A quarter of companies in Britain view maternity and paternity leave as a business risk, with seven per cent seeing it as a serious threat.
Perhaps not surprisingly, smaller companies are the most concerned. Almost one in three (28 per cent) of businesses with 20 or less employees said that it was a business risk as opposed to only 15 per cent of those with more than 100 staff.
Proposals made to the government in May, which are likely to form the basis of a new Parental Rights Bill, recommend extending paid maternity leave from the current six months to nine and then 12. Mothers would also be able to transfer some of their leave to their partners.
Carol Anne Stewart, risk control training manager at AXA said: "Employers need to make sure that they not only cover staff on maternity or paternity leave, but also that they are aware of their legal rights and that they respect these.
"If they don't, they could find themselves facing legal action. Some £6.2 million was awarded in employment tribunals last year, compared to £4.3 million in 2003."
But according to research by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) earlier this year, many employers are not fully aware of the rights of pregnant members of staff and almost half (45 per cent) of women who are pregnant claim they experience some form of discrimination.
Other research published this week by employment law advisors Consult GEE suggests that seven out of 10 firms take a statutory approach to maternity leave – although only half of businesses admitted to knowing whether their HR policies are compliant with current law.
Meanwhile, AXA said that the problems caused by maternity leave could be minimised if businesses thought about succession planning in advance and put solutions in place so that they are better prepared for maternity and paternity leave.
Carol Anne Stewart continued: "In addition to covering periods of maternity leave, business can greatly benefit by providing 'family friendly' hours or practices which could include flexible working hours or partial working from home.
"The lifeblood for successful businesses is the quality of individual employees By ensuring that all staff - not just those on maternity leave but also those undertaking additional duties - are managed correctly will assist in maintaining a settled workforce."