When an employee announces their pregnancy, you’re all smiles on the surface. You congratulate them. You’re happy for them. Now, you’re faced with issues surrounding maternity leave.

Businesses are expected to take this experience in their stride.

But the truth is, things are never that simple. For small businesses, maternity leave is a particularly concerning challenge.

You risk losing a key employee for a significant amount of time. You can’t just replace them, because they’ll need to come back once they’ve comfortably settled into motherhood. You may need to pay them for not working for you, whilst paying someone else to do their job.

You might need to recruit someone new, invest in training and hope that they keep things on track. You need to keep everything running smoothly.

It’s important to make sure that you’re not breaking any employment laws.

Maternity leave is complicated. And, whilst there are so many news reports about maternity rights, little thought is given to the employers that have to make it work.

Here are our tips for taking one of the biggest workplace challenges, and turning it into a positive experience for everyone:

Maternity leave UK: the rules

Before you do anything else, make sure that you’re clued up on the rules.

What are women entitled to, once they announce their pregnancy? What should you do? What shouldn’t you do?

Statutory Maternity Leave

In broad strokes the rules around statutory maternity leave are women are entitled to up to 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave.

They don’t have to make use of it all.

But, new mums must use maternity leave for the first two weeks following the birth.

Every new parent is different. Some will find it extremely difficult to return after 52 weeks. Others will be desperate for time with adults and a bit of routine and normality. They may want to return when their baby is just one month old.

No one way is better than another. As an employer, it’s your job to support your employee’s decision.

Your employee must tell you about their pregnancy, at least 15 weeks before the baby’s due date. This entitles them to their 52 weeks of maternity leave. At this time, they should also tell you when the baby is due.

If you have any doubts about the pregnancy, it is important not to make accusations. You have a right to ask for a supporting medical document, as proof that an employee is pregnant.

Your employee also needs to tell you when they intend to start their maternity leave. At this stage, you should write to your employee and detail their return to work date. This has to be done within 28 days, and your employee will need to give eight weeks’ notice if they plan to return on a different date.\

If an employee has left work early, as a result of a pregnancy-related illness, then their maternity leave will start automatically four weeks before the baby’s due date. If the baby arrives early, it automatically starts on the day after the birth.

Top tips

  1. It isn’t your job to question your employee’s decision about how much maternity leave they would like. Make sure that they understand their entitlement, but don’t make them feel bad if they only want a month or two off work. Or, if they want to be away for as long as possible!
  2. Respond quickly to your employee’s pregnancy announcement. Once they have told you the date that they intend to start maternity leave, you should provide a written response within 28 days.
  3. Be prepared for the fact that things don’t always go to plan. As soon as you know about your employee’s pregnancy, prepare for their sudden disappearance. Many women are unable to continue working until their baby is born, and many babies are born months before they were due, so don’t plan on your employee being around until their due date.

Maternity Pay

Employees are entitled to be paid during their maternity leave.

Statutory Maternity Pay

This is the most common form of payment. Payments are made for 39 weeks.

Women are entitled to this as long as they have been in employment for a full 25 weeks, leading up to the 15th week before their baby’s due date. In short, they should have been employed since the start of their pregnancy.

They must also have average weekly earnings that, at the very least, have had them making National Insurance contributions.
Statutory Maternity Pay is paid at 90% of a woman’s average weekly earnings, for the first six weeks of maternity leave. After this, it is paid at the SMP rate (currently £139.58) per week, if this is lower than the previous payment.

Maternity Allowance

If an employee does not qualify for Statutory Maternity Pay, because they are not earning enough or haven’t been employed for long enough, then they should instead receive Maternity Allowance.

They must have been employed for 26 weeks out of the 66 leading up to their baby’s due date. They should have earned at least £30 a week, on average, for at least 13 of those 26 weeks.

Maternity Allowance payments can begin up to 11 weeks before the baby is due. They will continue for up to 39 weeks, depending on eligibility. Payments are for between £27 per week and £139.58 per week.

If your employee isn’t entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay, then you should direct them to Jobcentre Plus to claim their Maternity Allowance. They will need an MA1 form, which they can print and fill in.

Contractual Maternity Payments

Some employers go above and beyond, offering a higher level of maternity pay to their employees.

Others will offer payments for longer than 39 weeks.

If you are offering this, it should be mentioned in employment contracts and employee handbooks.

Top tips:

  1. Help your employee to check what they’re entitled to. If they won’t be entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay, support them in their application for Maternity Allowance.
  2. Maternity pay is relatively low. It causes a lot of stress for many new mums. If you are able to, you can make early motherhood much less difficult by offering more than you need to.

Other maternity rights

Pregnant employees are entitled to take time off for any relevant medical appointments. This time off should be paid.
Employees can have up to 10 KIT days, during their maternity leave. These Keeping In Touch days are intended to keep employees in the loop, and make it easier for them to settle back into working life.

Women have a right to return to work after their Maternity Leave. If their original job is no longer available, they should be offered a suitable alternative.

Top tips

  1. As an employer, it is your responsibility to reconsider health and safety following a pregnancy announcement. Remember that tasks may be more risky for pregnant women, and that you may need to make accommodations. If you cannot make reasonable accommodations, then you should suspend your employee to protect her health and her baby’s wellbeing.
  2. If you need to make redundancies whilst an employee is on maternity leave, then you must be particularly careful. An employee on maternity leave is not protected from redundancy, but you will need to be able to defend your decision if it’s called into question. Redundancies must be genuine, and your employee must not be made redundant because of their pregnancy.
  3. Work hard to show employees that they have not been forgotten about, whilst they’re on maternity leave. Keep including them in company emails, and phone them with any important news. Consider inviting them to company events, nights out and celebrations.
  4. Always remember that maternity leave can be difficult for everyone. Employers can struggle, but so can employees who are adapting to their biggest life change whilst often being paid far less than they ever have before. By keeping lines of communication open, you can make this process as smooth as possible for everyone that is involved.