Managing maternity leave can be difficult. Being without a key member of your team for up to a year can be a daunting prospect for any employer, but it can be a particularly challenging for a small business with small teams and tight resources.
Like most things in life, you’ll need a good plan to get you through. Here we cover some of the key aspects you might want to consider.
The key to managing maternity leave is to start straight away. As soon as your employee notifies you of their pregnancy, take the time to fill out the plan together. Agree on regular dates that you’ll review and update the plan, and always leave the employee with an updated copy.
It goes without saying, you should have a comprehensive maternity policy and ensure employees know how to access it.
While the policy doesn’t need to be convoluted, it should explicitly set out things such as what the laws are surrounding maternity leave, and what your policy on statutory maternity pay is.
You can download a maternity policy template from XpertHR, or it might be worth speaking to an independent HR Consultant to ensure your policy accurately reflects your company’s ideals.
The three key dates you need to note are: the due date, the date they intend to start their maternity leave, and the date they plan on returning. There’s a good chance they won’t have decided when they’re starting or returning. So it is important to make it clear that these things can be changed as the pregnancy progresses, but hopefully, this gives you both a clear picture of what the plan currently is.
The earliest that maternity leave can begin is around 11 weeks before the due date. However, it is an employee’s right to work right up until the baby is born if they want to. If the baby comes early, then the leave automatically starts the day after the birth. It is also automatically triggered if absent with a pregnancy-related illness in the 4 weeks before the baby is due.
If the employee isn’t sure when they plan on starting their maternity leave, then suggest they put down an initial date of around 4 weeks before the due date. Remember to make it clear that they can change their mind on this date at any point.
The law states that an employee can take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave if they wish to, and must take at least 2 weeks (4 if they work in a factory). If they’re unsure of how much they plan on taking at this point, then agree to put down the maximum of 52 weeks. This then gives you a return date to work with.
It is also worth reminding the employee that 8 weeks’ notice is required if any changes are made to the return date.
The prospect of surviving on a diminished wage during maternity leave can be a stressful factor for a new mother. You can reduce, at least this stress, by providing information on their expected pay at this early stage.
If you don’t already have a maternity policy, then the first decision you need to make is whether to pay the statutory maternity pay or enhanced pay.
Statutory Maternity Pay is paid for 39 weeks. It starts at 90% of their average weekly earnings (AWE), for the first six weeks. After this, it is paid at the SMP rate (currently £140.98) per week, or 90% of their AWE if this is lower. If your annual NI contributions are less than £45k, then you can claim back the SMP plus 3%.
If the employee was pregnant before their employment with your business began, then they’re not entitled to SMP, but can claim Maternity Allowance from the Jobcentre.
Before They Start Their Maternity
Be prepared for the unexpected. Pregnancies don’t always go according to plan, so you’ll need to have something in place should the maternity leave begin earlier than anticipated.
Any sick leave caused by a pregnancy-related illness must be recorded separately and cannot count towards an employee’s sickness absence record. Also, the employee should be paid for any days missed due to antenatal care. You can track these types of absence and more using The Holiday Tracker’s custom absence types.
It’s a legal requirement to perform regular risk assessments with the employee to identify any changes to their work environment that may be required, such as needing a different chair or being placed on light duties.
Have regular meetings to check in with your employee and review the action plan to see if anything needs changing, such as their return date. Detail in the plan when these meetings will take place, so they don’t get forgotten.
At this stage, it’s also worth considering how you will fill the gap left behind when the maternity leave begins. Do you want to hire a replacement, hire a temp from an agency, or spread the work around and give others the opportunity to shine?
If you do decide to spread the work, then try to involve the other employees in the decisions so they don’t feel resentment at the extra work they’ve been given. Consider it an opportunity to pitch it to them as a positive thing, a chance for people to experience other roles and aspects of the business.
While They’re Away
Once the employee begins their maternity leave, you’ll need to update the dates in the plan if the leave started earlier or later than expected. Stick an updated copy in the post for the employee along with a bouquet of flowers!
Communication during maternity leave is crucial. After a long time off, the prospect of returning may seem daunting, so staying in touch and providing regular updates as to what is going on in the business might help incentivise them to return.
You are allowed make reasonable contact with the employee during maternity leave, but use this planning phase to agree on the best way to stay in contact (email, phone, letter, etc.) and how much contact they would prefer.
Employees can work up to 10 Keeping In Touch days during their maternity. These are optional from both the employee and employer perspective, but they are a great way to ensure the employee doesn’t feel alienated from the team. It is your responsibility to establish if these days are to be paid and what the rate of pay is.
Given that you would want valued employee to return to work when the maternity leave ends, then there are a number of initiatives you can put in place to encourage employees to return to work.
The first few years of a child’s life are an important stage and some parents will want to be involved in as much of this time as possible. Offering flexible working hours could be a key factor in the decision for a new mother to return to work. Using the planning stage to outline what the options are will ensure you’re both on the same page during the next 12 months.
When the employee returns, will you expect them to return to their full hours immediately, or will there be a phased return? Ironing out all of this ambiguity at this stage means the return should be smoother.
It’s worth considering that the cost of childcare can almost outweigh the salary received by a parent, especially with more than one child. Childcare vouchers are a tax-efficient way for employees to cover childcare costs and can be offered via a salary sacrifice arrangement, and you can even save on employer’s NI by offering them. Win win.
The old adage “failure to prepare is preparing to fail” has never been truer here. Effectively managing maternity leave is dependent on having a consistent plan. A plan that you and the employee both understand and agree to will see you both through this tumultuous but exciting journey.
For more information on the rules around maternity leave and working while pregnant: