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29th Nov, 2022

Olivia Maguire
Olivia Maguire
Job Title
Content Marketing Lead

It is estimated that one-in-four pregnancies end in miscarriage. Despite it being very common, many women and their partners struggle to talk about it with their loved ones, let alone with their employer.

Supporting employees through pregnancy loss is often left out of management training, but thoughtful support and management can make a real difference to how people cope during this difficult time.

We spoke to Vicki Robinson, Deputy Director at The Miscarriage Association, to find out more about the legislation around pregnancy loss and the workplace and how businesses and managers can better support their employees.

Watch or read the full interview:

My name's Vicki Robinson, I am the Deputy Director at The Miscarriage Association. We are a national charity that supports anyone who is affected by pregnancy loss. So that could be the person who's experiencing the physical loss, but also their partner and wider family members. And we also support health professionals and employers - we support anyone who is connected or affected by pregnancy loss.

We do this through a number of different means. We have a staffed helpline with trained support workers who are there to take people's calls. We provide a live chat service, we have email and direct messaging as well, and we also have online and in-person peer support groups. In addition, we promote and encourage best practice and care and treatment by working with the Department of Health and the NHS and all those other agencies. We're also involved in research and general awareness-raising and education. We have a specific workplace programme where we provide training and consultancy for employers.

Q: What level of support do you find people get from their employers - are they doing enough?

A: It really varies. Some employers are great and we're seeing increasing numbers who are recognising the impact of pregnancy loss and putting policies or guidance in place to support their staff. But unfortunately, I'd say that isn't the norm. Before we launched our workplace resources, which are available on our website, we undertook some research of our own and we spoke to about 700 people who've been affected by pregnancy loss and asked them about their workplace experience.

More than half of them told us they felt they'd had to come back to work too soon, and that could be for different reasons. It might have been because they weren't being paid, it might have been as simple and straightforward as that, or they didn't feel their loss was seen as significant and they didn't feel supported to be able to take the time off that they needed.

Or they might actually not have felt able to disclose they'd had a pregnancy loss. Lots of people find it really difficult to disclose or talk about pregnancy in the workplace because they’re worried that they're going to be treated differently in some way once it becomes known that they're looking to start a family. So, lots of people do end up having pregnancy loss and not really speaking to their employer about it, which as you can imagine, can be quite an isolating experience.

About 40% of the people that we spoke to said they didn't feel supported enough to return to work at their normal levels, so their work suffered for some time. And more than one in 10 told us that they’d ended up leaving their workplace altogether, because they couldn't get on with the way they felt they'd been treated during what was a really difficult time for them. And as you can imagine, one-in-10 is potentially quite an enormous loss of talent in the workplace.

Q: What are the laws around pregnancy loss and taking compassionate leave/maternity/time off?

A: Unfortunately, there's very little legislation around pregnancy loss and leave. If someone experiences a loss before 24 weeks, then they're entitled to take what's known as pregnancy-related leave, and that's a kind of sick leave. It does mean the period of absence which is related to that pregnancy has to be recorded separately, and that means it can't be used, or shouldn't be used, in any of those totting up processes for disciplinary or other procedures. But I think it's fair to say, not all employers are aware of that, and we know that lots of people have had their sickness records wrongly impacted and some have had that absence used against them and that's clearly wrong.

As long as a GP, or another health professional, signs that person off due to the pregnancy-related illness, they're actually able to take as much time as they need, as long as it's covered by that sick note. And again, employers aren't always aware of this and there's some confusion around equalities legislation that means a lot of employers think that you can only take a maximum of two weeks off, but again, that really isn't the case. As long as they're signed off correctly by their GP or health professional, they can take as long as they need to recover.

Having said all that about pregnancy-related leave, actually whether they get paid or not is another matter. That really depends on the company's own policies and how generous they are with sickness entitlement - they may only be entitled to statutory sick pay. But essentially at the moment, pregnancy loss is treated more like an illness. Not everyone, but many, many people tell us they see or feel pregnancy loss as a bereavement, and they'd rather it was treated as such.

For losses after 24 weeks, the rules are really quite different. A loss after 24 weeks is legally known as a stillbirth, and the expectant parents are entitled to their full maternity or paternity pay and benefits and rights. And they're also entitled to two weeks of parental bereavement leave.

Q: What are your thoughts on the law that maternity leave can only be taken if the loss happens after 24 weeks?

A: I think it's really difficult because everyone's experience of loss is really individual - there isn't, and there shouldn't be, a league table of grief. Someone who experiences an earlier loss might feel it just as keenly as someone who experiences it later. It's not a linear kind of process. And it might seem quite arbitrary to draw the line at 24 weeks, but that's linked to the stage of viability - when a baby born at that age or stage has a reasonable chance of survival.

It’s also the term at which a birth, and sadly a death, must then be registered, so you can see why it has been set at 24 weeks. Miscarriages are far more common than stillbirths - it affects around one-in-four pregnancies, so offering the same level of leave to those with losses before 24 weeks is probably likely to be prohibitive.

But there are moves to do something about that. There is a bill that has been tabled by Angela Crawley MP, which is going through parliament at the moment, and that calls for a minimum period of three days’ statutory leave for those who are affected by those earlier losses, and that's for both expectant parents. And we're not for a moment saying that we think three days is enough to be able to “get over” an experience like pregnancy loss, but it's a start.

And it's more than that actually, it’s a clear recognition - a public recognition - of the impact that pregnancy loss can have. Until then, though, sadly, we are relying on employers doing the right thing. And we know it's really, really encouraging to see so many who are taking the lead in this area and bridging that gap in legislation. But we've still got a long way to go.

Q: How can employers better support those grieving from a miscarriage?

A: There are so many things that can be done. I think firstly, acknowledging that this type of loss is a significant life event and the impact it can have, is crucial.

Having some sort of policy or guidance in place that specifically addresses pregnancy loss is really important, whether that sits as a stand-alone policy or goes into another policy or compassionate leave. I would say the maternity policy isn't the best place to put it because that's not somewhere people want to be going to look for information on pregnancy loss.

And it’s important to create a supportive environment where people feel able to talk about pregnancy and loss without that fear of possibly being treated differently or perhaps being discriminated against. And really equipping managers with the skills to support staff. It's OK having a policy, but that's just a piece of paper – they need understanding and knowledge of what an employee might be going through, be able to use the right language and know how to support them when they do return to work. We have a huge number of free resources on our website, and we also offer training and consultancy services.

And I think it's important to say, there's often a perception that somebody has an experience like this, they have time off, and then it's back to work as usual. But it's very unlikely to shape up like that. There are lots of things an employer can do to support someone coming back to work. And that isn't just good for the employee, it makes absolutely sound business sense as well. We've heard earlier about people leaving the company, but someone who is well supported to take the time off they need and then on their return, is far more likely to take less time off overall, be able to get back to working at their normal high levels, and they're more likely to have a good feeling and show loyalty to that employer in the future.

Q: Do you find that the partners don’t receive the same level of support and what should be done to tackle this?

A: I think the impact of pregnancy loss on partners generally hasn't been properly understood or recognised for quite a long time. It has traditionally been seen as something that happened to the woman, or the female, and her partner was there purely to support her.

Thankfully, we're really starting to see a change in attitudes and that loss can be felt just as keenly by someone who doesn't go through the physical loss. We've been raising awareness on this for some time and I'm glad to say that the pregnancy loss policies that we're seeing, and certainly the miscarriage leave bill, all acknowledge the impact on partners too. So, the leave they are requiring now, or calling for, is entirely equitable.

Q: What ongoing support should employers be offering when someone who has experienced a miscarriage returns to work?

A: Firstly, I'd say it's about recognising that just because someone has returned to work, it isn't over. It's much like any other type of bereavement or grief. It's very much an ongoing process with peaks and troughs, really depending on how much time they've had off work. Then it's important to know that they still might well be experiencing some of the physical symptoms of miscarriage as well as those emotional ones.

And again, loss is very individual. So, we'd really encourage managers to have that conversation with their staff member and ask them what they need: what would help them back to work, what do they need if they might get upset at work, is there anything that they might need in the way of a phased return? If they're using public transport and they're still having physical symptoms, for example, they might want to start a bit later when the trains or the buses are less busy, or they might like to leave slightly earlier. And they may need extra breaks for a while.

There are also things that are likely to be upsetting or triggering for some time to come. If they sit near someone who is pregnant, they might like to be able to switch desks for a while, if that's a possibility. And there are going to be other times that they’ll find difficult too – due dates and anniversaries are an obvious one – but I think people don't always understand that the return of someone's periods can be a really, really difficult time for people. It's a very clear reminder that they're not pregnant anymore and of what they've lost, so you might find they want to take a day or two off when that happens.

I can't stress enough, it's really about speaking and listening to that individual, because what one person wants or needs might be very, very different from the next person. And I think lastly, I would encourage people to bear in mind that if they do go on to get pregnant again, that's likely to be a very stressful and anxiety-inducing time and they might then need a bit more time off for additional appointments as well. And likewise, that goes for partners too.

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