How workplaces can support pregnancy loss
“It’s a lonely experience..Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you—as if you’re defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own.” ~ Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg
Zuckerberg’s honest reflection on his and his wife’s experience shows how difficult it can be to suffer a pregnancy loss or miscarriage. Sadly, it’s also extremely common.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that every single day in this country there are 282 miscarriages, five still births, and two infant deaths under the age of 28 weeks. Given the sheer prevalence of pregnancy loss, employers and HR managers need to be aware of the issue and mindful of some of the ways it can potentially affect their employees.
What is miscarriage?
Pregnancy loss can take many different forms. Miscarriage refers to the loss of a baby up to and including the 19th week of pregnancy, while stillbirth is the loss of a baby from the 20th week of pregnancy onwards. Bear in mind that loss can also be experienced as a result of an unsuccessful fertility treatment cycle, or when all avenues for pregnancy have been exhausted.
How pregnancy loss can affect your employees
Pregnancy loss can often manifest itself in a variety of symptoms of emotional and physical strain.
These may include:
- Emotional upheaval associated with loss—grief, anger, shame or fear of stigma.
- Uncertainty or fear about future pregnancies.
- Struggling with the physical recovery of pregnancy, including possible surgery or the trauma of delivering a stillborn baby.
- Supporting the grief of a partner and other children.
Managers should also be aware of the logistical challenges that grieving parents may face during recovery.
These may include:
- Managing the care of other children in the family – e.g. caring for children while grieving and the logistical challenges such as school drop-off and pickup.
- Medical or specialist appointments may be required.
- The mother may be unable to drive if she has undergone surgery.
In addition, there are also specific workplace concerns relating to pregnancy loss. Some people may not have told colleagues they were pregnant or trying to conceive. Others will be unsure about how to inform their manager, colleagues or clients about their loss.
How to support your employees through pregnancy loss
The far-reaching consequences of pregnancy loss can impact your employees’ workplace performance and affect their mental and physical health. But what can you do support your employees through this difficult time?
Implement clear policies and educate employees
Ensure policies explicitly cover perinatal loss, and that this is clear and easily accessible to everyone. Avoid having a “ask your manager for the policy” situation as the grieving parent may not yet be ready to discuss their situation. In addition, educate your organisation about pregnancy loss, explaining what support is available to those impacted, and how they can support their colleagues.
Hold no expectations about how an employee ‘should’ grieve
Recovery takes time and is not linear—some days will be better than others. There is no ‘set’ amount of time a person takes to grieve. Ask what leave they need and be prepared to be flexible as their needs change. Be aware that some people will want to keep busy as part of their recovery—they may not wish to take leave.
Remind employees of EAP assistance and additional 1-1 counselling service, if available
If EAP services offer counselling to immediate family members, remind them of this service for partners and other children. Close co-workers and managers may also benefit from EAP counselling.
Allow flexibility to attend any medical appointments or manage childcare logistics for other children
If appropriate, prepare a return-to-work plan. You may consider a range of options including temporary part-time hours, gradual transition back to regular work, compressed hours or another option your employee requests.
Carefully consider communication to others
Ask your employee what communication they would like, and what they would prefer to do themselves as opposed to having it done for them. They may, for example, prefer you to inform their colleagues or clients about their loss to spare them having to repeat the same conversation numerous times.
Remember: it may be necessary to discuss this more than once as and when it becomes necessary or appropriate.
Consider financial assistance where possible
If possible consider some form of financial assistance, for example, contributing to expenses, funeral costs, vouchers for childcare to provide grieving parents some time or even vouchers for meal delivery to help in this difficult time.
Practical issues for your employees
As pregnancy loss often isn’t openly discussed, your employees may face uncertainty regarding their leave entitlements. Parents dealing with a stillbirth or infant death can currently access six weeks of unpaid leave where they have already commenced their parental leave.
Under new legislation, parents of a stillborn baby, or in the case of infant death, are entitled to 12 months of unpaid parental leave. In addition, special maternity leave may be available for eligible employees not fit for work because the pregnancy ends in loss, within 28 weeks of the expected date of birth.
Financial and administrative concerns
Parents dealing with pregnancy loss may also be unfamiliar with their legal or financial obligations.
- By law, all stillbirths in Australia must be registered with Births Deaths and Marriages in the relevant state or territory.
- It is also a legal requirement to arrange a burial or cremation for a stillborn baby.
- There may be additional medical costs, particularly for emergency or specialist care.
This information was developed in partnership with Transitioning Well, an organisational psychology consultancy that works with forward-thinking companies to help employees manage the intersections between life and work.
Transitioning Well and COPE are developing additional resources for Australian small business to support mental health and wellbeing of new and expectant parents. For more information and register for updates, visit their website.