Tali Bar-Ilan was working for a Fortune 500 financial services company when she suffered the loss of her first pregnancy at 12 weeks. “I went to a regular appointment, and during the ultrasound the technician did not detect a heartbeat,” she says. “Initially I felt like it was the end of the world for me. I’d gone through IUI to get pregnant, which was costly, unpleasant and painful. I couldn't stop crying and grieving.”
At the time, Tali was fortunate to have a male boss she describes as “very supportive.” Though she only ended up taking a week off, he told her to take all the time she needed to grieve, which allowed her to embark on a healing journey. “In Hebrew there's a saying: ‘if you change your place, you change your luck,’” says Tali. “There's something to that—you see new things, breathe new air. So my husband and I took a trip. Going away somehow changed my outlook. My husband and I had time together to process our loss and think about the future. My boss giving me that space and time really helped me stay positive.”
On the flip side, Sandra Browning*, a former regional sales manager for a mid-size apparel manufacturer, was not granted the space and time she needed to heal and grieve after her first miscarriage. “They’d never had a manager who was pregnant or who’d lost a pregnancy. There was no leave policy in place, so I had to take sick days,” she says, adding, “I only took two.”
Though she soon became pregnant again with twins, Sandra lost one at 20 weeks and had to go on bed rest—and disability—for the remainder of her pregnancy. Two weeks after giving birth to her daughter, she received a letter from her employer stating her return-to-work date was just four weeks later, instead of the 10 weeks she thought she’d get. “They consulted with an outside attorney to protect themselves, but there was nothing in place to protect their employees for these situations,” Browning explains. “I resigned and decided to be a stay-at-home mom, which at the time was the right decision, but I was never able to re-enter the apparel world again because I was out of the industry for so long.”
Miscarriage and Your Job
About one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, yet it somehow remains a complex situation for women in the workplace. This past summer, the New York Times ran a scathing exposé on work conditions at Amazon, including a few anecdotes from women who suffered miscarriages on the job. One employee miscarried twins, yet she was required to leave for a business trip the day after she had surgery for fear of losing her job. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she was told. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.” The article also includes a disturbing account from a former HR executive, who recounts how she was required to put a woman who just had a stillborn child on a performance-improvement plan.
“Our society does not address the significance of this event that is equitable to the incidence at which it occurs,” says Joyce Nuner, PhD, associate professor of child and family Studies at Baylor University in Waco, TX, who conducts extensive research on miscarriage and how it affects women. “Many employers fail to recognize the physical toll that miscarriage takes on a woman's body—it’s a traumatic physical event.” Not to mention the emotional toll of losing a child in utero, for which time to grieve is crucial. “Perinatal grief is often marginalized,” says Dr. Nuner, adding that research suggests grief responses following a miscarriage can last from six months to two years. “Women with unresolved grief are at an increased risk of developing clinical depression, which can impact the work environment,” she says. “The emotional trauma related to loss can lead to anxiety, depression and, in some mothers, PTSD.”
Unsure of what to say, co-workers might opt for silence instead of support, which is even more depressing. “Many mothers would prefer an ‘I'm sorry’ to silence,” says Dr. Nuner.
Support from Employers and Colleagues
To prevent situations like the one Sandra faced, Dr. Nuner suggests that employers offer bereavement leave to women who miscarry, without penalty or judgment, and adjust policies when necessary. “Employers need to look closely at their policies and procedures to make sure they’re supportive of the grieving parent and not compounding the already complicated grief the family is experiencing,” she explains. “Imagine finding out you’re pregnant, and you complete the necessary paperwork to add to your FSA (flexible spending account). Then, you miscarry and are devastated. You may hold the baby, perhaps even have a memorial service, yet ultimately come home with empty arms. Now imagine how your devastation is compounded when you call your HR department to request a change in family status (since you have experienced a death in your family) and ask to adjust your FSA. You are told that this does not qualify as a change in family status, i.e., you have not experienced a death in your family that allows for a change in family status.”
So after a devastating miscarriage, you not only don’t get to raise the child you were expecting, you are in essence told by your HR department that your child didn't exist to begin with. It may be easier for employers to act as though nothing has happening than to open the difficult conversation surrounding the loss of a child, but this pretense does nothing to support the grieving employee.
It’s wonderful that staffers like Tali can rely on the support of sympathetic managers. But it’s also clear that workplaces need to have policies in place to support women after miscarriage, treating this pregnancy loss much like they would treat a family death. Time off, flexible-schedule options such as a gradual return to work, and grief assistance can certainly help. In addition, we moms can offer support to a co-worker who’s experienced this loss:
• We can express sympathy, as only another parent can.
• We can listen, allowing her to express her feelings and talk about her experience.
• We can offer work support—perhaps helping out with a project or tasks so the grieving mom can take a few hours off here and there if she needs it.
• We can be there for the long haul. Our support should be ongoing and not just for a week or two. Remember to keep checking in—the mom will truly appreciate it.
*Name changed for privacy.