How do I…

Support those returning from parental leave?

AOP head of employment, Liz Stephenson, explains how employers can comply with their obligations towards those returning from maternity, paternity, and shared parental leave

baby and hand
Pexels/Luana Freitas

Returning from maternity, paternity or shared parental leave can be a nerve-wracking time for employees, so it is in everyone’s interests that any possible issues are discussed and addressed as soon as possible.

Before they go on leave

Before they go on leave, it would help to ask the employee what level of contact they would like to have from you during their leave and how, for example by phone, email or text.

During maternity leave

Even if you have not had that discussion prior to the leave beginning, you should ensure that they are kept informed of any major changes in the business, especially any that will affect them. In particular, they should be told about:

  1. Any jobs being advertised
  2. Any promotion opportunities
  3. They should also be included in any workplace consultation for redundancy or re-organisation.

Someone on maternity leave can carry out up to 10 ‘keeping in touch’ days without bringing her maternity leave to an end, and similar rights exist in respect of shared parental leave. More information on keeping in touch days is available via UK maternity rights charity, Maternity Action.

Working hours

It is a good idea to have a flexible working policy that is well-publicised to all staff. There are statutory requirements regarding how you deal with any such request. If they are going to make such a request, it is helpful for both parties to know in good time so that this can be dealt with. More information can be found via the AOP’s Managing flexible working page, and via Acas.
There is no right to have this granted, but the employee could have legal remedies if the flexible working request is not dealt with properly or if it is dealt with in a discriminatory way.

Some employees may find it useful to, for example, take a shorter lunch break (provided this is still at least 20 minutes to comply with Working Time rules) and leave a bit earlier to collect children from childcare.

The employee could have legal remedies if the flexible working request is not dealt with properly or if it is dealt with in a discriminatory way


Working arrangements

Before or when they return, depending on how long they have been off for and their level of experience, it may be wise to allow them to ease themselves back into the workplace by, for example, giving them training on any new equipment before they start testing patients. You should be prepared to offer slightly longer testing times, for example, if they indicate that that would be helpful for the first day or half day.

Health and safety

You have duties to provide a safe workplace for all employees and particular duties to carry out risk assessments in respect of pregnant employees, as well as those who are breastfeeding or have given birth in the last six months. More information is available via the Health and Safety Executive.

Breastfeeding mothers

As an employer you must provide somewhere suitable for an employee to rest if they’re breastfeeding. You’re not legally required to provide somewhere for employees to breastfeed or express milk at work, but they may ask if you can organise something for them – for example, a private room and a fridge to store the milk.

Dependent leave

It may help to highlight to all staff any policies that you have around dependent leave, so employees know what happens in certain circumstances. You can highlight how and when you should be informed of the need to take any such leave, although be aware that the nature of it is such that often their need for time off will be urgent and unexpected. More information is here.
You may also want to ensure that any employee with caring responsibilities who needs to be contactable during working hours by anyone (including nursery or care providers) is allowed to check their phone and to provide the practice phone number to the relevant people for this reason.

Future changes

The law is constantly changing. Some relevant future changes to look out for include:

Changes to redundancy protection for new mothers

Currently, if an employee is made redundant during pregnancy or maternity leave they must be offered any suitable available vacancy.
This right is also due to be extended to those who have returned from maternity leave within the past six months, so keep an eye out for any changes.

Changes to flexible working rules

It was announced in December 2022 that the law (in England, Wales and Scotland) is due to change as follows, although it is unclear precisely when this may happen:

  • The right to make a flexible working request will be a day one right, as opposed to the current arrangement where employees need 26 weeks’ continuous service
  • Employees will no longer need to explain in their applications the effect their request might have on their employer
  • Employees will have the right to make two flexible working requests every twelve months instead of one
  • Employers will be required to consult with their employees to explore other options before they reject a flexible working request
  • The deadline for an employer to decide if they will approve or reject a flexible working request will be shortened from three months to two months.

For help, contact the AOP’s employment team on: [email protected]