How miscarriage support can form part of your D&I strategy
By Jo Faragher on 12 July 2021
New Zealand recently joined a small group of countries that offers couples who experience a miscarriage or stillbirth paid bereavement leave as standard. The legislation was unanimously passed in parliament, and provides three days’ leave for both parents. Here in the UK, parents gained the right in 2020 to two weeks’ leave if they experience the loss of a child or a stillbirth, but there is not yet a statutory right to time off after a miscarriage. A recent report in scientific journal The Lancet recently called for global reform around care for those who experience miscarriage, stating that “for too long miscarrage has been minimised and often dismissed”.
Recent months have seen a wave of employers announce comprehensive miscarriage support policies, including Co-op, Monzo and Channel 4. More than one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to charity the Miscarriage Association, the equivalent of around a quarter of a million. Most miscarriages happen in the first three months of pregnancy, but can still happen up to the 24th week. In many cases, women won’t know why they have miscarried and will feel high levels of anxiety – but it’s not always something employees feel comfortable discussing at work or disclosing to a manager.
“In the UK, mothers who lose a baby after 24 weeks of pregnancy can take maternity leave,” explains Jacqui Clinton, fundraising director at baby loss charity Tommy’s. “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. 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.” She adds that work can be a welcome distraction for some, but overwhelming for others, so it’s difficult to offer a “one-size-fits-all” solution.
What to offer
The Co-op has made its policy publicly available so that other employers can get some ideas of the support they could offer, and worked with the Miscarriage Association to find out what would be most useful for employees. The policy offers flexible paid leave, tailored to individual circumstances and paid leave for the partners of those who experience pregnancy loss, including colleagues who are intended parents and experience pregnancy loss with a surrogate. Managers can give time off for medical appointments and there is access to bereavement and grief counselling, as well as “emergency leave” for colleagues who want to support a family member through miscarriage.
Sometimes it can be simple things that help, adds Clinton from Tommy’s: “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,” she adds. “It may be appropriate to arrange flowers or a ‘thinking of you’ card, using the baby’s name if you know it.” The miscarriage journey isn’t over when the employee returns to work so it’s crucial that managers keep checking in, she says. “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.”
Rebecca Armstrong, a coach at mental health consultancy Sanctus (which has just introduced its own pregnancy loss policy), says it’s important to acknowledge the loss appropriately, accepting that it will hit individual employees in different ways. “Whatever emotion an employee has is normal and valid – they may feel anger, grief, confusion, shock, sadness, failure, isolation, uselessness, jealousy or anger at those who have children,” she says. In some cases miscarriage has been linked to a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, while for others it can surface as depression, anxiety or panic attacks, so it’s worth considering whether professional support might be appropriate.
Armstrong offers these pieces of advice to managers supporting colleagues through a miscarriage:
- It may take some time for an employee to open up, as they may be experiencing a range of difficult emotions or they may be worried about workplace discrimination. If they share with you, ask simple and open-ended questions.
- Be empathetic and don’t make any assumptions about how they may be feeling. Acknowledge what has happened and don’t diminish it with phrases like “at least you can try again” or “everything happens for a reason”.
- Give them the time that they need to open up to you and don’t try to pry information out of people before they’re ready.
- Ask the employee what they need to be supported. It’s important to know that they may not know this themselves at this time.
If there is no specific miscarriage leave policy in place already, it’s worth looking at existing policies around compassionate leave and sickness absence to ensure they are flexible enough to accommodate what an employee might need at this time. Similarly, investigate whether employee medical insurance or employee assistance programmes cover pregnancy loss, or are able to offer one-to-one support at such a difficult time. “Review your policies, make sure you are allowing your employees the time they need off work to truly grieve, for medical appointments and support them on their return to work when they feel ready to do so,” adds Armstrong.
Practical support aside, the most important thing to do is to create an environment where employees feel comfortable talking about what has happened, rather than feeling they have to soldier on. “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,” adds Clinton. “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.”
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