First-class Coach

I'm expecting a baby in four months' time. I'm excited but also anxious about how best to handle my maternity leave and my return to work.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I was promoted six months ago and am only just settling in, and I don't want to find that I've been sidelined in my absence. Also, I'd like to work a four-day week when I return. How can I best manage this?

A: Now that more and more women who have reached relatively senior positions in their organisations are embarking on having children, managing maternity leave has become a hot topic, both for prospective mothers like you and for employers. There's little doubt that most organisations want to be fair to their pregnant employees, but coping with the loss of a resource for several months and being flexible on re-entry terms for returning mothers can be a real headache for organisations, especially small ones.

This is not to say that it's wrong for you to seek a change in your working conditions to more child-friendly terms while maintaining your status. But you'll need to start thinking through the options and their consequences as soon as possible and initiating discussions with your boss.

Start by establishing your statutory rights - easily done at www.direct.gov.uk/en/Parents/Workingparents/index.htm. The good news for you is that changes in legislation have tipped the balance in favour of mother and child. If you decided to take the maximum maternity leave of one year, plus the four weeks of parental leave you are allowed in the first five years of the child's life, and then topped that up with the annual leave accruing to you during your absence, you could be away from your job for 14 months. Attractive as that may sound, a lot can happen to a business in that time, not to mention how you yourself might have changed - even your views on the desirability of having a high-powered job. Parenthood tends to change our priorities.

You also need to compare the legal provisions with your organisation's maternity policy. If any female colleagues have been on maternity leave in recent years, talk to them. Perhaps one of them could act as your mentor when you return to work and help you to find a balance between work and home.

Once you've formulated your plan, work out ways to make your departure and subsequent re-entry as seamless as possible. Will your firm hire someone (or transfer an employee) to cover your position? If so, spend time creating a user's manual for your job to enable your temporary successor to become effective as fast as possible. You may worry that your stand-in will do the job better than you, but you wouldn't want to return to a total mess and to colleagues who are hacked off with you for leaving them in the lurch.

If, though, there's to be no formal maternity cover and your tasks will be shared around, talk to everyone involved and give them your notes on the current state of play and any potential problems that may arise. Let them ring you before the baby is born and in the latter part of your absence, so that you're updated ready for your return. Make sure your colleagues know you are grateful that they are taking on your workload: there can be some natural resentment, particularly among those who already feel overworked, at being loaded with extra responsibilities.

As to your desire to change to a four-day week: under new legislation on flexible working, your employer must consider your request and, although they can refuse if your physical absence from the workplace would cause problems, in practice they're likely to agree.

To maintain a good relationship with your boss, you'll need to have thought through the practical implications of the change in your working hours and come up with suggestions to alleviate any problems. You want your boss to be flexible, so you must be flexible yourself. I know managers who have been infuriated by the refusal of new mothers to change their pre-agreed schedule to accommodate major corporate events such as sales conferences.

Which brings us to childcare, the most vital element in your return to work. If you know your child is being cared for appropriately, you'll have a chance to focus entirely on work while you're there. Arrange a back-up for when your nanny is ill or goes on holiday, and build in some flexibility so that you can stay late when it's essential.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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