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Working mums: managing pregnancy in the workplace

Tina Chander guides us through the rules and regulations employers should follow in order to support new mums.

WORKING mothers currently account for an increasing share of the UK’s workforce.

Recent research undertaken for the Resolution Foundation and the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics showed 74% of mothers to children under the age of three were employed in 2021, representing a 6% rise since 2019. But pregnancy can pose many operational challenges to employers. So how do they ensure they remain supportive of new mums, while also protecting their business interests?

How does the law protect pregnant women?
All pregnant employees have the right to paid time off for antenatal care, maternity leave, pay or allowance, and the protection against discrimination or unfair treatment.

It’s illegal to marginalise women in the workplace because they’re pregnant, suffer any pregnancy-related illness, or take extended maternity leave. If an individual is dismissed, demoted, has their contractual terms altered, or is coerced into returning to work early, then there could be grounds for a tribunal.

Fair treatment
Protection against discrimination covers both existing employees and those going through the recruitment process. For example, while recruiting, it’s unlawful to ask a woman if she’s pregnant, plans to have children, or already has any. Posing such questions breaches the Equality Act 2010.

Women have no obligation to inform employers they are expecting until 15 weeks before the anticipated birth, so if a job offer is withdrawn upon learning of a candidate’s pregnancy, an employer risks claims of unfair dismissal.

Current employees who become pregnant should be offered the same opportunity to further their careers as anyone else. This means being given a fair chance to apply for promotion. Rejecting applications on the basis that someone is pregnant or on parental leave, directly violates sex discrimination laws.

These individuals must also be treated equally during redundancy or termination. They cannot be dismissed for any reason connected to their parental status as this would amount to automatic unfair dismissal. If termination is agreed upon, employers should provide full reasoning in writing.
Failure to provide ample proof or fair assessment puts an employer at increased risk of legal action.

What’s the employer’s duty of care?
Pregnancy can place additional stress on someone’s physical and mental wellbeing, occasionally impacting their safety at work. As such, employers should conduct risk assessments and adapt working conditions wherever necessary to protect the welfare of new/expectant mothers. Failure to do so could amount to pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

Common risks include heavy lifting, long working hours, standing for extended periods, or driving long distances. Reasonable steps should be taken to remove these risks, potentially changing someone’s working hours, offering additional breaks, or allowing home working. However, in some cases, it could mean offering alternative work for the duration of the pregnancy.

Employers can’t legally alter a pregnant employee’s contractual terms and conditions without prior agreement, so even if health and safety dictates a role change during pregnancy, pay and benefits should remain the same.

Time off work
Pregnant employees are entitled to paid leave to attend antenatal appointments; refusal to facilitate this will amount to detriment under the Employment Rights Act 1996. The individual’s co-parent is also allowed unpaid leave to attend two appointments. All employees, irrespective of their length of service, are allowed 52 weeks maternity leave.

However, they must have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks before 15-weeks prior to the anticipated birth date, to be eligible for Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP).

Employees don’t have to take their full maternity leave. However, legally they must take a minimum of two weeks off work after the baby is born, or four weeks if they are factory workers.

Navigating the return to work
Those taking up to 26 weeks of maternity leave can legally expect to return to their old job on the same terms and conditions. However, those taking over 26 weeks can only return to their previous role if ‘reasonably practicable’. Employers will need a legitimate reason to offer an alternative position, which must be on the same contractual terms.

Employees may seek to change certain contractual details themselves, such as working hours to accommodate childcare. If they have at least 26 weeks service, they are entitled to put in a flexible working request. Employers must consider all requests fairly, and give a decision on the matter within three months.

The point of no return
If an employee decides not to return to work after maternity leave, they must follow the business’ standard process for resigning. However, if the employee is dissatisfied about how their return has been managed, or they feel like they’re being engineered out of their role for illegitimate reasons, they might look to raise a formal ‘grievance’.

New parenthood is often a time of big emotions, so remaining tactful and following strict protocol is advisable to avoid complaints being made. With mothers now making up an even greater share of the employment market, inclusivity will be key to attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce.

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