Current employment legislation enables women to take up to year off after they have had a baby.
But a recent Daily Mail report suggested that there was a growing number of women taking so-called ‘micro maternity’ leave and returning to the office just a few months after the child was born.
The trend is apparently being driven by a combination of factors ranging from job insecurity and pressure from employers to financial concerns, which include wages failing to keep up with inflation and savings being eroded by low interest rates.
Another reported reason for the rise in ‘micro maternity’ was the growing number of celebrities such as Myleene Klass and Victoria Beckham who are choosing to go down this route, leading to others following suit.
But the situation is worrying from an HR point of view. If women feel under pressure to return to work earlier than they would like, it may damage their wellbeing and generate problems at the practical, physical and emotional level which can, in turn, have an impact on their performance.
Nonetheless, relatively long maternity leaves are only quite a recent phenomenon. Prior to 1992 when the statutory period of six weeks’ maternity leave was extended to three months, ‘micro maternity’ was part of the UK’s working culture.
But this is no longer the case today. And if HR directors suddenly notice an increase in the numbers of women taking short maternity breaks, then questions should be asked.
Analysing why the situation is taking place, for example, can help establish whether it is down to employees’ individual and personal choices or whether it is driven by other factors such as job insecurity, or even fear.
To ensure that micro maternity leave is successful, however, certain important issues should be considered.
Firstly, because the majority of child minders and nurseries will not take infants who are less than three months old, organising childcare can be problematic. This means that unless the female employee in question has a stay-at-home partner or family close by who can perform this function, she will be unable to return to work before 12 weeks anyway.
A second consideration is that the new mum may find she would prefer to spend more time with her baby than she thought before the birth. This means that staff and business plans will need to be flexible enough to allow for change to be factored in. A back up plan is also likely to be useful.
The secret to success here is ensuring that open dialogue and communication is maintained with the female worker concerned. The aim is to ensure that everyone knows where they stand in order to prevent business performance being unduly affected.
Even if the female employee decides to return to the workplace only a few months after giving birth, however, line managers will need to be made aware that they may have to make allowances. Lack of sleep can be challenging, but providing flexible working hours for a couple of months can help. Expectations in relation to workload may need to be adjusted for a while too.
But there are yet more considerations. For example, does the organisation provide private areas other than the rest rooms where mothers could express milk if they need to? Is there a place to store breast milk other than in the communal fridge?
On top of this, efforts will also need to be made to try and ensure that the perception of individual female staff members is not negatively affected during their maternity leave. It is important to make clear that, if a woman originally planned a ‘micro maternity’ but changes her mind, it does not mean that she is any less committed to the company than she was before the baby, for instance.
While it may seem a lot to take on board, the real upside of this approach is that the organisation will undoubtedly reap the rewards in terms of employee engagement and commitment.
Chris Parke is chief executive of Talking Talent, a consultancy specialising in helping employers manage their female workforce.