HR practitioners will struggle to forget small business minister Paul Scully’s comment on maternity leave last September. Written in a government addressed letter after a proposal to extend postpartum time off during lockdown was rejected: the minister ruled that three months paid leave was already “sufficiently generous”. The statement while it may have seemed benign sparked outrage among expectant parents who were left wondering with nurseries running at a limited occupancy and self isolation in place who will look after their newborn when statutory paid leave ends?
With many offices still operating remotely, offering support to pregnant workers during the pandemic has become difficult – with many employers unsure what the best practices are to protect the emotional wellness of mothers. To understand more HR Wire reached out to Carolyn Hobdey a corporate HR veteran with over 20 years experience and founder of MayDey Limited a workwell being platform.
What are the biggest issues facing expectant mothers in the workplace?
The biggest issues facing expectant mothers in the workplace are rarely practical, but instead are emotional – not just for them, but for those around them. Throughout my many years in HR, I’ve never yet met a line manager who, whilst in most cases genuinely pleased for the expectant employee, isn’t struck by feelings of stress, weariness and also (let’s be honest) a bit of irritation when a member of their team announces they are pregnant and will shortly be off for up to a year.
The adjustments required whilst the employee is at work, the preparations to cover their workload whilst they are away from work and the potential impacts on the rest of the team will all play on the managers mind. It’s easy to see why the managers’ brain might flip straight to the practical implications at the expense of the emotional. All this at a time when the employee is feeling more vulnerable than normal.
Has remote working improved maternity leave conditions?
The remote working that many are now doing is probably, as with many things at the moment, both a blessing and a curse. For some women it is likely to mean that, due to the nature of their work, they may well be able to work for longer/nearer to their due date. I know from my experience in the workplace that for many women as they reach their due date it is the physical act of getting up, getting dressed – and finding suitable work clothes that still fit – and getting into work that can present some of the greatest challenges, as well as the tiredness that typically accompanies the first and third trimesters.
Working from home can relieve some of those issues. Increased flexibility in the working hours of someone’s day, the possibility to take a rest during the day whilst at home and the ability to create a more comfortable environment will all help. Those things, however, may require a conversation prompted by the line manager in order to give the remote expectant mother ‘permission’ to do them.
What can employers do to help?
The downside of remote working is the same for expectant mothers as for others – the requirement for a different style of and increased efforts regarding communication. For any remote worker the need to put thought and time into communicating with them is essential. With an expectant mother, especially for a first-time pregnancy, there will be many anxieties present that are not easily distinguishable as ‘work’ or ‘home’ worries – all those emotions will be in a single melting pot and poor communication, especially silence, will exacerbate those. All this comes also at a time when there is increased concern about employment security.
With this in mind, think about how the employee might be feeling. Put yourself in their shoes.If you are a man think about other expectant females you’ve known and what worries they shared at the time. Stay in regular contact – you might need to let them know even more than you usually would that coming to you with any concern is absolutely fine.
Talk about what would best work for them regards their working day, how the work is completed and the ways in which you communicate. It’s the age old advice: listen genuinely, ask rather than assume and create the right conditions for open dialogue.
So much of what I hear as a HR professional are those questions that the employee really should be addressing to their line manager, but felt too worried, embarrassed or uncertain to raise. As line managers it’s incumbent on you to set the tone and environment for constructive communication.
What needs to change?
With suggestions that a significant increase in remote working is here to stay, there is likely to be a need for changes in employment practices regarding maternity leave/parental provisions -which, in time, may necessitate a change in the law. This will be driven by how work itself now needs to be done/can be done differently, the encouragement of greater flexibility in working hours and location, as well as an improvement in the acceptance that our working and home lives are not mutually exclusive. All of these provide positive opportunities for how women and couples under current legislation take and share their maternity leave entitlement as well as handling parenting responsibilities in the longer term.
Whilst it is, of course, vital that employers comply with current legislation, I would encourage them to get on the front foot now by talking to employees about how their maternity leave might pan out differently during a lockdown and as a result of home working.
Consider the approach taken to flexible working, and especially managers attitudes to it, as well as team management and the apportioning of work. Discuss and educate your leadership team to ensure that their mindsets shift to accommodate this ‘new normal’ so that their tone and openness in discussing this with employees is in line with your company values.