Maternity, Paternity, and Return to Work Support: Comparing the UK and USA

Having a family is one of the most enjoyable life experiences a person can have. It is also one of the most stressful. Adapting to having a new, all demanding little person with you every hour of every day is incredibly exhausting (and that’s without factoring in the sleepless nights!). Couple that with erratic hormones and you have a recipe for quite a mind-altering shift in normality.

As a new mum, and a UK expat living in Connecticut (CT), people ask me about maternity leave and support offered to new mothers in the UK compared to what is on offer in CT. Many women I speak to believe the maternity leave policies in the USA are detrimental to their mental health and their relationships with their babies. I agree that the support for employees in the US is less than desirable, but I believe the return to work policies in the US are equally detrimental to the employers who live by them.

Here I’ll break down some of the benefits available to mothers and fathers in the UK and USA. I’ll then discuss some of the effects on employers of back to work support for new parents and the support measures employers could put in place to make for an easier back to work transition.

Maternity leave in the UK

The UK offers women 52 weeks of maternity leave. Many women choose not to take the full 52 weeks, some for financial reasons, some because they wish to return to work to have something to occupy their time outside of the baby, and some because they have career goals they wish to fulfill. Whatever path a woman chooses, the length of time available gives her options.

Statutory maternity leave is available to all new mothers regardless of how long they have held a role. This means your job is kept open during your leave, but you are not necessarily entitled to pay. To receive maternity pay a new mother needs to have held her current job for at least 26 weeks. She must also give at least 15 weeks notice to her employer before starting maternity leave.

In a scenario where the mother and father work, the mother is entitled to up to 39 weeks of paid leave. The first six weeks at 90% pay, the remaining weeks at £140.98 per week or 90% of salary if the mother earns less than £140.98 per week. The UK government taxes these amounts at current rates.

Paternity leave is also available at a maximum of two weeks for the mother’s partner paid at 90% of salary if they earn less than £140.98 per week or at a rate of £140.98 per week.

Shared parental leave is an option in the UK. Shared parental leave allows both parents to share the maternity time, but only one parent can be off at once. This lasts for up to 52 weeks after the baby is born. The leave can be taken in up to three blocks, allowing each parent to alternate their time between work and caring for the baby.

Maternity leave in the US

No paid mandatory maternity leave is given to women in the U.S. The Family Medical Leave Act grants 12 weeks of UNPAID leave for mothers of newborns or adoptive parents. This means your employer is required to hold your job, but not to provide any pay for 12 weeks. Many families cannot afford unpaid leave and return to work much earlier than the 12 weeks. Some save their vacation time to cover the time they take off postpartum. However, vacation time in the US is also often limited. In some cases only a week or less of vacation time annually is given to employees.

The support in the US is very minimal. If employers offer back to work support, they could experience:

  • Lower attrition because women are less likely to leave a role if they know they can take the time they need with financial support before they have to return to work. This is also true because employees are likely to feel more valued and so will want to stay with the company longer term.
  • Lower new hire and new employee training costs due to fewer mothers leaving their positions.
  • Increased positive marketing from employees about the company because they feel supported in becoming new parents.

Returning to work — how can employers help new mothers and fathers?

  • Offer reduced hours and flexible working schedules
  • Keep people in the loop of their job and changes in the industry, but be careful not to add extra pressure in a time of intense transition and sleep deprivation. Work with each employee individually to find the balance.
  • Mitigate the effects of resentful colleagues judging time off and support for new parents. This could be through education of the effects of new parenthood.
  • Minimize pay drops due to time missed at work by keeping the new parents in the loop. That way they are ready to ‘hit the ground running’ and not lose career ground through time they take away from work. Pay decreases are also likely to reduce motivation in the returning parent.
  • Avoid expecting new parents to return too early. People need time to adjust to a life change. Asking them to return too quickly means they are only likely to have half their mind on the job. Returning at the right time will ensure greater commitment from the employee.
  • Provide pumping rooms and adequate time to pump for breastfeeding mothers. All mothers should have the choice to breastfeed if they wish and feel they can continue when they return to work. Giving them the facilities and time to do so will help them transition more smoothly.
  • Be wary of offering employees the choice to ‘work from home’ so they can manage their family and work commitments. It may sound easier to work from home while managing a baby, but constant interruptions and the feeling of simultaneously needing to keep up with home chores as well as the day job could add extra stress.

Concluding thoughts

It will come as no surprise to many reading this that the UK provides infinitely better support post-pregnancy than the US. Although the US is making changes to family support for new parents including increases in maternity leave in some States, these are minimal and not widespread.

The positive impacts of post-pregnancy support are evident for employees and employers. I, for one, hope the US regulations change for the better in times to come. Families deserve to feel they can choose to become parents without being penalized for doing so.

N.B. I believe these facts to be correct at the time of writing this post, but I may have missed some information or made errors. Please feel free to reply with corrections or comments if you have further information on the subject.

Employee Engagement and Experience, Lifestyle Engagement and Experience




Maternity, Paternity, and Return to Work Support: Comparing the UK and USA

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