SME bosses exaggerating maternity fears, study finds

20 October 2014 -


Workers at companies with well-managed leave programmes are more likely to be productive, according to new research

Jermaine Haughton

Small-business owners should provide effective maternity protections to enhance staff satisfaction and commitment, a new study from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has revealed. Led by Middlesex University Professor of Organisational Psychology Suzan Lewis, the research disproves fears that many SME bosses have over the competitive disadvantages linked to administrating maternity protection, such as wasted time and high expenditure. 

Far from having a negative effect on firms, today’s report suggests, well-managed maternity protections can have a range of positive outcomes, as well as wider social benefits. As well as spurring improvements in performance and productivity – thanks to enhanced satisfaction and commitment – putting the right measures in place can have a large impact beyond the workplace – in areas such as poverty reduction, reproductive health, gender equality, fertility rates, and economic development.

Lewis empathised with leaders’ fears over potential drawbacks of maternity arrangements, but had reassuring words. “Anything that is going to impact the financial stability of a business is naturally of concern to its owner,” she said, “and that is why it is so important to understand that many maternity protection practices can have little or no costs and considerable benefits.”

Politicians, Lewis went on, also had a part to play. “The economic reality,” she said, “means that if we want small businesses to implement strong maternity protections, some financial compensation by way of tax breaks or public subsidies may be necessary – and that is something policymakers ought to consider seriously. Additionally, education campaigns designed to raise awareness and provide practical advice to employers struggling with maternity entitlement issues is also vital – especially information that highlights the potential productivity benefits.”

Lewis’s colleague Dr Bianca Stumbitz, of Middlesex University’s Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research, added: “It is clear that a supportive workplace is crucial – one that is sensitive to gender-specific issues and that recognises the joint roles that men and women play in family life.”

Crucially, the study showed that women who have their employers’ support over their maternity plans are happier, more devoted and harder working. On that basis, Lewis argued, family responsibilities must become normal considerations among SMEs, as they ultimately help to drive business goals.

Interestingly, the findings have emerged at a time when many small businesses are having difficulty recruiting skilled digital professionals. According to a separate survey of 500 SME owners by business lender Everline, online marketing professionals are the most in-demand by recruiters, according to 16% of respondents, followed closely by runners-up web developers (12%) and social media experts (7%). Other roles which featured high on the list included secretaries and accountants. However, an overwhelming 46% of respondents said that they are presently reluctant to hire at all in view of cost issues. Everline managing director Russell Gould said: “It’s good to see that small businesses recognise that marketing and digital expertise can give their business a boost and a competitive advantage. In the digital age, small business simply can’t afford not to invest in this space.”

However, he added, “the fact that so many small business owners aren’t making hires could suggest some nervousness over adding to their permanent headcount, so it’s worth considering temporary or freelance support.”

For more on these issues, download this CMI white paper on women in management.

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