Why can’t we talk about miscarriages in the workplace?
A miscarriage is defined as the loss of a child during the first 23 weeks of pregnancy. It’s a devastating yet common experience. According to the HSE website, around 20% of pregnancies will end this way.
You see the terrible irony about miscarriage is that millions of women have them, and yet no one talks about it. Earlier this year the world was shocked when author, philanthropist, lawyer and former First Lady Michelle Obama spoke out about her own experiences.
“I felt lost and alone, and I felt like I failed because I didn’t know how common miscarriages were, because we don’t talk about them,” said Obama, who also went through IVF prior to conceiving her two daughters in her mid-thirties. “We sit in our own pain, thinking that somehow we’re broken. I think it’s the worst thing that we do to each other as women, not share the truth about our bodies and how they work, and how they don’t work.”
Obama’s admission made headlines around the world because we’re simply not used to women talking about this personal experience.
Don’t get me wrong, this silence is understandable, after all, it’s a traumatic and often devastating time, however, it’s also contributing to the complete lack of awareness in our society.
In many countries around the world, women are encouraged to keep their pregnancy under wraps until the end of the first trimester when the risk of miscarriage is considerably lower. As a result, many people don’t even know when their colleagues or friends have lost a pregnancy.
Women often have to return to work just days after having a miscarriage. They suffer in silence, hide their pain and dismiss concerns from colleagues over their dishevelled appearance or pale complexion.
Unwritten rules and cultural pressure stops them from telling their coworkers what is really wrong. A quick Google search throws up dozens of examples of women who were too scared to approach their boss while miscarrying at work.
A woman’s body and its processes like menstruation, miscarriage or the menopause, are not appropriate to talk about in a professional setting. This has contributed to a culture of shame and discomfort.
So how do we change centuries of tradition? Of course it’s not easy.
We need to start an open and honest conversation about the physical and mental impact miscarriage can have on workers, who at the end of the day are emotional humans with a life outside the office.
We also need to introduce organisational support. Taking time off to grieve the loss of a pregnancy is not the same as having the flu. Employees should not have to take sick days in order to heal and gather their thoughts.
In Ireland, women are only granted maternity leave if they surpass the 24th week of pregnancy which excludes the vast majority of cases.
Other countries are more sympathetic, however. The Fair Work Act in Australia gives employees access to special maternity leave when a women's pregnancy ends after 12 weeks because of a miscarriage, termination or stillbirth.
In China, if you suffer a miscarriage in the first four months of pregnancy, you’re entitled to 15 days of paid leave to recuperate. If you suffer a miscarriage after that, you’re entitled to 42 days of paid leave. However, these laws don’t extend far enough.
Therefore it is up to individual workplaces to incorporate pre-24 week losses into parental leave. It’s also imperative that organisations begin to understand the short and long term effects an event like this can have on their employee’s performance and mental health.
It’s easy to brush this issue aside and carry on as we have for centuries, but the reality is that miscarriage will touch the life of at least one person in your workplace. We need to support grieving parents with understanding and compassion, not silence and distrust.