Why are new mothers not taking their maternity leave?

HR expert Kate Palmer outlines the reasons mums take so little maternity leave on average and how employers can support them better on their return to work.

Hand holding sign which says Maternity Leave

 

Research suggests that maternity leave offers a lot of benefits to mothers and their families. Recovery time. Bonding time with their newborn baby. A lower risk of being hospitalised… So, it seems like a given that you’d take it, right?

Well, apparently not.

According to Timetastic’s annual leave statistics for 2022/23, the average working mum books off just 11 weeks of maternity leave. That’s 41 weeks of leave they don’t take – because the statutory entitlement is 52 weeks (roughly a year).

We could put this down to working mums being eager to return to a job they love. But while this might be true for some women, for others it’s far from being that clear cut…

Job security

The decision to take time out of the workforce to look after children has always been stigmatised. And it’s because of this that so many women wrongly believe they have to choose between having children and a career.

Research suggests that a primary reason why so many women cut their maternity leave short is because they fear they won’t have a job to come back to at the end of it.

An NCT report revealed that 43% of women were more likely to return to work sooner than they’d want to after giving birth. And 47% put that down to worries that they could lose their job.

And while there are laws to protect the rights of pregnant employees and mothers on maternity leave, it doesn’t stop discrimination from happening (which we’ll get to later).

Instead, there is a misconception that women who become mothers will be “less committed” to work after they become a parent. And it’s this bias that may influence decision-makers – either consciously or unconsciously – when it comes to hiring or promoting someone with children. And when two-thirds of working mothers say they think their career has ‘stalled’ after having children, it’s no surprise that there’s so much anxiety and fear over career prospects.

Financial reasons

Career prospects and pay rises are important now more than ever when we’re living in a cost of living crisis. And while many women might want to take their full maternity leave, many simply can’t afford it.

That’s unless they’re in a position to accept a pay cut. Because unless they’re offered an enhanced rate, most women will get statutory maternity pay (SMP). Which means their pay will be capped at 90% for the first six weeks. After that, it’ll either continue at 90% or a weekly rate of £172.48 (whichever is lower).

SMP is also only payable for 39 weeks. So, if a new mother wanted to take all of her entitled leave, some of it would go unpaid. And this just isn’t an option for many mothers – especially single parents.

According to a study by Direct Line, a year of maternity leave will cover only 54% of the average woman’s salary. That’s why three out of four expecting and new mothers have to cover their loss of earnings in other ways – and only 18% of women are in a strong enough financial position to not have to do this.

Stigma

If the financial pressure to stay in work wasn’t enough, the emotional pressure will certainly do it. A survey of 2,000 women by Slater and Gordon revealed that one in 10 women were the target of inappropriate comments and jokes about their pregnancy. And 42% felt their colleagues had different attitudes towards them once they told them they were expecting.

It’s stigma that underlies so many of the issues affecting working mums. Women feeling pressure to return to work too soon. The “working mum guilt”. Job insecurity…

As long as we look at working mums through a stigmatised lens, women will continue to feel unsupported, fearful and stressed about work on top of the stress of parenthood.

Help working mums feel better about taking maternity leave

There are steps you can take to help support your pregnant employees and encourage them to take maternity leave, like:

  • Having robust family leave policies. Setting up policies around parental leave will help to establish your stance on family leave and reassure employees that you offer support and guidance around the process.
  • Organising keep-in-touch days. Keep in touch days give you a chance to reconnect with your employee while they’re on maternity leave and check in with them. These days act as a reminder of how much you value your employee, and gives you a chance to both reassure and reaffirm their position at your company.
  • Setting up return to work programmes. Setting up return work programmes can help mums who have had a career break to transition back into work. It gives them chance to retrain and get the support they need to meet their professional goals.
  • Offering flexible working. Rigid work schedules can be a barrier to working mums who have do the school run and manage other childcare commitments. So, if you’re able to allow more flexibility with working hours, or work from home days, this can really help to retain working mums.
  • Providing enhanced maternity pay. Financial concerns deter many women from taking their entitled leave. So, you could choose to offer more than the standard rate of maternity pay if you wish. For example, you could offer to give full pay for a bulk of the maternity leave instead of the capped 90%, and then keep the rest as statutory pay.

These are just a few ways you can help tackle the stigma around maternity leave. And by taking an active approach, you help give more working mums the freedom to take their leave, while knowing their careers will still be waiting for them when they’re ready to return to work.

*Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula which provides HR and health & safety support for small businesses.



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