Economic wellbeing and maternity – a guide for employers

Maternity is a key life stage when women are more vulnerable to economic abuse. If you have an employee who is pregnant, is on maternity leave, or has just returned to work, there is a lot that you can do to support them.

Your support may help to reduce the economic control they might be at risk of experiencing at this time.  

“The abuse became worse with having a baby. I was told I was not earning enough. How I could earn when I had a baby two weeks ago?”

Economic abuse and maternity  

“He didn’t want me to work and refused to share childcare.”

The nature of domestic abuse means that abusers use moments of increased vulnerability as opportunities to control and coerce. Parenthood and becoming a carer is one of these times.  

Reduced earnings during maternity means women are more economically dependent at this life stage. An abuser may use their partner’s dependency to control their economic resources. Over one third of cases of economic abuse start or get worse when a woman is pregnant.  

The Covid-19 pandemic has only increased vulnerability to abuse at this time. In a recent survey by Refuge and Coop, 92% of those who said they first experienced economic abuse during the pandemic had children. 

Abusive tactics during maternity  

“Any access to independence I have to provide financially for the children, he will try to jeopardise this.”

Employment sabotage is a common form of economic abuse. This is when an abuser seeks to create economic instability and/or dependence through actions that may lead a victim to lose their job and source of income. This is more likely during maternity, when women are more economically vulnerable. This might include:  

  • preventing her from maintaining contact with her employer and colleagues 
  • insisting that she finish work completely  
  • insisting she take on all the childcare responsibility when she returns to work, for example if children are ill. 

Economic abuse during maternity can also include other ways of controlling someone’s economic resources, such as: 

  • using maternity to isolate the victim-survivor from friends and family  
  • dictating when she can finish work and how long she can take for maternity leave  
  • insisting she return to work sooner than she would like 
  • preventing her from registering for and claiming Child Benefit 
  • not contributing to childcare costs, or withholding child maintenance payments. 

“My maternity was actually decided by my partner. There was no discussion in terms of what would be right for me.”

The role of employers 

Employers are in a unique position to notice economic abuse. Conversations about maternity that you have with employees, specifically around time off and earnings during this time, may help you to spot some warning signs that they may be vulnerable to abuse or already a victim. Noticing these signs and acting on them can have a significant impact on creating economic stability and safety. 

As an employer, you are also uniquely placed to support an employee with their economic wellbeing, with earnings being a vital source of economic independence. See below some ways that you may be able to support an employee’s economic wellbeing at this time.  

Remember that employers have a duty of care towards employees who disclose that they may be at risk of harm. Part of this duty of care involves looking out for signs of domestic abuse and take reasonable steps to support them.   

It may seem daunting support an employee who may be experiencing economic abuse, but remember that you aren’t there to solve everything. By noticing the position that your employee is in and offering support, you can play a crucial role in supporting them. 

Signs to look out for 

Economic abuse can be difficult to identify. It can begin with behaviour that at first seems caring or protective, for example, offering to work so that she does not have to.  

Below are some signs to look out for that may indicate that an employee is experiencing economic abuse during maternity.  

“I was forced to work as soon as possible after the birth… There was an enormous amount of pressure on me to still be the care giver, mother and primary source of income.”

During pregnancy:  

  • Planning to work right up until the baby is due: An expectant mother may choose to work until her due date, but look out for an employee who previously indicated that she wanted to finish work sooner.  
  • Taking a minimal amount of time off for maternity leave: Some employees may wish to return to work as soon as possible, but look out for an employee who had intended to take more time off.  
  • Expressing a concern about coping financially when the baby arrives: A new baby changes the economic situation for many people. However, look out for signs that the employee is facing all of the childcare costs alone.  

During maternity leave: 

  • You are unable to make contact with the employee: Abusers may use maternity leave to limit their partner’s contact with others. Look out for an employee who you are frequently unable to contact.   
  • Not returning to work after maternity leave when she previously enjoyed her job and had intended to return: An abuser may use maternity to pressure someone to leave their job in order to isolate them.  
  • Regularly missing opportunities to catch up; never seeming able to talk; or appearing nervous, withdrawn or quiet when you do speak with her: This behaviour could be an indication of many different things that are going on in someone’s life. However, it can sometimes be a sign that someone may be afraid of an abuser’s reaction if they talk to you, or that they cannot talk because the abuser will overhear. 

After maternity leave:  

  • Frequently requesting time off to care for the children: Her partner may insist that she is responsible for any childcare needs.  
  • Says her partner is making it difficult for her to work: This could include preventing her from accessing work equipment or transport to get to work.  

There are some other signs that you may notice as an employer. These can occur at any time, but may be more likely during maternity. 

  • Asking for an advance on her wages or saying that she is struggling with the cost of day-to-day essentials, including for her children 
  • Appearing not to know whether she has received her wages, perhaps because her partner does not allow her to access the bank account  
  • Saying she has to hand her wages over to her partner 

There are more signs to look out for if you are worried that anyone you know may be experiencing economic abuse.  

“I was supposed to give him a receipt for everything I spent on the child and never spent anything on myself. Of course, I was being told that he is the only breadwinner, he is looking after me, he is so good to me.”

What you can do  

The support that you are able to offer an employee experiencing economic abuse at this time will depend on your organisation’s policies. You may be able to offer support in the following ways.  

Keep in touch 

Being in regular contact with the employee may provide an opportunity for them to speak to you about what is going on. Think about when and how you might speak to the employee if you don’t see them regularly, for example because they are on maternity leave, work remotely or because their working pattern is different from yours.  

If someone is experiencing economic abuse, it may be more difficult for them to talk, for example because the abuser is present and they can’t speak openly, or because the abuser restricts their access to their phone or computer. If you can, find out when and how the employee would like you to contact them. There may be certain times that are easier to speak because the abuser is not at home, or they may prefer to speak to you from a friend or neighbour’s house.  

Ask how the employee is  

If the employee can safely speak with you, think about how you can ask them how they are.  This could be as part of a pregnancy health and safety risk assessment, or keeping in touch day.  

The employee may feel anxious about talking about abuse. You might use some of the following ways to open a conversation about the employee is.  

  • How are things at home?  
  • Becoming a parent changes so much. Are you coping?  
  • Are you getting the support that you need?  
  • What additional support could we provide as your employer?  
  • Would you like to speak again?  
  • Is there a particular time when you would like to speak more? 

If an employee raises the topic of abuse or asks questions related to the abuse they are experiencing, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t have all the answers. You don’t need to know everything. You could say that you will make enquiries with HR and with other organisations to find out what support is available.  

Consider flexible working  

  • Consider formal and informal requests for flexible working that allow the employee to undertake childcare responsibilities or deal with the effects of the abuse, for example court proceedings.  
  • Could you reduce the employee’s workload during busy periods?  
  • The employee may rely on the work equipment to prevent isolation. Could they keep the equipment while on maternity leave? When they return to work, could they work in the office rather than at home?  

Offer financial support  

You may wish to speak to your HR department to find out what support you are able to offer.  

  • Does your organisation have a hardship fund that the employee could access?  
  • Does your organisation offer any support with childcare costs?  
  • Are you able to offer a loan to staff experiencing domestic abuse?  
  • Could you be flexible with maternity pay? The employee may find it useful to see a breakdown of what the pay will be each month while they are on maternity leave.  

Offer further support 

  • Is there an employee assistance programme that the employee can access?  
  • Is there a colleague or a team who has more specialist knowledge on the support that is available?  
  • Speak to your organisation’s HR department – can you suggest ways that your organisation could offer further support that can be built in to the maternity policy and / or domestic abuse policy? 
  • The employee may find our resources on getting support and organisations that can help useful, as well as our information on supporting children if you are experiencing economic abuse.  

Further information on economic abuse for employers  

Training on economic abuse

SEA offers bespoke training on economic abuse, which can be tailored to the particular support your organisation could offer.  

Other organisations

Last updated January 2022