From an HR perspective, it can prove difficult to accommodate employees taking long periods of time off. However, with maternity/paternity leave, there is usually a long lead time. Employees are typically required to give at least 14 weeks’ notice that they wish to take maternity/paternity leave, which indicates that — in most cases — it’s possible to plan and prepare for the absence more effectively.
If an employee is absent and on long-term sick leave, then this situation can turn out to be trickier, as you can never be quite sure when – or even if — the employee will ever return to work. If this occurs, other members of staff are often left to take on the extra workload; working much longer hours to cover the absence. Nonetheless, when it comes to an employee taking maternity/paternity leave, there should be enough time permitted to recruit and train a suitable candidate who can cover the fixed-term period but, again, training a new member of staff to cover a relatively short period time can absorb a lot of time.
With this said, the economy is uncertain and people want as much stability in a position as possible; therefore they are more likely to be seeking permanent employment rather than applying for maternity leave positions. Some still prefer shorter contracts; perhaps this is due to it being a viable option of building as much relative experience as possible. In such cases, maternity cover can be a good answer.
Using agencies can turn out to be an effective solution to filling short-term vacancies; however, it’s good to bear in mind that a number of companies cannot afford to recruit agency employees at a premium rate. It can also be challenging to recruit fixed-term contract staff as employers are often not told by the employee on maternity/paternity leave exactly how long they are intending to be away from the workplace.
All pregnant employees, irrespective of length of service, are entitled to take up to 52 weeks maternity leave (26 weeks Ordinary Maternity Leave and 26 weeks Additional Maternity Leave). This can now be shared between both parents and a pregnant employee can still opt to return early giving eight weeks’ notice, often leaving uncertainty for an employer. Often what an employee thinks they will do can change after a child is born; meaning a company has recruited someone on a fixed one-year maternity leave cover contract, only for the individual on maternity to return to the workplace at an earlier date.
In practice, I personally find a lot of employers try to muddle through. Current employees will absorb the workload; there might be internal temporary promotions or restructuring in the short term and staff from within are utilised in order to cover these periods. If temporary employees are required, then an employer may bring them in for a period of 12 weeks or less in order to avoid Agency Worker Regulations, or even recruit employees on rolling three month fixed-term contracts until a return date can be confirmed.
Words by Pam Rogerson, FCIPD group HR director for ELAS Group