Maternity rights at work

By Kate Moran, Senior Policy Officer, Maternity Action on 20 July 2021 Maternity Services Maternity Leave Maternity Discrimination

As any woman who has tried to work out her entitlements to maternity leave and pay will be all too well aware, maternity rights are complex.  For women with enhanced entitlements under an occupational scheme such as the NHS one, this becomes even more of a minefield with each set of rights having different service requirements and provisions and employment status also having an impact. That is why Maternity Action jumped at the request from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) to produce a new joint briefing for their members that covers both statutory and NHS maternity rights in a straight forward, easy to understand guide launched today.

The guide covers all aspects of women’s rights from the time she discovers she is pregnant to starting maternity leave and returning to work. COVID caused high levels of anxiety and stress for midwives and other pregnant staff given their close contact with patients and additional risk of contracting the virus. Our guide explains employers’ obligations to protect the health and safety of staff and provide a safe working environment or alternative working arrangements – ultimately including suspension of employees on full pay if this is not possible. Maternity Action has a range of COVID FAQs on its website including a template letter to employers to help women secure their rights to health and safety protections. 

The NHS offers among the more beneficial occupational maternity rights for its employees - but there is always room for improvement. NHS trade unions have a long history of negotiating improvements to these rights, but the complexities that enhanced provisions bring can often go hand in hand with a lack of understanding of entitlements leaving women at risk of missing out on their rights.

NHS staff, particularly midwifery staff, are overwhelmingly women so the enhanced maternity and flexible working provisions are a hugely important tools in improving recruitment and retention. Making sure that women have accurate, up to date information about their maternity rights is a vital role for both human resources departments and managers.  

Calls to Maternity Action’s advice lines and requests for advice to RCM from its members who feel that they are being treated unfairly by their NHS employer are far from uncommon. All too often we find that Trusts are unwilling to exercise flexibility or refuse to allow women to return on flexible working arrangements that meet their needs as new mothers.

The result of such poor treatment? Midwives resign from their job and take their much needed knowledge and experience to another, more supportive NHS employer or leave the NHS altogether.

With a shortage of 3,000 midwives in England alone, the NHS cannot afford to lose one more midwife. So to put barriers in the way of women accessing their maternity rights and the flexibility they need to combine their career with their family needs makes no sense. We hope this new guide will go a long way to helping midwives in the NHS understand and receive their entitlements.