How to manage maternity leave at your startup or small business
Everyone’s heard of maternity leave, but many people would be hard pushed to describe what it actually consists of. That’s probably because it’s one of those scenarios where it doesn’t feel applicable until it’s applicable to you.
But as a small business, you need to know how you’re going to support the current and future parents in your team. And understanding how maternity leave works is the first step in deciding the sort of support you’re going to offer.
Maternity, paternity and shared parental leave are complex topics. As a business owner, you care about the wellbeing of everyone in your team, and know that needs to be reflected in your HR policies. But you also need to ensure that your policies don’t negatively impact your business performance. It’s a fine balance!
As one of Charlie’s CIPD-qualified HR advisors, I’ve worked with startups and small businesses for many years. I help business owners and HR teams draft policies that reflect their company culture and the unique needs of their teams. And I’ve even contributed our own parental leave policy here at Charlie.
In this article, I’ll start with the basics and take you through statutory maternity leave and how it works. And then I’ll talk to you about how to build a unique and more generous maternity, paternity or parental leave policy for your business.
Because in today’s competitive job market, it’s the way that you treat your team that sets you apart.
What is maternity leave?
Maternity leave is when an employee takes time off work before and after childbirth. And statutory maternity leave is the minimum period that all employers must give any eligible members of their team.
The obvious follow-on from maternity leave is paternity leave, which grants an employee time off work when their partner gives birth, or they’re adopting a child or having a baby through surrogacy with their partner. Statutory paternity leave starts from the day the child is born or is adopted.
Progressive employers are developing both types of leave further by offering their employees enhanced maternity leave and enhanced parental leave, or providing equal benefits to both parents under enhanced parental leave. (We’ll look at all of these in more detail below.)
How long is maternity leave?
The length of maternity leave varies depending on the individual and the business, as it’s usually determined by a combination of factors — including personal circumstance, company culture and pay.
However statutory maternity leave (UK) is the amount of time that employers must allow their employees to take off work. It has therefore long been regarded as the ‘universal standard’ for maternity leave.
GOV.UK states that:
“Eligible employees can take up to 52 weeks' maternity leave. The first 26 weeks is known as 'Ordinary Maternity Leave', the last 26 weeks as 'Additional Maternity Leave'.”
It is a legal requirement for an employee to take at least two weeks’ maternity leave (UK law) following the birth of their child, or for four weeks if they work in a factory.
Who is eligible for maternity leave?
Anyone who is an employee at your business (as opposed to a contracted worker), and is on your payroll when they’re 15 weeks out from the expected birth date, qualifies for statutory maternity leave.
This means that your employee needs to make a request for maternity leave at least 15 weeks out from their expected due date.
As long as an employee gives you at least 15 weeks notice, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been employed: they’re eligible for maternity leave.
But statutory maternity pay is slightly different.
Who is eligible for statutory maternity pay?
In addition to being an employee and notifying you of their request 15 weeks from the due date, to qualify for statutory maternity pay someone must:
- have been continuously employed by you for at least 26 weeks
- provide proof they’re pregnant
- earn at least £123 a week (gross) in an eight week ‘relevant period’.
To help, GOV.UK has an online ‘maternity, adoption and paternity calculator for employers’ that you can use to work out anyone’s statutory maternity pay and their relevant employment period.
Statutory maternity pay is paid to eligible employees for 39 weeks, and is typically broken down as:
- 90% of their average weekly earnings before tax for the first 6 weeks
- £172.48 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the remaining 33 weeks.
What is a good maternity leave policy?
A good maternity leave policy is one that supports your employees and works for your business, so getting it right can be a fine balance. What works for you may not be quite right for someone else.
In the UK, employers can choose to offer statutory maternity and paternity leave, or a more generous policy. Most progressive small businesses want to offer more than the statutory requirements, but it’s hard to know what a good policy looks like if you’ve never built one from scratch before.
In 2021, People Management published the results of a poll that found that “nearly two-thirds of UK businesses” had maternity leave policies that were more generous than the statutory minimum. Included in this were enhanced maternity pay, enhanced paternity pay and enhanced shared parental leave.
The poll also revealed that the most common form of enhanced maternity leave was “full pay for six weeks followed by the standard statutory rate”.
Enhanced maternity pay examples
As a fellow small business, we thought it might be helpful to share what we do at Charlie…
We don’t differentiate between primary and secondary caregivers in our policy — we give both parents the same leave allowance and call it parental leave, as opposed to maternity or paternity leave. This is because we believe in equal benefits for both parents.
We’ve also chosen to offer our team more than the statutory requirements. At Charlie, we give our employees enhanced parental pay:
- 10 weeks of fully paid leave, and another 10 weeks paid at 50% of your full salary
- After that, it’s 8 weeks of leave paid at 25% and then 11 weeks at the statutory pay rate.
All of this leave can be taken in blocks (apart from the first two weeks after the birth), and we ask that all parental leave is taken within 12 months of the child's birth or adoption date.
We also offer shared parental leave to primary caregivers who prefer to share part of their maternity leave with their partner. This is a good option if the partner’s employer only offers statutory paternity leave.
Maternity leave in startups: where to begin when you’re just starting out
By their very nature, startups are progressive, so you’ll want your maternity leave policy to represent that. After all, your policies will define how your employees see your business. Policy making is no longer a tick-box exercise!
As well as offering enhanced pay, here are some things to think about when you’re putting together the maternity leave, paternity leave or parental leave policy for your startup:
- What are your company values, and are they reflected in your policy?
- Are you being representative and inclusive? (Not all families look the same. Think about your language.)
- Could you be reinforcing gender imbalances or stereotypes? (If you’re unsure, get a second opinion. This could be from another business owner, or HR and small business experts like Charlie.)
- Does your policy make commercial sense? (Consider the impact of a high proportion of your team going on leave at the same time.)
- What other support can you provide? (At Charlie, employees on parental leave still have access to their wellbeing, learning and development and flexible working budgets, for example.)
- How will you keep in touch with employees while they’re on leave?
As a startup, you’re in the unique position of starting as you mean to go on.
Policy creation can feel daunting, but it’s a very real opportunity to shape the perception and reputation of your business. Getting it right now will pay big dividends later on. Now more than ever, good people are looking to work for progressive employers.
How Charlie can help you manage maternity leave
Charlie exists to help other small businesses with their HR, and we’re experts at drafting, reviewing and updating company policies.
With Charlie’s HR Advice service, startups and businesses have access to anytime HR support with a qualified advisor.
Our advisors are on hand to answer your questions, and they can help you to create the best maternity leave policy for your business. What’s more, your dedicated advisor can review your existing policies to check they comply with UK employment law, and combine everything together into a personalised company handbook.
Charlie’s HR Advice is an on demand service, so you can talk with an advisor over chat, phone or email as often as you need.
Our HR software is perfect for storing your company handbook and any maternity leave-related policies.
It’s easy to find when you want to review or update it, and your team can access it whenever they need.
You can also use Charlie to track any type of employee leave, including maternity, paternity or parental leave:
- Employees request leave from their Charlie dashboard
- Their manager is automatically notified
- You can easily see the number of parental, sick, compassionate etc. days each of your employees has taken
And to help get you started, we offer Charlie for free! That way, you can try it before you commit.
Maternity leave FAQs
What is the latest date to start maternity leave (UK)?
Employees can start their maternity leave as late as the day of the child’s birth, but most will choose to take several weeks off prior to their due date.
The earliest an employee can go on maternity leave is 11 weeks from the expected date of birth. If the baby is born early, the maternity leave start date will need to be altered to accommodate.
Do you accrue bank holidays on maternity leave (UK)?
Members of your team will still accrue holiday while on maternity leave, and this includes the bank holidays.
Employees cannot take holiday or receive holiday pay while they’re on maternity leave. But they can request to extend their time off work by using their annual leave allowance at the start or end of their maternity leave.
All and any extensions of maternity leave with accrued holiday need to be approved by you, their employer.
Taking holiday before maternity leave (UK)
Employees can request to take any owing holiday before their maternity leave begins. This is to give them more time off work before the birth.
Approving these requests is at the employer’s discretion.
Can you work while on maternity leave (UK)?
You can request that your employees come into work from time-to-time during their maternity leave through 'keeping in touch days' (also known as kit days).
Employees on maternity leave should only ever be expected to work if it’s a kit day, and they’ll need to be paid for any days they work. The rate of pay, and the number of keeping in touch days, will depend on what’s set out in your maternity leave policy and your employment contracts.
Our expert HR advisors are on hand to help if you’re unsure about either your contracts or your policy: