Ask the expert – Returning from maternity leave

ONE of our receptionists is due back from her second period of maternity leave in about three months’ time. I recently met with her to discuss her return to work and give her an update on what had been happening in the practice but she burst out crying.

Q. ONE of our receptionists is due back from her second period of maternity leave in about three months’ time. I recently met with her to discuss her return to work and give her an update on what had been happening in the practice but she burst out crying.

When I asked her what was wrong, she advised that she was very nervous about returning to work as she felt her colleagues had not been supportive during her maternity leave. She had not heard from anyone, despite texting several members of staff after her second child was born.

She said she did have contact from one colleague who sent back a one line reply and had spelt the baby’s name wrong. She was also unaware that another receptionist, had left and that one of the doctors had gone off on long-term sick. I am shocked to hear she is so concerned about returning to work as I thought we were a close-knit team.

A. We receive a number of calls on the advice line regarding maternity leave and whether practices should keep in touch with employees when they are off or if this will be seen as harassment.

Many people believe that maintaining contact is not permissible but, under the Work & Families Act 2006, the law states that employers are allowed to keep in ‘reasonable contact’ with employees on maternity leave.

It is essential to keep those on maternity leave in the loop when it comes to internal matters such as practice organisational changes, staffing issues, promotion opportunities, job vacancies and any planned reorganisations or redundancies.

Failure to do so could lead to unrest, employee relation issues or grievances being raised. It could also bring a claim for sex discrimination, as the employee may complain they were not given the opportunity to apply for jobs or were not consulted on any planned re-organisation due to them being on maternity leave.

Contact can be maintained informally via email, text, a pre-arranged phone call or even a letter and notes from any staff meetings could be sent. Some organisations use a ‘buddy’ system, where someone in the practice is dedicated to maintaining contact with the employee and keeping them updated on events and changes.

A more formal arrangement is by using Keeping in Touch (KIT) days – up to 10 days can be used during an employee’s maternity leave period. KIT days cannot be enforced and must be agreed by both the employee and the practice, as there is no obligation for the employee to work them or for the practice to offer them.

KIT days can be used for undertaking work, attending meetings, conferences or training and can be a useful tool in keeping the employee in the loop of practice life.

There is no set rate of pay with regards to KIT days and again this should be agreed between both parties, taking into account any agreement set out in the employee’s contract and National Minimum Wage regulations. The employee’s maternity pay is not affected.

It is beneficial to speak with the employee before they commence their maternity leave to discuss the best and preferred way to maintain contact during their leave and the frequency of the contact. Towards the end of the maternity leave period, it should be considered that a representative of the practice makes an informal home visit to bring the person up to speed on changes and to discuss how her return should be handled.

By considering these options, employees are more likely to feel supported while on maternity leave as well as reducing the risk of the practice being accused of sex discrimination.