A review, led by Middlesex University Professor of Organisational Psychology Suzan Lewis on behalf of the International Labour Organization, suggests that effective maternity protection has a positive rather than negative impact on SMEs.
Professor Lewis and her team found that it can have a range of positive productivity-related outcomes for firms, as well as wider social benefits. Its research showed that:
- SME owner-managers are often adverse to maternity protection regulations, fearing the time and costs involved can lead to a competitive disadvantage
- There is a link between maternity protection and improvements in performance and productivity, linked to enhanced employee satisfaction and commitment.
- There are wider societal benefits of effective maternity protection, including poverty reduction, reproductive health, gender equality, fertility rates and economic development.
Commenting on the review's findings, Professor Lewis said: "Anything that is going to impact the financial stability of a business is naturally of concern to its owner, and that is why it is so important to understand that many maternity protection practices can have little or no costs and considerable benefits."
Her colleague, Dr Bianca Stumbitz, a Research Associate in the Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research (CEEDR), 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 both men and women play in family life."
The report shows that women who are confident their employer will support them as they start a family and avoid stereotyping their role in the workplace are happier, more loyal and therefore more productive.
For these positive effects to arise and maternity, paternity and family responsibilities to become a normal fact of business life, maternity protection and other work-family balance measures need to 'fit' in with the practices and interests of SMEs.
Professor Lewis and her team also found there was space for government to help ease any financial strain on small businesses complying with maternity provisions.
"The economic reality means that if we want small business to implement strong maternity protections, some financial compensation by way of tax breaks or public subsidies may be necessary, and that is something policy-makers ought to consider seriously," she said.
"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."
Another issue highlighted in the report is the urgent need to address economic and cultural challenges facing working mothers in developing countries, which has largely been ignored by research.
Compiled for the International Labour Organization (ILO), the review was authored by Professor Suzan Lewis, Dr Bianca Stumbitz, Dr Lilian Miles and Dr Julia Rouse. It follows on from an ILO report in 2013 led by Middlesex University Professor of Comparative Employment Relations and Director of Research Richard Croucher looking into whether better working conditions improve the performance of SMEs.