When you have your own therapy practice, the idea of taking maternity leave may be scary. Not only do you have clients who depend on you for treatment, but you need to find a way to balance the books and keep the lights on while you’re away.
But anxiety about taking maternity leave doesn't need to overshadow the anticipation, excitement, and joy of having a child. Conversely, stressing over finances and client referrals doesn’t make morning sickness easier to endure.
Smart planning now will free you up to focus, when the time comes, on welcoming your new little one into the world. Here are seven steps to plan maternity leave at your private practice.
Decide when to tell clients
When it comes to your practice, there are two groups of people with whom you should be prepared to share news of your pregnancy: existing clients and new ones.
Many pregnant people feel comfortable sharing the big news around 12 weeks in, but you will want to identify a timeline that feels best for you.
Telling existing clients you’re pregnant
You may find it’s more difficult to stick to your chosen timeline for announcing your pregnancy when it comes to telling clients.
Morning sickness, aka any-time-of-the-day sickness, affects every person differently. But you should be prepared for the possibility that you’ll need to cancel on clients, often at the last minute, due to nausea.
In fact, you may find yourself suddenly excusing yourself in the middle of sessions with clients because you’re about to puke. Therapist Allison Puryear discusses this very issue in her guide to maternity leave for therapists.
If you haven’t yet made a public announcement about your pregnancy, but it’s beginning to affect how you serve clients, it’s up to you to decide how much you’re willing to share. You may feel comfortable telling some clients you’re in the very early stages of pregnancy, and dealing with morning sickness; or you may prefer to keep it vague.
Whatever approach you take, try to create a communication plan before your pregnancy starts to affect you at work, so you’re prepared when it’s time to talk to clients.
Once you’ve reached the 12 week mark—or whatever point you set for sharing your good news—inform all of your clients that you are pregnant and planning to take maternity leave.
At this point, it’s a good idea to have a clear idea of how much time you’ll be taking off, and steps you may take to refer clients who need ongoing therapy while you’re away. The “script” for informing clients is covered below in Step 5.
Telling new clients you’re pregnant
Once news of your pregnancy is public, make it a habit to give new clients a disclaimer during your consultation call. Then, based on their needs (whether a short course of therapy, or longer-term treatment) and preferences, they can make an informed decision.
Tell new clients when you’re planning to begin maternity leave, and when you expect to return. You may also wish to let them know about any plans you have to refer existing clients to other therapists while you’re away.
Set your boundaries for leave
Setting boundaries around what type of work you’ll do, and your availability in terms of communications, gives clients a clear picture of what to expect while you’re on leave.
Without clear boundaries, you may find work creeping into your life at a point when you aren’t ready to return to practice. The time you take before you have your baby in order to prepare, and the time you take afterwards to recover, is important. If you don’t set boundaries, you could be jeopardizing your mental and physical health.
Set precise dates for when:
- You will stop seeing clients for regular sessions
- You hit pause on accepting new clients
- You will no longer be available to answer emails
- You will no longer be available to reply to texts or phone calls
Naturally, you should also set dates for when you will resume client sessions, accepting new clients, etc.
You can communicate these cut-offs to clients with pre-written emails (covered below).
Anticipate recovery time
Six weeks. That’s the minimum postpartum recovery period, regardless of how you give birth.
Keep in mind, that’s just for physical recovery. Ask any new parent, after six weeks, how they’re feeling, and it’s unlikely they’re back to 100%. An interrupted sleep schedule, hormonal chaos, and the mental and emotional demands of caring for a newborn may all help to delay a return to the workplace.
If it’s your first time giving birth, it can be difficult to anticipate how much time you need off. This is when it’s a good time to take a survey of the moms in your life, to get an idea of what they went through while recovering from their first pregnancies.
However much time you anticipate needing, err on the side of caution and give yourself the maximum amount. It’s better to have some wiggle room, in terms of timing. Planning a gradual return to work can make this easier.
Plan your return to work
When you resume seeing clients, going from zero to sixty isn’t realistic. Your best bet is to plan a gradual return to work, so you can pick up the rhythm of running your practice again—and back off to take extra time away if needed.
You may wish to phase in telehealth sessions first, followed by in-person appointments. If your practice is 100% telehealth or 100% in-person, consider which of your clients you’d prefer to start working with first, gradually increasing the number you see per week.
Here’s an example back-to-work schedule for a new parent running a solo therapy practice:
This is just a template to work from. Your own schedule will be different.
Alternatively, you may wish to set a “check in” date. For instance, Dr. Marie Fang explains how, during her first pregnancy, she took two months off, with the option to take four. After two months, she checked in with clients to let them know whether she would be returning to work.
As she explains in her debrief, Dr. Fang ended up taking all four months—and, for her second pregnancy, scheduled four full months away right off the bat.
Whatever schedule you set for your return, it’s important to set it now. It will affect what you tell clients, and how you budget for your time away.
Referring clients to other therapists
Decide now whether you will refer your clients to other therapists while you are away.
For some clients, this may be unnecessary—the break from therapy will not seriously affect their treatment journey. Others may need to see another therapist in order to keep up with their goals.
This is the time to do some matchmaking between your client list and your network of colleagues. For each client, create a list of therapists you believe would be a good match, and be prepared to make introductions. Therapist Allison Puryear explains how she used a simple spreadsheet to plan referrals for her maternity leave.
Create a script for clients (including emails)
There are two parts to your maternity leave prep script: Telling clients in person, and sending emails.
Telling clients in person
When you tell clients in person, be prepared for reactions that may make you uncomfortable.
Your clients may:
- Express resentment, disappointment, fear, or anxiety about your absence
- Ask awkward or personal questions
- Offer unasked-for advice
- Decide to leave and see another therapist
As a professional, you need to set boundaries around how much of your personal life you’re willing to share with clients. The most important thing is that your clients know when you’ll go away, and when you’ll be back. Beyond that, it’s up to you to decide how much you’d like to share about your pregnancy.
You may also want to write in advance and schedule your own version of these five emails:
- An email notifying clients of your maternity leave, to be sent when you begin to share the news with clients. (It’s a good idea to send it to all of your clients, even if you tell them each in person, so they have a written record of when you will be away and when you will return to work.)
- An email notifying clients that you are going on maternity leave in X weeks. If they need referrals to other therapists, or would like to schedule extra sessions, now is the time for them to get in touch. You may want to send a personalized email to each client notifying them of when their last session will be before you leave.
- An email notifying clients you have begun maternity leave and will no longer be available to take calls or respond to emails.
- An auto reply, set for the duration of your leave, letting anyone who emails you know that you will be out of the office until such-and-such a date.
- An email notifying clients when you return to your regular work schedule.
You may also need to email clients to check in—for instance, if you are taking two months off, with the possibility of taking four. In that case, you won’t be able to write the email in advance, but make a note in your calendar so you aren’t frantically writing it at the eleventh hour.
Set two budgets for your time away
You’ll need to set two budgets for your maternity leave:
Setting your personal budget
Your personal budget is fairly self-explanatory—it covers all the personal expenses you will need to cover while you’re off work.
What makes it different from your typical personal budget is your income. Since you aren’t actively earning income while you’re on maternity leave, you need to decide how you will pay yourself.
That could either be in the form of savings you’ve set aside to cover your personal expenses, or a recurring owner’s draw from your practice’s retained profits.
Using savings makes the most sense if all of your income is active income—that is, you aren’t earning money unless you’re seeing clients. In that case, your business revenue during maternity leave is effectively zero. So long as you’re able to plan your expenses effectively, you can just withdraw money from a lump sum to cover them.
Giving yourself an owner’s draw during maternity leave makes the most sense if you’re earning passive income while you’re away. For instance, you may offer online courses that generate a steady stream of revenue. In that case, you may wish to pay yourself every two weeks with an owner’s draw consisting of your passive income and a portion of your practice’s retained earnings.
Setting your business budget
The most important part of your business budget while you’re on maternity leave is your overhead.
Your overhead is the cost of staying in business. It includes expenses like:
- Software subscriptions
- Business licenses (typically renewed annually)
- Insurance premiums
While technically not part of overhead, you should also anticipate any quarterly tax payments due during your maternity leave.
In addition to planning your overhead costs, you will need to plan your weekly income between now and when you go on maternity leave, so you can put together a savings plan.
Short-term disability insurance and maternity leave
If your health insurance plan covers short-term disability, you may be able to get paid while you’re on maternity leave.
Short-term disability coverage that includes maternity leave typically pays out a percentage of your average income for a set number of weeks while you’re away. In order to get this money, though, you’ll need to apply through your insurer.
If you’re reading this article because you anticipate being pregnant in the future, but aren’t pregnant yet, now is a good time to consider either upgrading your insurance (to include short-term disability coverage) or to confirm that your short-term disability coverage includes maternity leave. You won’t be able to sign up for coverage and qualify for maternity leave if you are already pregnant.
Put a savings plan in place
Looking at your average weekly income, and the number of weeks you have left until your maternity leave, you should be able to determine how much you can withhold each week as savings.
If you’re planning to pay yourself from your practice’s retained earnings while you are away, earmark a portion of it as a future owner’s draw. Your bookkeeper can help you categorize this money.
If you plan to draw from a lump sum in personal savings, then take the money as owner’s draws or salaries now, and stash it away for when you need it.
Your goal should be to save enough money that you can cover all of your expenses while you’re on maternity leave. That may seem like an intimidating task.
But the sooner you get started, the more leeway you have—and the easier it will be to prepare for your time off.
Having a child is a huge life event. Don’t let stress about money distract you from it. Our article on creating a budget for your therapy practice can help you plan for the impact of maternity leave now.
This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post.
Bryce Warnes is a West Coast writer specializing in small business finances.