How to make maternity leave work for both employers and employees

Woman with her baby lying on a bed

Want to ensure that maternity leave works for everyone involved? From shared parental leave to mentoring returning parents back in the workplace, here's how to keep all staff happy

As we hear daily on Mumsnet, pregnancy and new motherhood bring with them a raft of challenges. Not the least among these can be the adjustment to maternity leave, for most women the first extended break since entering the workforce.

By and large, Mumsnet users are phlegmatic: they don’t expect to know how they’ll feel about such a huge life change until it happens, and they don’t expect it to be easy. They’re mostly pretty realistic about the hurdles, which can include massive changes to your social life, a bewildering array of baby products, the challenges of dealing with a young baby when you’ve had far too little sleep. For an unfortunately large number, though, the attitudes of employers add to their burden in ways they didn’t expect.

Recent Mumsnet surveys bear out the anecdotal evidence of our forums: even now, four in 10 women return from maternity leave to find themselves out of touch with skills and office practices, and a healthy majority feel less employable after having children. But as the businesses we at Mumsnet have worked with have told us time and again, a situation which disadvantages new mothers benefits nobody – and the good news is that more and more employers are getting it.

Mumsnet’s Family Friendly programme, launched in 2010, aims to celebrate the achievements of the many companies who DO make life easier for families, and for themselves too: by supporting women, whatever their level of seniority, before, during and after their time off, employers drive up retention rates and add value to their companies.

At the heart of what our users say they want are two things: flexibility, and a company culture within which they know they can approach managers with reasonable requests. A big catalyst in the positive change we’ve seen has been the option of flexibility not just for new mothers, but for the whole workforce – and the evidence is in the fact it makes all the business sense in the world to offer it.

One recent study found majorities of employers identifying the positive effect flexible working practices had on recruitment and retention, productivity, and loyalty among staff. Flexible working practices consistently benefit both employer and employee, and inflexibility poses real costs for both.

With this backdrop, our users are pretty clear on the things that matter when it comes to maternity leave:

  • Bear in mind that one size seldom fits all, and ask the woman concerned what would be useful for her. Remember too that patterns and expectations change quickly, so be open to changes where possible. Checking in regularly stops staff becoming disaffected (and looking at job ads) or exhausted.
  • Let men be parents too. Expand your view of flexible working to take account of the introduction of Shared Parental Leave; be proactive in reassuring hesitant fathers that their careers won’t suffer if they ask for it. More and more dads, especially younger fathers, are starting to prioritise time with their families and are prepared to shop around for jobs that will allow it.
  • Be really upfront about your flexible working offer and your willingness to consider it: don’t leave employees to guess what their options are. Keeping all your managers on the right page with company policies is good HR practice – and great for both internal and external comms.
  • Have an unfaltering focus on successfully reintegrating returning parents, using mentoring, return-to-work seminars, properly planned KIT days, confidence-boosting sessions, buddy supporters and training packages. It will boost productivity and morale. There is something about extended breaks that prompts deeper reflection about the value and purpose of work; if people return to half-hearted reintegration, you won’t get the best from them, and any investment you’ve made in their training could ultimately be lost if they move on.

In practice, we’ve seen a brilliant range of innovatory solutions. Unilever boasts a ‘MAPS’ (Maternity and Paternity Support) programme, guiding and supporting employees and line managers through the stages of becoming a parent, up to and including returning to work.

Keeping-in-touch days are great – our surveys consistently show that women return to work feeling de-skilled and out of the loop – so long as they’re taken seriously and well thought-through. For example, requiring new mothers to leave their babies at home on KIT days isn’t a very good look, unless there’s a genuinely good reason.

Other companies offer a gradual return to work, which allows women returning after maternity leave to ease back to their full working hours gradually over a two-month period. “Core working hours” policies are easily implemented and incredibly impactful, ensuring that working non-standard hours doesn't mean you always miss the most important meetings.

Open communication, understanding, good training of line managers and a cultural commitment to flexibility serve to make the switch away from and back to work a lot less stressful. And as we’ve consistently seen, employers who go the extra mile in offering flexible and supportive maternity arrangements are themselves rewarded with dedicated, hardworking and loyal staff, and a vibrant internal company culture that promotes creativity and retention.

Mumsnet is working with HRZone and Womba on a special family friendly month, to bring focus to issues around flexible working and returning to work after parental leave. Check out the rest of the materials here.

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