How to ask for the work week you want after mat leave.

MumPowered: THE INTERVIEWS

Name of this mum: Elaine Bruce

Occupation: Solicitor

Do you know your rights when asking for a more flexible work schedule after having a baby? Do you know that you CAN ask for flexible working schedule?

Elaine Bruce is a mother and just so happens to be a solicitor who knows a great deal about employee rights. Many of us mums are fearful or too timid to ask for a more kid-friendly, flexible work week but you do have the right – by law – to at least submit a request to your boss. That boss must – legally – listen to your request and give it serious consideration and if he/she denies the request, they must give you a reasonable business reason for doing so.

In this MumPowered interview, Elaine talks about her own experience and gives us some great tips on how to approach the “taboo” subject of flexible working with your employer.

Like many of us, Elaine had a difficult time keeping her composure intact and her breakfast (ahem) in her stomach during the first trimester. So the hiding-pregnancy-from-employer-until-12-weeks scenario was not going to work for her. Instead of the dreaded eye-rolling or eyebrow raising looks from her boss, she was met with a supportive tone.

“I struggled in the first two trimesters with morning (all day) sickness. I brought this up early on as I needed some flexibility to manage my symptoms. By asking for what I needed and the firm being so supportive right from the start, I was able to better manage my symptoms and kept sickness absence to a minimum.”

Elaine took a total of 14 months of maternity leave but she always knew she wanted to go back as she genuinely enjoyed her career. A few months before she was due to go back, she started to bring together her case for a 3-day work week.

“I took my time finding out about the statutory requirements for flexible working requests; how an employee should go about making their request; what sort of information to include and the requirements on an employer to deal with such a request. I spoke to colleagues who had done the same to get some guidance on how to go about it. I put my request in writing and my boss and I corresponded via email to work out the arrangements.”

Elaine suggests speaking with other employees to see if a flexible working precedent has been made in the past. It will only help your request to be informed. She says she was very fortunate to have two colleagues who had already arranged to work part time within the department.

Elaine negotiated with her employer to return to the firm 3 days a week, which was wonderful however she warns not to fall into the trap of receiving 5 days’ worth of work and being expected to squeeze it into a 3 day week.

“Communication and consistency is key. I chose to work three days consecutively as it gave the most continuity. I was clear with colleagues, clients and third parties about when I was available and when I wasn’t. I relied on a legal assistant to keep certain things moving in my absence. And I learned there is no worker more efficient or focused than a parent who has to leave the office on time. It is amazing how much work I can do in just three days.”

After 18 months back at work on the 3-day schedule, Elaine decided to leave her firm. The circumstances had changed and she knew the demands on her time were too great to sustain.

“My workload effectively doubled. Although I was not alone in this, I felt it acutely given that I was already dealing with a workload that went beyond three days a week. I raised this with my boss and with colleagues over a period of months but there was no effective response. It was an incredibly stressful period for me. I did my best but in the end I decided to leave as I could not see the situation changing after all my efforts. I am much happier now in my current role.”

So if you’re a mum who is contemplating heading back to work, know your rights and ask for a work schedule that will work for you and your family. Remember that in most cases, an employer would rather keep you then lose you, so know your worth and go for it.

Here are Elaine’s top tips to getting your flexible work life:

  1. Be clear about what you want in terms of the days or hours you work. It is better to ask for exactly what you want rather than wait for it to be offered.
  2. Be clear from the outset that just as your hours are pro-rata, so is your workload. Draw those boundaries for yourself as much as possible rather than relying on others to do so.
  3. Check whether your employer has a flexible working policy. If so, it is always useful to check it against the statutory rights rather than assume it follows the law as it stands. Your employer may operate a more generous policy, which is worth knowing about beforehand.
  4. Be confident about your position. Advocate for yourself. Often you are having to summon up confidence when you at your least confident. An employer will be keen to have you back rather than having to find someone new. Don’t give in to guilt or let others devalue your contribution.  A part time worker is just as valuable as a full time worker. Imposter syndrome is a thing. I used to repeat the mantra “fake it until you make it”.
  5. Generally, once flexible working arrangements are agreed it will mean a permanent change to your contract of employment. Ask for a trial period if you think it would be useful or negotiate a fixed period.
    A number of law firms offer online templates of flexible working requests (also known as a statutory application). There is a cost element to consider but it is usually around £30. As long as your letter meets the (statutory) criteria mentioned in the summaries, there is no reason why you can’t draft it yourself in your own way and in your own words. You know your situation and your employer best.
  6. There is no one particular route to part time working. Be creative, consider all ways of working – for example: working from home, condensed hours, 3 days a week. Take into account the practicalities of your job and what it would take to work flexibly. Point to other colleagues’ working arrangements if it helps. Make it easy for your employer to say yes.

Here are some links to summaries on flexible working rights that Elaine found useful:
https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/overview

https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/work/rights-at-work/flexible-working/flexible-working-what-is-it/

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