There has been much in the news of late about the treatment of pregnant women during the Covid pandemic. A report out last week from Pregnant Then Screwed showed high levels of anxiety about working outside the home, and campaigners raising concerns about how long it took the Government to update guidance on the increased risks to pregnant women from the virus. The guidance was not updated until late December.
workingmums.co.uk has also received reports from pregnant women and returning mothers from maternity leave of discriminatory treatment, including women being effectively sacked on their first day back from leave by employers either looking to reduce head count or assuming that they won’t be as “committed” as other workers. This is clearly not just a Covid issue as research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows 54,000 women lose their jobs every year as a result of getting pregnant.
But there are also many examples of good practice, based on the idea that the way to attract and retain talent is to treat people well and understand the different pressure points they might face in their working lives. Teach First, which won the workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award for its family support policies which include a wide range of policies relating to parental leave. Teach First emphasises that its policies aim to embrace all types of families and all types of situations. In addition to normal parents leave, for instance, there are enhanced policies on parental bereavement leave, premature birth and neonatal care leave. The best employers make sure that their policies are publicly accessible, knowing that candidates are getting better at doing their research on these issues.
Many employers also now offer one to ones with managers before parents go on leave and after they return as well as parent-led forums or networks, which may feature expert speakers on a wide range of parenting issues and feed into HR policy or just offer a space to talk about worries. Some match those returning from extended parental leave up with buddies and mentors who have been through the experience beforehand and can offer empathy and advice and signpost to other support. Others hire external maternity and paternity coaches to build resilience. Some employers may also offer breastfeeding areas.
One of the big issues for parents is flexible working and the best employers make a point of beginning the conversation before the employee goes on leave so that childcare, which may need to be booked months in advance, can be arranged around it. Even if employees are already working flexibly during their pregnancy, their needs may change after the birth and even if they think they know what will work afterwards, a lot can change after the birth and months of leave. That means it is a good idea to check in before the employee returns.
Vodafone is among employers who allow women returning from maternity leave to have a phased return on full pay, given that it is often those first months back when parents are still getting into a routine and need time to adjust which are the hardest.
At the heart of all the policies are an empathetic work culture and line managers. Support for them in the form of toolkits, training or just recognition of the importance of their role is vital. Some employers also offer help with childcare, such as back-up childcare, lists of local childcare providers or even onsite provision.
Parental leave is one example of how employers might need to handle periods of extended leave and reintegration into the workplace. We are likely to see more people taking extended leave in the future given many of us will be working longer. The furlough scheme is another example of the need for careful thinking about how to reintegrate workers after extended leave in order to both retain them and keep them engaged and motivated. Last year workingmums.co.uk produced a transition out of lockdown toolkit for managers of furloughed employees based around best practice for parental leave.
Interestingly, some of the tried and tested methods used to address issues related to women in the workplace have, in recent years, been extending to other areas of diversity and inclusion work. Indeed hybrid working is something many women have pioneered. There is much to be learned from those who have already trodden this path and know what works as well as what doesn’t.