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The pregnancy challenges that employers often ignore – and what to do about it

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From miscarriage and baby loss, to health complications and post-natal depression. There are many ways organisations can support expectant parents so why are so many falling short?

4th May 2022
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In the past, having a baby as a working woman would often mean the end of – or a severe rupture to – a woman’s career but thankfully, things are changing.

More employers are looking to enhance their policies for pregnancy and early parenthood particularly because every situation is unique and sadly not all of them go to plan. Understanding that there are implications for the short and long-term health of an employee is a first step in tailoring support. Here are some of the key challenges that are often ignored, and what organisations can do about them.

When pregnancy doesn’t go to plan

One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, with 85% occurring in the first trimester. One in 100 couples trying for a baby will experience three or more consecutive miscarriages. Employees often get no support from their workplace – but thankfully this is changing. 

Recent research from Peppy and REBA showed that support for baby loss was ranked in the top five most-effective benefits for enhancing diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace (by 92% of respondents). And yet, 35% of employers don't yet offer baby loss support and have no plans to introduce it. 

Colleagues who have experienced a miscarriage are likely to need time off work to cope with the physical and emotional pain

The impact of miscarriage and baby loss

A miscarriage can be hugely traumatic, especially if a person has been struggling to conceive for a long time only to then lose the baby. In some cases, a miscarriage may necessitate surgery, which can be distressing and painful.

Research from Imperial College London has found that a month on from experiencing miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy (when a fertilised egg implants itself outside of the womb, usually in a fallopian tube), nearly a third of women suffered from post-traumatic stress, a quarter experienced severe anxiety and one in 10 had moderate-to-severe depression.

Colleagues who have experienced a miscarriage are likely to need time off work to cope with the physical and emotional pain, and are more likely to feel future anxiety about having children or trying to conceive. It is important to recognise that the traumatic event that they are going through is one of grief.

Any form of baby loss can have an immediate effect on an employee’s ability to work – and that’s without taking into consideration the longer-term physical, mental and emotional impact. This goes for both partners, and is compounded further if an employee suffers a stillbirth, which occurs in around 1 in every 100 pregnancies.

Baby loss costs businesses, too. Last year, research from Tommy’s and the University of Birmingham revealed that miscarriage costs the UK at least £471million a year due to direct impact on health services and loss of productivity

What can employers do?

Whilst companies like Channel 4 are bucking the trend, it’s common for little-to-no support to be offered to employees after losing a baby; statutory miscarriage leave is not a legal requirement.

A miscarriage policy and paid leave should be the minimum offered by employers. Crucially, employees should have access to 1-to-1 emotional support from a health expert, for support through the grieving process. 

Taking time off due to sickness during pregnancy can impact an employee’s statutory maternity pay

Coping with health problems during pregnancy

Common pregnancy problems include sickness, constipation, incontinence, piles and feeling faint. Many expecting employees who are struggling with these pregnancy-related symptoms, which may be considered ‘inappropriate’ to bring up at work, don’t feel they can ask for support from their manager or take sickness leave.

There are also the less common, more serious problems, which may mean employees and their partners require more appointments and extended time off. And where tests detect birth defects, affected staff will need specialist support as they come to terms with this.

Sickness and hyperemesis gravidarum

Arguably the best-known ‘symptom’ of pregnancy, morning sickness has an enormous impact on employees. Nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (NVP) affects 70-80% of pregnant women, and 30% of employed pregnant women need time off work as a result.

Severe sickness (hyperemesis gravidarum) affects around 3%. Apart from prolonged and severe nausea and vomiting, this condition causes dehydration and feeling faint and can lead to anxiety, exhaustion, depression and mental stress.

Incredibly, taking time off due to sickness during pregnancy can impact an employee’s statutory maternity pay; their first six weeks of maternity pay is 90% of their average pay during an eight week ‘qualifying period’, during pregnancy. 

What can employers do?

Many women prefer not to rock the boat by asking for time off, but all pregnant women should be offered time off for appointments that will benefit their wellbeing and that of their baby. Help employees find the answers they need, quickly and anonymously, by connecting them to perinatal experts. Digital support solutions are ideal as they can be accessed easily, at any time – like during the night whilst feeding their newborn.

Let's not forget mental health

Mental health problems in the perinatal period affect 1 in 5 women who have given birth. As well as antenatal and postnatal depression, new mothers can experience anxiety, OCD, PTSD and postpartum psychosis. 

And it’s not just postnatal depression that’s an issue; mental health can be impacted during the pregnancy, both for the parent carrying the child and for the non-birth parent. Returning to work after parental leave can be a particularly stressful time.

‘Understand Society’ revealed that 17% of women leave employment completely in the five years following childbirth, compared to four per cent of men. Supporting the mental health of their employees before, during and after having a baby stands to benefit a company’s gender diversity. 

What can employers do?

It’s important that employers keep the lines of communication open, introduce the possibility of a phased return and be accommodating, discussing what has worked for new parents and staff in the past. Bringing in any personal experience as a line manager or HR, if relevant, can be a helpful way of making the person feel more comfortable.

Employers must examine whether their employee benefits package is doing enough to support parents, pregnant people and families in the workplace

Offer employee benefits that can be accessed by employees who are on parental leave and invite colleagues on parental leave to webinars and social events, so they don’t feel they're going from zero to 100 when they return to work. 

Help build a robust policy

REBA’s DEI Research with Peppy showed that 66% of employers rate enhanced parental leave support effective or highly effective for enhancing DE&I in the workplace, and 53% said the same for pregnancy support. Employers must examine whether their employee benefits package is doing enough to support parents, pregnant people and families in the workplace. 

The first step is to face up to these lesser-known issues, and then to consider whether new and expectant parents are getting the practical and emotional support they need. 

 

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