Know your rights: Can you quit your job straight after (or during) maternity leave?

Find out what the UK rules are when it comes to resigning after maternity leave, and hear from one woman who did it - and hasn't looked back.

Multitasking mother carrying baby and looking at her phone
Want to quit after maternity leave? Here's everything you need to know
(Image credit: Copyright Maskot Bildbyrå)

Find out what the UK rules are when it comes to resigning after maternity leave, and hear from one woman who did it - and hasn't looked back.

Maternity leave is by no means 'time off'. There's the small matter of keeping a tiny human alive, as well as navigating the lack of sleep and the dramatic change to your social life. But that doesn't mean mat leave doesn't provide ample time for reflection - particularly career-based reflection.

And that's why some people end up concluding, during this time away from work, that they want to quit their jobs after maternity leave.

It's a major decision, but with the staggering cost of childcare, issues around flexible working, and the temptation of starting a whole new career, it's not entirely uncommon. In fact, it's on the rise, with 60% of women in one survey saying they had changed jobs after maternity leave.

Soon-to-be mum-of-two, 31-year-old Roanna Day, made the choice last year. After having worked as digital editor of a lifestyle magazine for almost four years before going off on maternity leave, she didn't exactly plan not to return - but somewhere, the idea had always been there.

"I grew up knowing that my mum went on maternity leave as a nurse, but then after taking some time out to raise us, she retrained as a phsycotherapist," Roanna explains. "Her career change wasn’t so much of a correction, but rather her exploring another thing she’s brilliant at. And so, I had always framed maternity leave in this way - as an opportunity to redefine my career."

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With very few companies truly facilitating mothers coming back to work, Roanna found this to be the case with her former employer. "While the return to work conversations I had while on maternity leave were very amicable and all the 'right' stuff was said, in essence, the company [maintained it] would continue to do as it had always done - expect its employees to work Monday-Friday, 9-5."

For Roanna, "that just wasn’t an option" anymore, with the full time childcare costs it would have incurred being just one of many reasons.

And so it was a case of going back to the drawing board. "I committed to not thinking about what I would do, or what my plan was, for at least 6 months. I indulged in half a year of falling in love with my daughter and starting to daydream about the kind of life I wanted to build for us," she tells me. During that process, Roanna sifted through various thoughts, dreams and ideas, and towards the end of her year-long maternity leave, two business ideas had really stuck.

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There were fears around the prospect of leaving her job, however. Finances being one of them. "I absolutely could not afford to leave my job. Myself and my husband had endless discussions about what to do; we both wanted to indulge my new business dreams but we can’t make ends meet on his salary alone," she explains.

Then, there was the risk of losing the identity and sense of self that came with her role. "Becoming a mother already shakes who you are, and now I was thinking about giving up my job. A job that gave me huge pride, dare I say even ego, and a real sense of place and success," Roanna reflects.

But after making the decision to take on some freelance clients to keep a regular income stream - and with the headspace that maternity leave allowed helping Roanna to conclude that the sense of ego and the perks that came with her job were "in essence, fairly meaningless trifles" - she decided to take the plunge.

Now, she's the proud owner of two businesses: ThinkSmall, a consultancy that exists to champion and cheer on small businesses, and Great House Farm Stores, a refillable scented candle company.

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"Most days I feel liberated, if a little terrified!" says Roanna. "Sometimes I miss the security of a monthly pay check, or the goodies I used to get sent as part of my role, but those moments are fleeting," she contemplates. "I love the two businesses I’m building now. There’s real potential for both and we only grow month after month. It feels really good to be growing a business where the expectation is growth, is momentum, is opportunity."

Roanna might have done it, but if you're still concerned about the ins and outs of resigning after maternity leave, and wondering where that leaves you financially (do you have to pay back your maternity allowance, for example?) then keep reading. We asked Capital Law employment lawyer Alex Christen to explain everything you need to know before deciding to do it yourself...

So, do you have to pay back your maternity pay if you quit during mat leave?

"If you decide to resign at the end of your maternity leave, you are not required to pay back any Statutory Maternity Pay you received during your leave. You may also be entitled to the rest of your statutory maternity pay, depending on when your employment ends," explains Alex.

In case you need a refresher: Statutory Maternity Pay in the UK is paid for up to 39 weeks. For the first 6 weeks, you'll get 90% of your average weekly earnings (before tax). For the remaining 33 weeks, you'll get whichever is lower: £151.97 per week, or 90% of your average weekly earnings.

There is a but, when it comes to paying your company if you quit mid-or-post mat leave, however. "You may need to repay any enhanced maternity pay that you received from your employer that is over and above your statutory maternity pay entitlement," notes the lawyer. "Employers can require you to repay all or some of any enhanced maternity pay only if you do not return to work. Typically, the contract will state that the employee must return to work for a minimum period after maternity leave ends to avoid repayment of enhanced maternity pay," she adds.

Roanna didn't end up having to repay anything she was paid throughout her maternity leave, but not everyone is quite so lucky. Generally the rule is: if your contract or benefits handbook sets out that you'd need to repay your enhanced maternity pay in the eventuality you quit, then you may have to pay back some or all of the money. If not, you should be fine.

"When you go on maternity leave, your employer should remind you of your rights during maternity leave and details of any repayment obligations should be given to you again in writing. If you have not had this information, or if it is not clear when you would be asked to repay enhanced maternity pay, you should ask your employer," advises Alex.

How should you best time handing in your notice after maternity leave?

"If you are hoping to quit during or after maternity leave, you should resign giving notice in the usual way in accordance with your employment contract," says Alex. But, she adds, it's worth being wise about when you do it. "If you are planning to resign, depending on finances you may want to time the last date of your notice period with the last date of your maternity leave," she notes.

If your contract does state that you need to repay enhanced maternity payments, however, the legal expert advises "it may be financially sensible to return to work before handing in your notice."

How should you go about explaining in your resignation letter why you want to quit after maternity leave?

Alex has some good advice for this. "If employees do decide to resign, it is helpful to explain to their employer why this is, and whether there is anything their employer could be doing differently to encourage women to return to work following maternity leave," she suggests.

"An open dialogue can be incredibly helpful to both sides to help find a way forward that makes the women feel valued at work, and stops her employer losing a valued member of its workforce."

Can you change jobs to work for another company straight after maternity leave? 

After the birth of your child, any Statutory Maternity Pay entitlement will end when you start working for a new employer," says Alex, adding that the same legal obligations discussed earlier may arise in terms of repaying enhanced maternity pay, depending on the terms of your employment contract.

The only other thing to consider is whether your employment contract contains any restrictions on what you can and cannot do after your employment ends. "You may be prevented from working for a competitor, for example, for a fixed period of time after your employment ends," she suggests. "Whether these clauses are enforceable will depend on a number of factors, such as whether it is reasonable to restrict your activities when you have already been out of the workplace for some time."

What about quitting after maternity leave to stop working or go self-employed?

"If you quit work entirely, you may be able to continue receiving your Statutory Maternity Pay for the remainder of the 39 weeks of your maternity leave," notes the lawyer. This, however, depends on your eligibility for statutory maternity pay, which factors in things such as whether you started work for your employer before you became pregnant.

"But," Alex adds, "maternity leave will come to an end when employment ends. Where applicable your employer must continue to pay statutory maternity pay for the remainder of maternity leave, but your employer can recoup this from HMRC."

If you move to being self-employed, the legal expert advises that "you may still be entitled to receive statutory maternity pay from your employer. If not, you may be eligible for a maternity allowance." You can read more about that on the government website, here.

What should you do if your company tries to make you redundant part-way through maternity leave?

Rest assured: there is additional protection for women who are on maternity leave who face a redundancy situation. "If you are on maternity leave, and there is a genuine reason to make your role redundant, your employer must offer you suitable alternative work if they have it. They should give you this as a priority over other employees," says Alex.

"This is a rare example of positive lawful discrimination as women on maternity leave are given preferential treatment to others at risk of redundancy," she explains, adding that "there are plans to extend this protection so that it applies not only to women on maternity leave, but from the point an employee first tells her employer she is pregnant through to six months after her return to work."

Are there any other important things you should know about resigning during or after maternity leave?

"Employees should always check what their employment contract says and also what their employer’s maternity leave policy says. There may be support or other options available to women thinking about resigning during or after their maternity leave and they may be able to discuss these options or support mechanisms confidentially with HR," advises the lawyer.

From Roanna's perspective, leaving your job after maternity leave can definitely be an empowering decision. "It’s not easy but, if you can, give yourself some time while you’re on maternity leave to imagine your career as a blank piece of paper and dare to think about what story you would like it to tell," she says. "It takes real grit, determination and an incredible amount of plate-spinning to pivot your career while you’re still learning to become a mother, so make sure you’ve got a team of people who love you and who can hold you up by your side," she adds.

Wise words indeed.

Catriona Harvey-Jenner

Cat is a Senior Editor at Marie Claire, covering news and features across the brand's key purpose pillars, including women's issues, politics, career, mental health, female empowerment and equality, as well as books.