Maternity and employment law

New mothers will enjoy new rights from April 1 2007 - but neither employers nor employees should wait until then to learn about maternity and the lawFROM April 1 2007 new mothers will enjoy improved government maternity benefits, including nine months’ paid maternity leave.

The law will also require employers to make reasonable contact with employees on maternity leave and that returning mothers give eight weeks’ notice of their intention to return to work.

In theory, this will make for a smoother transition between work and home life for employees and employers. However, research suggests there is a long way to go.

According to Dr Lynne Millward, occupational psychologist at the University of Surrey, pregnant working women often feel alienated at work and have difficulties reintegrating in the workplace when they return from maternity leave.

After following a number of first-time mums through their pregnancy, maternity leave and return to work, she found that once they had announced their pregnancy all of them felt invisible in the workplace and excluded from the process of organising their maternity cover.

“As soon as a woman says she is pregnant the system kicks in to get maternity cover in,” says Millward. “Suddenly the woman feels like a disposable resource and alienated from work much earlier than her leave period.”

While the women appreciated the need for maternity cover, many said they would have liked to have been consulted over the process and reassured that their contribution was valuable.

The women felt their skills were no longer important to their organisation as their responsibilities were reduced, particularly when their duties were reassigned well in advance of their leave to prepare others for their absence.

This sense of alienation continued when the women returned to work. All of them said they had to prove their commitment to their jobs as if they were new starters. “There were lots of stereotypes from other people, such as doubts of their proper commitment now they were mums,” says Millward.

Employers know it is important to meet mothers’ needs because it is such a female-dominated industry. However, Rick Justham, senior regional organiser at the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), says most employers pay lip service to the concept of family-friendly practices.

“Mothers are getting a raw deal,” he says. “Employers are not as sympathetic to staff as they should be, despite legislation.” 

Justham has been involved in 30 disputes over changed hours in the past year. Weekend hours are seen as a problem as travel is a seven-day business and employers fear  mothers will request weekends off, conflicting with business needs and causing tension with colleagues.

However, Dianah Worman, adviser on diversity issues at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says employers shouldn’t be quick to assume they know what women want. “Women might want to participate more at weekends than during the week because their partner can do the childcare,” she says.

Worman thinks employers have to stop viewing mothers as problem employees and realise family-friendly policies can be beneficial to both parties. “Women have children and employers can’t ignore the needs of mothers with children and babies,” she says. “Businesses are reluctant to face the fact that doing things differently is in their own interest.”

Recent family-friendly legislation requires employers to take seriously any requests for flexible working made by a parent of a child aged six or under. There is a lot of information available to help employers introduce family-friendly practices and for employees to find out what flexible working options exist. The Department of Trade and Industry and the Equal Opportunities Commission provide information on their websites.

Before the new laws come into force in April, employers and new mothers shouldn’t leave it until they return to work to discuss suitable working arrangements. While employers should not pressurise women to make decisions before they go on maternity leave, it is sensible to discuss what options are possible and make it clear they are willing to be flexible.

Some women find it easier to reintegrate in the workplace if they have kept up with colleagues during their maternity leave, but how much contact is made should be left to the employee. The trick is not to treat every pregnant employee or new mother in the same way because needs vary. “Talk and listen,” says Worman. That goes for employers and employees.

How to make it easier for pregnant women and new mums

Pregnant women

  • Talk to them about their needs and fears
  • Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach
  • Involve them in deciding what kind of cover is needed and who might be suited
  • Ensure they still feel like a valued member of the organisation who you would like to continue working for you after their maternity leave is up

Returning mothers

  • Don’t ignore the fact that they have a child and expect them to act as if they are not mothers
  • Take any flexible working requests seriously and consider how it could suit business needs as well as the mother’s needs
  • Consider a staggered return to work, giving the mother time to get used to being a working mum
  • Appreciate that children are sometimes ill and mothers will need time off
  • Ensure returning mothers feel valued at all times

Find out more

Department of Trade and Industry

Equal Opportunities Commission

Business Link

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