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Make maternity leave work for you

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Eighty to eighty-five per cent of us will become pregnant during our working life, and 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave is our human right. But are you really ready to take a year away from the job you’ve carved for yourself? Or are you harbouring a tiny fear that going AWOL for more than a week leaves your job vulnerable to ambitious colleagues or redundancy?

The National Childbirth Trust found a third of women return too find their job unrecognisable from the one they left, their responsibilities divided up between colleagues, and chunks of their previous roles missing. One in three feels that promotion prospects have been affected and that relationships with bosses have soured. Fifty per cent of Mumsnet members surveyed worried they would never be promoted after maternity leave and feared colleagues would question their commitment.

So how do you stack the cards in your favour? Get smart, get tactical and know your rights. We asked HR executives and business women to give us their tips for strategic maternity leave.

WHAT TO DO BEFORE YOU LEAVE

BE SAVVY ABOUT WHEN YOU TELL YOUR BOSS

“It’s a careful balance” says an HR director who asked not to be named. “You have the right to privacy so there’s no rush.” Speak up too early and you might lose out on promotion, but health and safety means you will be protected from long hours and extensive travel. Whatever you decide, always accept a promotion before admitting to being pregnant, the company is unable to withdraw once an offer has been made.

PLAN YOUR PREGNANCY AROUND YOUR BONUS

Leave is calculated at 90% of average earnings, a figure taken 15 weeks before your expected confinement date. Include a Christmas bonus and maternity pay will increase.

BE DISCREET ABOUT PREGNANCY-RELATED ILLNESS

'Be wary of taking sick leave in the month before your leaving date for a pregnancy related condition such as high-blood pressure. Your employer has the right to start your leave early, and you’ll lose a month at the other end. Siobhan Freegard, founder of Netmums, admits she’s seen women on her messageboards attributing symptoms to other illnesses to avoid this.

USE YOUR PREGNANCY TO AVOID REDUNDANCY

Rhiannon, 38, who works for a bank, told her boss she was pregnant at six weeks after hearing redundancies were about to take place. “I knew HR are wary about sex discrimination suits and thought pregnancy would remove me from the possible lists. “ But this tactic isn’t always successful. “You may have more protection, but may still lose your job.” Says the HR director. “But you can be confident that if you are still made redundant it is for purely objective reasons, not your pregnancy.”

WHILE YOU'RE ON MATERNITY LEAVE

BE SNEAKY ABOUT WHO REPLACES YOU

Tempted to choose a replacement who doesn’t do as good a job? That’s a mistake says Suzanne Doyle-Morris, author of Beyond the Boys Club: Strategies for Achieving Career Success As a Woman Working in a Male-dominated Field. “If something goes wrong, it’s the person on maternity leave who get the blame, so you want someone competent.” Avoid an ambitious competitor by finding a recommended replacement with a history of doing maternity cover. “Overlap with her for a few weeks” says Doyle-Morris, “Build up a rapport and make her a gatekeeper who will keep you informed.”

USE YOUR KIT DAYS TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

The government allows up to 10 Keeping in Touch days during their pregnancy leave to come into the office. “But women on our messageboards point out that you don’t have to be there all day to get paid,” says Siobhan. “Arrange with your boss beforehand to come in for an hour each KIT day to talk through a project. You still get the whole day’s pay.”

MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR HOLIDAY ENTITLEMENT

“Some save up all paid holiday and tag it onto the end of their leave,” says Freegard. “Some work up to right before to give themselves the maximum leave.” Or use accrued holiday entitlement to go part-time. “If your employer turns down your request for flexible working hours, says an HR director, “you can use your saved-up holiday to work one or two days a week for months until you’re eased back into work, as long as your company’s holiday policy allows you to.”

RETURNING FROM MATERNITY LEAVE

KEEP BABY TALK TO A MINIMUM

“Talk to your boss about how keen you are to get back to work, not about how you’re missing your baby” advises Doyle-Morris. “Flagging up your problems can make you look less committed. Keep everything work focused. Say ‘The baby’s great – what’s going on in the office?”

NEGOTIATE FLEXIBLE WORKING

Any returning mum has the right to request flexible working (spreading your usual eight hours over a different spectrum than 9am-5pm). The HR director suggests starting the process at least four months before you intend to go back to work. Send a formal letter laying out how you want flexible working to be handled. Your employer must arrange a meeting within 28 days and after the meeting they only have 14 days to make a decision. Don’t be satisfied with a brush off, your boss has to give you a justified reason for refusing.

TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR FIRST DAY BACK

Only 10% of women surveyed by the NCT had a re-introduction on their return to work. Ask your boss or office ally you provide you with door codes and computer passwords so you can enter seamlessly on your first day and avoid the feeling that you no longer belong.

Photos: Getty Images

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