A recent Jean Hailes study found that that 60 per cent of women who experienced miscarriage or a stillbirth said they did not receive enough information or support, with these numbers increasing in rural and remote areas. Employers have an opportunity to step in to help fill that gap. Using business resources and know-how, organisations can provide practical support and normalise conversations about loss and grief.
Given the personal nature of miscarriage, women and their partners are often reluctant to share their loss with their employer and colleagues. Some will share details out of necessity if they require time away from work, however, many will avoid these conversations, citing concerns that disclosure will impact their job security, opportunities within their existing or future roles, and the way that they are perceived within the workplace.
Many women also feel miscarriage is an intimate experience, and prefer not to share this with those outside their inner circle. Shauna, a manager in HR, chose not to share her first loss with her manager at the time.
“While I felt confident that sharing my experience wouldn’t negatively impact my career, I didn’t feel that she needed to know, so I never shared with her,” she said.
Justine Alter, an organisational psychologist at Transitioning Well, a company that helps with work-life transitions, agrees that women will often have a number of reasons for not disclosing a pregnancy loss.
“So often when women experience this loss, they see it as a personal matter and one that can’t be shared in their professional role,” she explained. “They can also worry about the impact it will have on their career if their employer knows they are trying to have a baby.”
The partners of women who experience a loss can find it still more difficult to access support. In heterosexual couples, men in particular, often find limited support available to them. Workplaces are well placed to offer assistance to this group as they navigate this difficult time.
Alter has worked with a number of women and their partners in the parental coaching space, and agrees that men can find it difficult to identify, and then access, the types of support that they need.
“Overwhelmingly, women and their partners who have experienced loss, need a safe place to be able to talk about their experience if they so choose. Men in particular, should be encouraged to access support services which can help them to navigate their loss and grief, and create strategies to manage these feelings”.
Managers and colleagues may find it difficult to have conversations about miscarriage. However, when handled confidently and with sensitivity, having those conversations can make a significant difference to their employee’s experience.
Nicole, who recently experienced a pregnancy loss, really values the support that she received from her employer.
“I wanted to tell my colleagues as I knew that I not only wanted, but needed, their support. I couldn’t imagine having to put on a front and pretend that nothing had happened.
“While off work, and when returning to work, I received nothing but support,” she said. “They listened when I needed to talk, and understood that I was grieving and needed to take things easy.”
Shauna was initially reluctant to talk with her manager about her second miscarriage, however, when she broached the subject, she found that they had a shared experience with loss.
“She was able to relate to my experience at some level, remove roadblocks for me at work, and give me time and space,” Shauna said. “Reflecting upon this now, it worked, and was so helpful for me at the time. As a manager, it can be difficult to know how to support a worker who is experiencing loss. Given my experience, I believe the key is listening and asking ‘What do you need from me right now?’”
Alter agrees that being there and asking “What do you need?” is simple, but one of the most important things an employer can do.
There has been a recent shift in the way in which grief and loss are recognised, carrying across to policy and general culture. Prominent public figures are helping to normalise the sharing of miscarriage stories, and many organisations are beginning to understand the importance of acknowledging these experiences. Government certificates can now be issued to commemorate a pregnancy loss that occurs up to, and including 19 weeks gestation, and in some circumstances, special maternity and/or unpaid leave is available to women (and their partners) who experience a loss.
Employers can make a significant difference to their workers’ mental health by implementing formal and informal supports, demonstrating compassion and sensitivity, and providing a safe space for them to return to when they are ready and able. Many women and their partners are unclear on the leave and other entitlements that they can access at this time, and businesses can make a difference by developing, and promoting, policies and practices that support families.
The provision of sick leave and/or compassionate leave, for example, will allow a worker to take time away without an impact on their job stability. Many organisations offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), however, more specialised support is likely to provide better outcomes. Nicole’s employer thought laterally, and offered additional support.
“As part of the wellness program, I was able to take up a one-on-one psychologist appointment,” she said. “My session was so helpful as we spoke about how to cope with my pregnancy loss while juggling demands at work.”
Employers can also provide trauma and loss training to their HR and people leaders, educating them on how to have difficult conversations with their workers, and raising awareness of the psychological and physical risks that can come with miscarriage.
Businesses should be aware of their legal responsibilities, which will vary depending on state law and the individual circumstances of the employee. Workers are more likely to be transparent with employers if they feel supported by internal and external policies and aren’t concerned about an impact on their job security.
If an employee shares their experience, acknowledge any loss by marking it with a card, flowers or other appropriate gesture. The due date or anniversary of the loss may trigger feelings of sadness, and acknowledging these dates may also be appropriate. It can also be helpful for managers to be sensitive and consider that those who have experienced loss may also find it difficult to hear pregnancy and/or birth announcements from others in the workplace.
“No matter where you are in a pregnancy, when you lose a baby, it is hard,” Shauna said. “There were times when I wasn’t coping, but not ready to reach out.”
If your employee requires time off work, stay in touch (with their permission) via email, phone or text, and keep them informed about changes in the workplace. It is important to ask them what they would like to share with colleagues and/or clients.
Nicole says this was incredibly helpful to her while she was recovering.
“I really appreciated my manager checking in,” she said. “I didn’t find it intrusive as my privacy was respected, and I was given the space to share when I needed it.”
While the physical recovery from a pregnancy loss may be evident, the impact on mental health may be more difficult to identify and manage. Some people may experience anxiety as they return to work, concerned about how colleagues may react. A phased return may work well, and will help allow for an adjustment period. Where possible, accommodate requests for flexible working arrangements and modified duties — these are often necessary to allow a woman to recover physically and emotionally.
Confirm how they’d like to communicate their return to colleagues and/or clients, and meet or have a phone call to talk through a return-to-work plan, if necessary. A manager or close colleague may be able to provide a briefing on work activities and movements. “My boss was really supportive, and I have been able to work reduced hours straight away, helping me to manage my emotional recovery,” Nicole said.
Women and their partners who receive support from their workplace are better equipped to navigate their loss. Organisations that approach this subject with consideration and understanding, and encourage conversations, can make a significant difference to the mental health outcomes of this group. Overwhelmingly, these employees want to be able to share their stories in a safe space, and support others through the same experience.
“I really feel for women who are unable to be as open as I am about my experience,” Nicole said. “The more I talk about it, whether it’s at work or with friends and family, the easier it is to digest what has happened, cope, and start to move on.”