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‘A kick in the teeth’: British mothers and pregnant women fear return to workplace

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Before the pandemic, every morning and night was a cycle of stress and rushing around for single mother Emma Woodburn, getting her two young sons to and from school, childcare before and after work and staying on top of housework.

But when, 18 months ago, the 39-year-old from Lancashire was told by her employer she could work from home, everything changed. “It was like a weight was lifted. It was less rush in the morning. I could put the washing on throughout the day and hang it out on my dinner break. It just felt easier.”

So when last month she was told by the manufacturing company that from this month she would be expected back in the office, instead of going back to her former stressful life she handed in her notice. “We were just told that you had to come back and there was no discussion, no flexibility or anything … it felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth.”

As companies around the country call their employees back to workplaces this month – some for the first time since March 2020 – family charities warn that increasing numbers, especially mothers and pregnant women, are being made to do so against their will.

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of the charity Working Families, reports growing numbers of calls to its advice line, mostly from women “who don’t want or aren’t able to return to the office as much as their employer is demanding”.

Since April, the charity has seen a sharp rise in calls about flexible working, while a third are about childcare issues. It said some employers trialling hybrid models are insisting staff go back a certain number of days a week, while others are denying work from home requests.

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The charity Maternity Action also said it is getting “large numbers” of calls from pregnant women worried about being forced to return to offices while Covid cases are still high, leaving them to choose between the safety of themselves and their babies and keeping their jobs.

Woodburn, who works in the procurement department, said staff at her company were told they could request one day a week at home by explaining their reasons in writing.

But after 18 months working from home without any problems, she decided the sacrifices that office working entailed were not worth it and decided instead to pursue her own skincare subscription box business. “It’s the flexibility of being able to do it around mine and my kids’ lives, rather than just the office hours, which aren’t convenient around school hours,” she said

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Pregnant women are generally left to choose between unsafe conditions, sick leave, early maternity leave, or resigningRos Bragg, Maternity Action

While many companies are planning to offer flexible or remote working as staff begin to return to offices, there are still many that do not. A British Chambers of Commerce survey of 900 businesses in April found that although three in four firms expected to continue having some staff working from home, only 38% offered flexitime or staggered hours, and just 32% offered working from different locations. Only 15% offered all jobs as flexible as standard.

Kelly Saxton, from Greenwich in south-east London, says she was left with no option but to leave after the company refused to allow her to work from home or suspend her on full pay in September last year, despite being pregnant with her second child. “I ended up resigning, which was a bit ridiculous because I’d been with the company for 11 years. But obviously I wasn’t prepared to risk contracting Covid and being pregnant.”

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Attempting to negotiate with the company, even after being assigned a solicitor by Maternity Action, was fruitless. “I started to feel a bit helpless, that I was just banging my head against a brick wall.” She began to get stomach cramps and decided to resign in October, but she said she was not given a reference or even her P45. With her baby now six months old, she has not started looking for a new job yet but she is worried about the impact of not having a reference for her previous job, leaving a “huge dent” in her CV. “I find it quite shocking,” she said, adding that it is “very unfair that workplaces are insisting that women go back to work under these circumstances”.

According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, pregnant women are no more likely than other healthy adults to get Covid-19. But if they become unwell they can have pregnancy complications such as pre-term birth or stillbirth. Its guidance states that employers have a responsibility to protect pregnant women’s health and safety while working and to carry out risk assessments. If there are risks, employers must change either the woman’s working conditions or working hours, either by providing alternative work or suspending them on full pay.

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Ros Bragg, director of Maternity Action, said the government has failed to protect pregnant women at work during the Covid pandemic and called for it to “wake up” to the risk they face and “take swift action to reform and strengthen workplace health and safety”.

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Pregnant women, Bragg said, receive little government help and are “generally left to choose between unsafe working conditions, taking sick leave, taking early maternity leave or resigning”.

Although working from home has proved beneficial for some parents, it does not suit everybody and should not be treated as a one-size-fits-all solution, said Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of Women’s Budget Group, who says flexibility from employers is key.While the last 18 months have shown that home working can be effective, it is often much easier for people with bigger houses and more space. “Whereas if you’re younger, you’re living in a bedsit or a shared house, it has been a bit nightmarish,” said Stephenson.

“So really what we need is for employers to offer a degree of flexibility, so that people can choose working patterns that work for them,” said Stephenson