Maternal instinct

For most women, becoming pregnant is a joyous experience. But, as this week’s Personnel Today and Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) survey shows, for too many it can instead be an unmitigated fi-nancial, career and employment disaster.

The survey, published today, is the latest stage of an ongoing EOC investigation launched in the summer into why so many employers find managing pregnancy so difficult, and what can be done to curb discrimination.

EOC chair, Julie Mellor, estimates around 1,000 pregnancy-based discrimination cases are brought each year, which represents a potentially huge bill for employers. Women who have been sacked because they are pregnant make up the largest number of callers to its helpline.

What is clear, both from the EOC’s interim report in September and from the latest study, is that employers, particularly line managers, are often left floundering simply because they do not know what their legal obligations and responsibilities are. What all sides want, it appears, is someone to hold their hand and guide them through safely.

This is where HR can come into play, says Mellor. “HR needs to be providing the guidelines to line managers on rights and responsibilities. These need to include really practical stuff like timelines and walking through the process,” she says.

The EOC is working to develop a toolkit that employers and HR can use and adapt to help the process along, she adds.

“HR also needs to make sure its organisation has the right policies on flexible working in place, and the line managers have the practical support needed to deliver that,” she concludes.

Here, three organisations explain how they manage pregnancy at work.

Sandy Menzies, jeweller

Aberdeen-based jeweller Sandy Menzies employs just 15 people – 13 of them women. If one becomes pregnant, experienced jewellers are not exactly thick on the ground, explains director Jacqui Grant.

In the past 18 months around four staff – or just over a quarter of her workforce – have taken maternity leave.

Full-time staff undergo seven months’ in-house training, which is obviously impractical when it comes to temporary cover. “It creates a big workload for the other employees,” she admits.

Another major issue is helping workers who have taken time off to have children feel that they have not been forgotten and to help them back into the business if they want to return, says Grant.

“We had a member of staff from the retail unit who went on maternity leave, so I made sure we phoned or e-mailed her every week. It was just about saying ‘hi’ really. At 20p for three minutes, or whatever it is, it is a very effective way of keeping in touch and getting staff to come back,” she adds.

Staff get statutory maternity leave and allowances, so Grant has a key role to play in helping workers understand what their rights and entitlements are, both contractually and financially.

Grant believes small businesses will often fall down when it comes to managing pregnancy. A workshop, perhaps by an organisation such as Investors in People, tailored to the needs of managing pregnant workers – what each side needs to be doing and thinking about, and when – might be a good idea, she says.

Similarly, some sort of booklet or laminated guide that can be stuck on a wall, clearly explaining the processes and rights on all sides would be helpful, she advises.

“It needs to be bullet points aimed at someone who does not have a clue and, if you’re stuck, explaining who you can phone,” she adds.

Barnet Primary Care Trust, healthcare trust

Barnet Primary Care Trust in north London employs some 1,400 people, of which around 83 per cent are women. While there is generally an older demographic to the workforce – late 30s and early 40s – about 14 people, 1 per cent of the workforce, went on maternity leave last year.
This is an increase from around nine to 10 people per year two years ago, estimates HR manager Sarah Ganeshaguru – making managing pregnancy a live issue for HR.

Once a member of staff knows they are pregnant and has seen their line manager, a well-rehearsed routine is put in place. The employee will see HR and will have maternity counselling – a talk through the practicalities of maternity leave, what to do if they fall sick, health and safety, childcare contacts and so on.

“It is about letting people know and being aware of things. We ask people to keep in touch and some come back for a second session,” she explains.

There will also be discussions with the line manager to sort out issues of cover and return dates and so on. Providing cover can be a challenge, as funding for this is limited, she adds.

Being a public sector organisation, employees get relatively generous maternity leave: six months’ paid leave, with the first eight weeks on close to full pay and then tapering down from there. From 19 weeks, pay reverts to the statutory allowance. Employees are encouraged to stay in touch, but there is no prerequisite for them to do so.

One area often overlooked in managing pregnancy is the period after a new mum returns to work, says Ganeshaguru.

Not only do managers need to be aware that an employee may no longer be as flexible in their working hours (but often much more focused and motivated as a result), but they may often, particularly if they have reduced their hours and have childcare to pay for, be hard pressed financially.
“We have a huge number of returners, about 89 per cent. But after the first three months, a lot of people are struggling and leaving. The first three months are key,” explains Ganeshaguru.

The trust has tried to address this by employing a childcare co-ordinator, whose job it is to help staff access affordable childcare. It also operates a nursery for children aged six months and over, which is open from 7.30am to 6pm, 51 weeks a year. However, the subsidy on this is limited, as are the childcare spaces available.

HR will also speak to the line manager about four to five weeks before the employee comes back about the feasibility of flexible working and to make sure people don’t return, for instance, to find their desk has gone.

One thing that would make her life easier, believes Ganeshaguru, would be a national database of childcare that HR professionals could access.

“You need to embrace the whole process, not just see it as a paper exercise or a burden. It needs to be an inclusive process, and that has to include the person returning to work,” she adds.

International SOS, medical assistance organisation

Organising a medical evacuation of a worker from a remote part of the world is all in a day’s work for medical assistance firm International SOS.
The organisation employs around 200 people in the UK, of which 53 per cent are women.

As its workers are highly skilled, and what they do is taught in very few other places, the company can ill afford to lose staff permanently after they have had a baby, says head of HR, Sharon Douglas.

Cover while a worker is off is a key challenge, as this is not something that has its own budget. The company tries where possible to parachute other staff temporarily into the positions, in the hope of developing their own skills and responsibilities.

On pay, the company is limited in only being able to offer the statutory minimum, meaning it has to offer other attractions, such as flexible working, to tempt people back, explains Douglas.

The company makes good use of its occupational health department when a worker reports that they are pregnant, advising on things such as whether and when travel needs to be limited, health and safety and use of inoculations.

“We try to talk to the employee at the earliest opportunity to look at how we can support them through the pregnancy and so that everyone knows where they stand,” says Douglas.

The idea is for HR, the line manager and the employee to get together and have an open discussion about things, such as any work risks that need to be adjusted, fitting in antenatal appointments, whether there is the prospect of being able to work from home and so on.

“We do not necessarily want answers straight away, particularly on the issue of returning to work, but we do want them to think about it,” she adds.

During the maternity leave, the company encourages workers to remain in contact. There is an employee assistance programme they can access should they need it and they can attend the quarterly briefing sessions. They are also encouraged to come in and see colleagues, preferably with their babies, says Douglas.

Similarly on their return, the company will bend over backwards to try and slot people back in, either into their existing role or, if that is no longer appropriate, into another position. It will also look at opportunities for more home and flexible working, says Douglas.

“We want to influence managers as an opportunity, not ‘Oh my god, so and so is pregnant’. Rather it should be, ‘How do we support them?’ and ‘How can we retain their skills and talents?’. That is the biggest thing HR can influence,” she stresses.

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