Maternity leave explained – Guide for UK employers & detailed FAQ

Maternity leave is an essential consideration for both employers and employees, facilitating a period of leave for mothers to care for their newborn or adopted child. In the UK, maternity leave is governed by specific regulations that ensure the rights of employees while providing guidance for employers to manage this period effectively. This guide aims to shed light on the key aspects of maternity leave, offering employers a comprehensive understanding of their obligations, and answering frequently asked questions.


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Guide – Understanding maternity leave

Eligibility and entitlement

To be eligible for maternity leave, an employee must have a contract of employment but there’s no minimum period of employment required to qualify. Maternity leave is a statutory right that allows up to 52 weeks of leave. This is divided into two parts: Ordinary Maternity Leave (OML), the first 26 weeks, and Additional Maternity Leave (AML), the last 26 weeks.

Notification requirements

Employees must inform their employers about their pregnancy, the expected week of childbirth (EWC), and the date they intend to start their maternity leave, at least 15 weeks before the baby is due. Employers can request this information in writing.

Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP)

Eligible employees can receive SMP for up to 39 weeks. To qualify, they must have been employed for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the EWC, and earn at least £120 a week (as of the current threshold). SMP is paid at 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings for the first 6 weeks, followed by £151.97 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the remaining 33 weeks.

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Employer responsibilities

Health and safety

Employers must conduct risk assessments to ensure the workplace is safe for pregnant employees and make reasonable adjustments as necessary. If a risk is identified and cannot be removed, employers must offer suitable alternative work or, if that’s not possible, suspend the employee on full pay.

Keeping in touch days

Employers and employees can agree on up to 10 keeping in touch (KIT) days during maternity leave without ending the leave or losing SMP. These days can be beneficial for both parties to stay connected and can help ease the transition back to work.

Antenatal care

Pregnant employees are entitled to paid time off for antenatal care, including medical appointments and parenting classes, if recommended by a healthcare professional.

Right to return to work

Employees have the right to return to their job after maternity leave. If they take OML, they are entitled to return to the same job. If they take AML, they must return to the same job or, if that’s not feasible, a suitable alternative job on terms and conditions not less favourable than those they were employed under before.

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Frequently asked questions – Maternity leave guide

Can maternity leave start at any time?

Maternity leave can start from 11 weeks before the expected week of childbirth at the earliest and must start the day after childbirth at the latest.

What happens if an employee is sick during pregnancy?

If an employee is off work due to a pregnancy-related illness in the 4 weeks before the expected week of childbirth, maternity leave will automatically start.

Can employees work elsewhere during maternity leave?

Employees can’t work for another employer during maternity leave if they’re receiving SMP from their primary employer. Doing so may result in the loss of SMP.

What are the notice requirements for returning to work early?

If an employee wants to return to work before the end of their maternity leave, they must give their employer 8 weeks’ notice.

What if an employee becomes pregnant again while on maternity leave?

The employee is entitled to take another period of maternity leave for the new pregnancy. They must notify you as per the standard rules for any maternity leave.

Are there specific rules for maternity leave and pay for part-time workers?

Part-time employees have the same maternity leave rights as full-time employees. Their eligibility for SMP will depend on their earnings meeting the minimum threshold.

How should holiday accrual be handled during maternity leave?

Employees continue to accrue statutory and any contractual holiday entitlement during maternity leave, which they can take before or after their maternity leave.

Can we contact an employee during their maternity leave?

Yes, employers can make reasonable contact with employees on maternity leave to discuss updates, return to work, or other relevant matters.

Is it permissible to make an employee redundant during maternity leave?

Employees on maternity leave can be made redundant if it is a genuine redundancy situation and the correct process is followed. However, they have additional protection, including the right to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy where one exists.

Can an employee change their mind about the return date after maternity leave?

Yes, but the employee must give 8 weeks’ notice if they wish to change their return date.

What is Maternity Allowance and who qualifies for it?

Maternity Allowance is a benefit for pregnant women who don’t qualify for SMP, typically because they’re self-employed or haven’t worked for their employer long enough. Eligibility depends on their recent work history and earnings.

Can maternity leave be extended beyond 52 weeks?

Statutory maternity leave cannot be extended beyond 52 weeks. If an employee wishes to take more time off, this would be unpaid leave and subject to agreement with the employer.

Are fathers or partners entitled to maternity leave?

Fathers or partners are not entitled to maternity leave, but they may be eligible for 1 or 2 weeks of Paternity Leave, Shared Parental Leave, or unpaid Parental Leave.

How does Shared Parental Leave work in relation to maternity leave?

Shared Parental Leave allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay if they meet eligibility criteria. It can be taken in blocks separated by periods of work, providing flexibility to parents.

What happens if an employee decides not to return to work after maternity leave?

If an employee decides not to return to work, they must resign following their contract’s notice requirements. The decision should be communicated as early as possible.

How does maternity leave affect pension contributions?

Employers must continue to make pension contributions during any period of paid maternity leave but are not required to do so during any period of unpaid maternity leave.

Can an employee on maternity leave be passed over for promotion?

Employees on maternity leave should still be considered for promotion opportunities. Excluding them solely because they are on maternity leave could be considered discrimination.

Are there any circumstances where SMP can be reclaimed by the employer?

Employers can usually reclaim 92% of SMP payments from the government. Small businesses may reclaim 103%, including compensation for employer National Insurance contributions.

What support should be provided for an employee’s return to work after maternity leave?

Employers should discuss any changes that have occurred during the employee’s absence, consider flexible working requests, and ensure a smooth transition back into the workplace, potentially offering a phased return.

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