The return to work by postnatal mothers is a major transition. However, careful management plays a crucial role in retaining and developing the best talent, points out Gordon Tranter.

After childbirth, women can often return to work before they feel emotionally and physically ready to return. They can find life extremely stressful and, often lacking a decent night’s sleep, suffer from constant tiredness. On top of adjusting to a newborn, when they return to work they may find that their workplace and job has changed.

However, the return by new mothers to paid work is crucial in retaining and developing the best talent, maintaining company competitiveness, and it is important that this process is managed carefully. Showing willingness to accommodate new mothers will also encourage staff loyalty and therefore productivity.

Risk assessment for new mothers

Once an organisation has written notification of pregnancy or birth, and an employee has given birth within the past six months or is breastfeeding, the employer should carry out an individual risk assessment and take the necessary steps to reduce or remove any risks.

The risk assessment that was carried out when the employee was pregnant should be reviewed or, if this assessment was not carried out, a new assessment performed. The risk assessment should take into account any changes in the mother’s working conditions. It should also take into account that risks can be different for mothers who have recently given birth. For example, postnatal mothers should not normally be involved in tasks which involve stretching up, down or out, as they are at greater risk than usual from manual handling. The assessment should also consider levels of fatigue, stress and changes in posture.

Reducing risks to new mothers

Action must be taken to remove, reduce or control any risks identified. If the risk cannot be removed or reduced to an acceptable level, the following actions should be considered.

  • Temporarily adjusting the employee’s working conditions. Options include job sharing, home working, staggered hours and part-time working.

  • Offering the employee suitable alternative work (which must be risk assessed) if available.

  • Suspending her from work on full pay for as long as necessary to protect her health and safety and that of her child.

A risk assessment that has been carried out in respect of a new mother should be regularly monitored and reviewed to ensure that the appropriate measures are made at the appropriate time to avoid and minimise risks.

Supporting the return to work

Employers should help new mothers with the transition from being at home to being a working mother, by encouraging a family-friendly culture in the workplace. They should be sensitive to the fact that the individual has undergone a huge permanent life change, which is taking up a lot of their emotional energy.

Regular communication with the employee during her maternity leave is key to keeping her up to date with changes and developments in the business. This prevents the employee feeling isolated and then anxious about returning and ensures a smooth transition back into working life with minimal disruption. Expectations for returning to work should be discussed before the mother returns to ease the pressure on the employee.

In fact, it is worth developing a Return to Work Plan to support the employee in adjusting to life as a working mother. This can include returning to work on a different working pattern or staggered hours as part of a “phased return” to work. It may involve job sharing or temporarily working in a less stressful role.

Any formal request made by a new mother to work flexibly must be considered carefully, and the flexible working procedure set out in the Acas Code of Practice on handling requests should be followed. To qualify for flexible working, it is necessary to have worked for the employer for at least 26 weeks (including maternity leave).

Breastfeeding

When a woman provides written notification stating that she is breastfeeding, a risk assessment personal to her individual circumstances must be carried out to identify any risks to the health and safety of the mother or that of her baby. Processes, working conditions, and physical, biological and chemical agents can affect a woman or her child when she is breastfeeding. Substances such as lead, organic solvents, pesticides and radioactive material could be passed on to a child through her milk and cause the child harm.

Employers should provide breastfeeding mothers with:

  • a break allowance so that they can express milk or breastfeed

  • provision of a clean, warm and private room (not the toilet) for expressing

  • a fridge to store expressed milk

  • access to water and washing facilities, suitable facilities to rest and, where necessary, include the facility to lie down, which should be conveniently situated in relation to toilets

  • an environment that is not too hot or too cold.

Postnatal depression

Postnatal depression (PND) is a depressive illness which affects between 10–15 in every 100 women having had a baby. Mothers suffering from PND can have a broad range of symptoms. These can vary in how severe they are. They include:

  • feeling sad, anxious and alone

  • feeling guilty, irritable and angry

  • experiencing panic attacks

  • loss of appetite

  • poor concentration

  • constant tiredness

  • problems sleeping

  • being agitated

  • crying easily

  • obsessive behaviour

  • loss of enthusiasm.

A manager’s support can make a huge difference to the return to work of mothers with PND. However, many mothers do not tell their employer because they worry about revealing they have PND. Managers should therefore keep their eyes open for signs of a mother suffering from depression.

The manager should assure confidentiality, be approachable, and be mindful of their employee’s circumstances. They need to have an open and honest conversation about how the workplace can realistically help them to recover, leading to a plan of action. This should be clear about what work can do, in terms of adjusting working arrangements and providing a supportive environment. As discussed previously, possible adjustments include:

  • a phased return

  • reduced working hours

  • returning to a less stressful role

  • calming the physical environment — minimising noise, providing quiet spaces

  • help with workload

  • leave for medicals

  • working from home (if she has help with childcare)

  • job sharing

  • short breaks

  • increased personal space.

However, it must be made clear that the employee needs to take responsibility for seeking proper mental health support.

Under the Equality Act 2010, a woman who has a pregnancy-related illness has a right to legal protection at work and not be subjected to less favourable treatment on the basis of the illness. However, illnesses related to the birth of a child, such as postnatal depression, are only covered by the Act until the woman’s return to work or the end of the statutory maternity period.

Mental health issues connected with pregnancy or maternity which are serious enough to be present upon returning to work can be viewed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, which require the employer to make reasonable adjustments for the condition. However, in order to be viewed as a disability, the condition must have or be likely to have a long-term adverse effect on a woman’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Long term is viewed as around 12 months. However, a woman can bring a claim that they have been discriminated against because of an illness arising from childbirth. They can claim sex discrimination, on the grounds that her employer treated her less favourably than a sick man would be treated in similar circumstances.

Further information

If you’d like to provide your employees with access to confidential telephone counselling service where they can get help with any problem they may be experiencing, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider: 0844 891 0350.

Last reviewed 28 August 2019