How to create the best maternity leave for employees

pregnant woman working at desk

Jaime Johnson is the founder and Director of leading employee research consultancy, The Survey Initiative. Here she explains how to effectively manage maternity leave.

We’ve all heard the disastrous stories about going on maternity leave with very few women sharing positive tales.

I started-up my own employee research consultancy, The Survey Initiative, which enabled me, when I became a mother, to set my own agenda. But my experience is not shared by many, which is why I’m passionate about creating effective maternity leave strategies for all.

First up, it’s crucial to prepare for an employee’s maternity leave way in advance; I would recommend setting-up a one-to-one meeting between the mum-to-be and her line manager to discuss her length of maternity leave and also details on how she would like to be involved with the organisation whilst on leave. Many new mums often feel left out on changes in the workplace, not invited to the Christmas party or summer barbecue, and not notified of an opportunity for a promotion. It’s important to get the right balance, respecting the employee’s right to be on leave, whilst also making sure they are not discriminated against by not keeping them informed. By talking to the employee before their maternity leave starts, and noting their wishes, is a great way to getting the balance right.

Naturally most new mums want to bring baby into the workplace to celebrate the birth. This is a great opportunity to get together with colleagues and peers to congratulate the employee on such a milestone in their life. But there’s simple things that can be done, which will really effect a visit, such as making sure the new mum’s line manager is there to congratulate and spend quality time with the employee, not rushing off, or in a meeting whilst she’s in the workplace. Regular visits to the office can be a great way to keep in touch and re-introduce the employee back into the workplace but they need to be dealt with sensitively.

As women face the end of their maternity leave they often feel concerned about leaving their children, but also excited about returning to work and being amongst colleagues and adult company. However, the sad reality means that many women soon become jaded by being a working mum. Some women find that their careers are derailed with many senior managers considering their maternity leave as a major disruption and have biased ‘old-fashioned’ views about their ambitions and ability to achieve.

Returning to the workplace following maternity leave is tough, especially if mums have chosen not to take the full length of maternity leave. However, new mums seem to manage so much better when their return to the workplace is phased with a gradual return from part time to full time hours. It’s also ideal to drop-off your child in an on-site creche, but this is rarely the reality for many parents. But within your organisation there will be scores of mums who have been through the process. Here a mentoring system should be set-up with new and more experienced working parents to support the employee through this transition period.

Companies need to invest in healthy cultures. I always recommend organisations position maternity leave as just a ‘brief interlude’ in a woman’s career. Organisations should set-up programmes to support women returning to the workplace as part of their onboarding process. Much is spent on new recruits and graduates, but little time is given to a parent’s return to the workplace. Companies that embed healthy work/life cultures in their organisation should always reflect on outputs rather than actual time spent in the office, and if an employee is working from home but not spending too much ‘face time’ in the office, this should not be an issue. Working mums have a lot of skills, experience and talent to offer, and this should never be forgotten.

One of the biggest blockers to strong employee engagement is a bad boss. Line managers should all be trained on how to effectively manage the return of new mums. Everyone is an individual and line managers need to be open to what the employee wants to do – from how long a staff member would like to take on maternity leave, to changes to a flexible work schedule upon return etc. Line managers need to be thoughtful; if working mums are starting their working day at 9.30am and finishing at 4pm, make sure team meetings are not held at 9am or 5pm. It may seem basic, but these small things really will make a big difference.

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