At any given time, up to one in three employees are pregnant or trying for a baby – so while it’s not always easy to discuss at work, supportive management and an open culture in the wider organisation are vital, especially when pregnancy doesn’t go to plan.
One in four pregnancies ends in loss: a heartbreak endured frequently but often quietly because of persistent stigma in society. In the workplace, this can leave bereaved parents grappling with outdated HR practices, managers unsure how to help and colleagues so scared of saying the wrong thing they say nothing at all. This can and must change.
In the UK, mothers who lose a baby after 24 weeks of pregnancy can take maternity leave. However, baby loss tends to happen much earlier, when parents may not even have told their employer and often find there are no processes in place to support them.
Some companies recently introduced policies for leave after pregnancy loss – but as well as needing time for physical and emotional recovery, the person who returns to work may be fundamentally changed and need longer-term support, so an understanding manager and flexible working environment is crucial.
Work can be a welcome distraction for some but overwhelming for others; we’re all different and grief is very personal, so there’s not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. With such a sensitive topic, detailed policies and careful processes can still fall down if people don’t feel confident having the difficult conversations required to put them into practice.
Employers must lead by example in encouraging open and supportive communication. Listen, empathise, really engage. Ask if or how they’d like you to communicate with colleagues, taking the pressure off them to ask for help while reassuring them of confidentiality. Find out about their support network and see if they have access to counselling.
Refresh your knowledge of policies around maternity, paternity, bereavement and compassionate leave; the last thing they need now is to have to read it themselves. In the event of absence, find out how they’d like this explained to colleagues and how they’ll stay in touch – but any communication should be about their recovery, not work queries. It may be appropriate to arrange flowers or a ‘thinking of you’ card, using the baby’s name if you know it. Their journey isn’t over when they return to work so keep checking in; milestones like their due date or the anniversary of the loss can trigger waves of grief, as can colleagues announcing pregnancies or bringing babies into work, or if they get pregnant again themselves it’s likely to be a stressful and anxious time.
As we start families later in life, we’re more likely to experience problems and need support. For example, the physical and emotional challenges of fertility treatment can be heightened in the workplace, particularly if someone doesn’t feel able to discuss why they need time off.
Employees going through fertility treatment may need short-term flexible working, and absences should be treated like any other medical appointments or sick leave. If they become pregnant, managers have to support them through that – but if treatment is unsuccessful, hormonal changes and emotional distress could also affect their ability to work. For the parent not carrying the baby, this can still be a bumpy ride, so managers should invite honest one-to-one discussion of any support they may need.
Becoming a parent is a common life transition but can be a professional stumbling block without the right support. For a healthy pregnancy and return to work, employers generally need to understand their legal obligations, but going beyond these basics can help organisations to attract, retain and grow diverse talent.
The best employers should offer family-friendly policies like flexible working and enhanced maternity or paternity packages, as well as specialist training for HR teams and line managers to support employees through any pregnancy journey. Progressive policies that actively offer leave during fertility treatment or after losing a baby at any stage are also key to breaking the historic taboo around these issues, so that people not only understand the support available but feel confident asking for help if they need it.
Jacqui Clinton is director of the Pregnancy and Parenting at Work service at Tommy’s