The law gives special protection to pregnant women at work. They have rights to paid time off for antenatal care, statutory maternity leave and may get maternity pay or a maternity allowance. They are also protected against unfair treatment.

Basics of working while pregnant

Pregnant VNs have four key rights:

Paid time off for antenatal care Maternity leave of 52 weeks (26 weeks Ordinary Maternity Leave and 26 weeks Additional Maternity Leave) Maternity pay benefits, usually Statutory Maternity Pay or Maternity Allowance

Protection against unfair treatment or dismissal.

Practices also have certain obligations to ensure the health and safety of pregnant VNs.

Telling your practice

You must tell your practice manager/ owner that you’re pregnant at least 15 weeks before the beginning of the week when your baby is due. If this isn’t possible – for example, because you didn’t realise you were pregnant – you must tell your manager as soon as possible. You should also tell him or her when you want to start your maternity leave and receive Statutory Maternity Pay.

However, it is a good idea to tell your manager earlier, because it will let him or her plan around your maternity leave and carry out their legal obligations to you. This is particularly important if there are any health and safety issues. You cannot take paid time off for ante-natal appointments until you have told your manager that you are pregnant.

Time off for antenatal care

All pregnant VNs, irrespective of how long they’ve been in their jobs, are entitled to reasonable time off work for antenatal care. Any time off must be paid at your normal rate of pay. It is unlawful for your manager to refuse to give you reasonable time off for antenatal care or to pay you at your normal rate of pay.

Your practice manager can ask for evidence of antenatal appointments from the second appointment onwards. If asked, you should provide a medical certificate showing you're pregnant and an appointment card or some other written evidence of your appointment.

Antenatal care may include relaxation or parent craft classes, as well as medical examinations, if these are recommended by your doctor. If you can, try to avoid taking time off work when you can reasonably arrange classes or examinations outside working hours.

Fathers-to-be and antenatal appointments

Fathers do not have a legal right to time off to accompany their partners to antenatal appointments as the right to paid time off only applies to pregnant VNs. However, many companies recognise how important a time this is and let their VNs either take paid time off or make up the time later.

Having a child through IVF

It is unlawful sex discrimination for practice managers or owners to treat a woman less favorably because she is undergoing IVF (in vitro fertilisation) treatment or intends to become pregnant. You will be entitled to paid time off for antenatal care only after the fertilised embryo has been implanted.

Health and safety

Some workplace hazards can affect pregnancy at a very early stage – or even before conception – so managers have a responsibility for the health of women of child-bearing age and should not just wait until you tell him or her that you’re pregnant. Your practice manager, as part of the normal risk assessment procedures, must consider if any work is likely to present a particular risk to women of child-bearing age. He or she should be told that you are pregnant as early as possible, so that they can identify if any further actions are needed.

Risk assessment

When you tell your practice manager that you are pregnant, there should be a review of the risk assessment for your specific work and identification of any changes that are necessary to protect you and your unborn baby's health. Your manager should involve you in the process and continue to review the assessment as your pregnancy progresses to see if any adjustments are necessary.

These risks might be identified as: lifting or carrying heavy loads standing or sitting for long periods exposure to toxic substances long working hours.

Discrimination during pregnancy

Trying to cut your hours without your permission 

Suddenly giving you poor reports 

Giving you unsuitable work

Making you redundant because of your pregnancy (you might still be made redundant for other reasons)

Treating days off sick owing to pregnancy as a disciplinary issue 


Denial of pay increases when other members of staff receive them 

Refusal of promotion 

Sexual harassment

Returning to lower paid work or lower skilled work after maternity leave 

Exclusion from meetings or decision-making that the individual would ordinarily be involved in

Exclusions from training and refusal of time-off for antenatal care 

Pressure to return to work early after maternity leave.

Your manager must then either remove the risk, or remove you from being exposed to it (for example, by offering you suitable alternative work). If neither of these is possible, your manager should suspend you from work on full pay.

If you think you are at risk, but your manager doesn't agree, you should first talk to your health and safety representative or a trade union official. You can also go directly to your practice manager to explain your concerns. If he or she still refuses to take action, you should talk to your doctor.

Pregnancy-related illness

If you are off work for a pregnancy-related illness during the four weeks before your baby is due, your maternity leave and statutory maternity pay (from your practice) or maternity allowance (from Jobcentre Plus) will start automatically, no matter what you had agreed with your practice.

Compulsory maternity leave

Even if you’ve decided not to take Statutory Maternity Leave, you must take two weeks off after your baby is born. This is called ‘compulsory maternity leave.

Discrimination and pregnancy

It is unlawful sex discrimination for practices to treat VNs less favorably because of their pregnancy or because they take maternity leave. Examples of such treatment can be found in the table.

Your practice cannot change your terms and conditions of employment while you're pregnant without your agreement. If they do, they'll be in breach of contract.

What do you do if problems arise?

VNs who have experienced discrimination have said that the impact on them has come out in varying ways – emotional distress, pressures on personal relationships, financial hardship or physical illness arising from the stress caused by the incident.

In addition, they are often only vaguely aware of their employment rights when they become pregnant; and in many cases practice owners have as little understanding of the entitlements of a pregnant VN. Discrimination is, therefore, sometimes more a case of a misunderstanding of the Law rather than a deliberate action.

If you are being denied your rights, talk to your practice manager first of all.

If you have a VN representative – a trade union official, for example – he or she may be able to help. If this doesn't work, you may need to make a complaint using your practice's internal grievance procedure.

If you’re still unhappy, you can call the BVNA Legal
Helpline on 01822 870270


Nicky Ackerley BA(Hons)

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 25 • No7 • July 2010 •