By Dr. Catherine Armstrong
In today's working environment, women are as much a part of the workplace as men and in some jobs they outnumber men considerably. Over the last few decades this change in the working demographic has forced employers to consider their procedures for maternity and paternity leave and the government have also produced legislation to protect the rights of women who want to take time off to have a family and then return to work in the same roles. The law now also protects the right to take ‘parental leave' allowing either the father or the mother to take the time off in the home to care for their young children. Under the regulations of parental leave, members of staff are required to have been in the workplace for a year for an allowance of up to 13 unpaid weeks off work per child. They are guaranteed the right to return to an identical role only if they take less than 4 weeks of parental leave. If longer, then the person is entitled to return to a job within the organisation with the same or better pay and conditions.
Taking maternity leave from a public sector position is often regarded as better protected than trying to take the same leave from private sector companies. Public sector institutions take very seriously their responsibility to their staff and maintaining a work-life balance. However, on the downside, there is often a lot of red tape to get through, so begin planning your leave period as early as possible. Start by informing your immediate managers. Madeleine Langeveld, the General Manager of www.jobs.ac.uk responsible for managing applications for leave, and herself the mother of two children, had to get the approval of seven colleagues in different departments to authorise the payment for cover for one role. Obviously this takes time and careful negotiation, so it is important to get the support of your manager.
Many people go into the public sector because of its service ethos and its flexibility and friendly environment. But is that atmosphere reflected for women who want to take time off to have a family? In most cases it seems to be, with returning mothers welcomed with open arms, and their different working needs acknowledged and supported.
So what is the procedure for applying to go on leave? While it may not be identical in all institutions, this is intended as an example. After approaching your manager, you will have to fill in an official request form and return it to the Personnel department. This can take a while to process, so the earlier you can begin your application the better. Madeleine found that she began the process very quickly after realising she was pregnant, and, in fact, her morning sickness meant that her condition was very much out in the open from the start! You will negotiate with your managers about your leaving and returning to work dates. In April 2007 the amount of time you can take off with pay has risen to nine months. However, you may not want to take this full amount, or you may want to take longer if you are in a financial position to do so. In good companies and sectors this procedure will be informal and open, with the future mother being put at her ease.
You may also have some control over the recruitment for cover while you are away. This can be the source of some stress for new mothers who fear what if the replacement is good at ‘my job' and makes the role his or her own? However, organising replacement cover can also produce other practical stresses; trying to share out responsibilities between existing members of staff who are already over stretched can be challenging as can acquiring the go-ahead for money to employ a new temporary staff member. Again, try to begin this process as early as possible so that you have plenty of time to arrange cover and to train the staff member. Otherwise the last few weeks before you go on leave will be rather chaotic and of course by that stage your mind will be focussing on other things.
Returning to work after a period of maternity leave can also prove rather stressful, for both personal and work-related reasons. If you have been out of the office for many months then you could return to find that your job has changed and in fact the whole structure of your team is different. That happened to Emma Durrant, manager of the Support team at www.jobs.ac.uk returning to work after ten months having her second daughter. Not only do you have to cope with the organisational difficulties of leaving your children and the psychological pressures of feeling you ought not to do so, but also you must try to fit back into a fast-changing working environment.
Adapting to your new working hours can be challenging too, especially for mothers who were used to working flexibly previously. Madeleine recalls that before the birth of her first child, she regularly used to work until 7pm, finding that some of her best work was done in the late afternoon and early evening. Now that simply is not possible as she needs to leave the office to pick her children up from after-school clubs. Emma found adapting to a four-day week stressful especially as she had the same workload as a full time member of staff. New working mums also feel vulnerable because they have to leave work exactly on time, or take time off to care for their sick children, and they worry that other people in the office judge them to be not pulling their weight. Hopefully a supportive and understanding management team will be able to allay many of these fears and help you to ease back into the world of work with the minimum of stress.
However, as Emma says, there are some positive results from taking such a long period out and then returning to work. You can view your role within an institution or company in a totally fresh light, perhaps seeing more clearly changes that need to be made because you have not been bogged down in the minutiae of office life. And in most cases, although it is an extremely challenging time, colleagues are supportive and friendly and the public sector as a whole respects its responsibility to protect women's rights and provides good maternity benefits. Madeleine agrees that this has been the case in her experience, but also warns that the bureaucratic wheels can take a long time to get in motion so plan as far ahead as possible. Emma has some good advice for any mum (or dad) who has taken time off to have a family: don't worry about work while you are not there, focus on your current responsibilities. But do try to keep in contact with your colleagues, via email, phone or personal visit if possible, because returning to your workplace will then be less daunting.
The Equal Opportunities Commission have a very useful website for anyone who feels that they may have been discriminated against because of their maternity, or who simply wants to check up on what their rights are under the law. http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/