Plan how you are going to deal with any handover, how the work is going to be covered in the absence and how you are going to manage that return. Now be realistic, a common theme in maternity leave are new mothers saying that they will be back in a much shorter time than they actually subsequently take. That is not in any way to be patronising to people’s dedication to their careers but from well worn and lived experience, having a baby is life altering and it does take a number of months to regain an even keel again.
I am happy to share with you that I personally don’t think I could have worked at all until my baby was at least 6 months old and then I really enjoyed the subsequent months I had with them to continue developing that bond. Therefore, it’s really important that you put a plan in place, discuss it with managers and then document it somewhere. That will then give your managers who will hopefully be communicating with you regularly the chance to review this and change it in discussion with you.
As an aside, I also think it is really important to think about childcare early. Again, from lived experience and knowing many many new mothers now, finding childcare that you are happy with and has availability is difficult and a challenge. You should start thinking about that at an early stage. That will help you as an individual plan any return to work, use it to look at costings and also revise any plan.
My primary thought is that communication is absolutely key in regards to this. Right from the beginning as the employee, explain to your employer what you want by way of communication. Most employers know that communication with those on maternity leave is absolutely vital, but sometimes really struggle having those conversations with pregnant employees about maternity leave. Some employers haven’t even thought about it. I think the most important thing is to have a conversation early on about the importance of communication.
Remember, in the background, the most common complaint about maternity is employees feeling isolated and not knowing what’s going on. The most common grounds of claims by those on maternity leave are in effect being forgotten about. A promotion happens, a redundancy happens and the person on maternity leave has been in effect forgotten about. Communication will solve both of these problems.
Make a communication plan at the beginning and ensure it is manageable. A word for warning is that communication shouldn’t be actually working when you are on maternity leave but really just a constant stream of communication and, of course, making sure an employee’s colleagues are as involved in that as well as management.
So if you are an employee thinking about returning from maternity leave, or an employer planning for a member of staff returning from maternity leave and need some guidance, please do get in touch with one of our employment experts.