It is, perhaps, not surprising that new mothers feel apprehensive about returning to the workplace after their maternity leave; some may have been out of the office for up to a year. It is vital that employers are supportive in the initial stages of the return to work to ensure the employee feels welcomed and to avoid them being treated less favourably during this time.
Employers can lessen the stress of the return by using Keeping In Touch (KIT) days productively. Women can work up to ten KIT days during their maternity leave and the employer can look to agree these days in a way which benefits the employee. For example, if there is a training day on a new piece of software which will be instrumental to the employee's role when they return, they can see whether she will agree to use a KIT day for the training day. The same goes for days such as team building. The employer keeping in contact with the employee during maternity leave is also vital to ensure any company news or updates are provided to lessen the stress of her return and she should be invited to social work events to ensure she is not isolated.
On the first day, employers should be arranging an informal discussion with the employee about her return to talk about any workplace changes or address any concerns she has at this time. It is likely that returning mothers may wish to change working patterns or request flexible working so this could be a good forum to speak about this and direct the employee towards any relevant policies and notice requirements to make these requests.
There are practical issues which employers need to address. Employers have to carry out a risk assessment if the mother is returning to work within the six months after giving birth or is continuing to breastfeed to ensure there are no risks to her health. Where the employee is breastfeeding or expressing milk, employers will have to provide suitable facilities to do so. Whilst the law only requires 'suitable facilities' employers can find that providing extras, such as separate private storage facilities, can go a long way towards supporting the mother's choice to continue breastfeeding. A flexible attitude towards breaks and working patterns may will avoid discrimination and support the employee with their decision about this.
Returning mothers have the right to be protected against discrimination because of their pregnancy. Generally, they have the right to return to the same job role with the same terms and conditions or, if not reasonably practicable, a similar role with the same entitlements. Employers should ensure that they are not discriminating against the employee when she returns by placing her in a lower job role or taking any duties and responsibilities because she has been on leave. They also need to ensure that immediate managers are aware of how the right way to treat and manage the employee when she is back in the office. Although employers are supporting the return, it may be going unnoticed that line managers are treating the employee unfairly at work or not encouraging the job progression simply because she has had a baby.