Q: I work in a company of 12 people. Times are really hard at the moment but because everyone has pulled together, we're doing okay.
The problem is one of my team members, who has just returned from nine months' maternity leave to tell me that she is pregnant again. We had a former employee come in part-time to cover for half the time she was away, but I couldn't afford to keep him for longer. We just about managed to cover her work for the remainder of her leave and so it was a relief to have her back full-time. Her latest news leaves me wondering how I'm going to cope while she's off again. Do you have any advice?
A: This is not about your colleague's undoubted legal right to maternity leave but how you manage the work consequences of it. There are two interrelated problems here. The first is the sheer difficulty of getting the work done - not least in a year as demanding as this. With a pool of only 12 people, the loss of one inevitably puts a noticeable extra burden on the others. And this time, by the sound of it, you won't even be able to bring in any part-time help.
The second problem is the risk of an outbreak of resentment - one that infects the whole company and exacerbates the first problem. Because it's a sensitive subject, it may not get openly aired - which in turn leads to underground muttering and a mulish attitude to taking on extra tasks.
However likeable your pregnant colleague may be, she's going to provoke that time- honoured reaction, 'Well, it's all right for some'. The rest of you valiantly managed to cope during her first spell of maternity leave and you'll all have been mightily relieved when she returned to work.
So the news that she'll soon be off again will arouse dangerous emotions: both entirely understandable and deeply unfair. If this is left to fester, your pregnant colleague could find herself the object of hurtful if unspoken un- popularity - and other people's willingness to rally round will be severely blunted.
Much the best course of action, I believe, is to open all this up. Presumably, if your team member has only just discovered that she's pregnant again, she'll be with you for a few months yet. You should use this time to foster a grown-up and co-operative sense within the company.
Have a series of conversations (not formal meetings) with everyone present - ideally towards the end of a day and perhaps over a glass of wine. (If the mother-to-be - on orange juice, of course - brought along a couple of bottles, that would help a lot.) Congratulate the mother-to-be, while openly recognising that, once more, there'll be a need to reallocate workloads.
Ask everyone to comment on how it went last time and how, between you all, you can help it go even more smoothly next time around. Take note of any good ideas and be sure to encourage her to contribute: it's essential that she doesn't give the impression that she's out of the loop. I'm not suggesting she should apologise - she has nothing to apologise for; just that she recognises the inconvenience she's causing and is keen to play some part in minimising it.
If resentment levels are low and a real sense of comradeship develops, spreading the workload will become a great deal less difficult. But I'm afraid it's still going to be tough for you.