Sunday 26 May 2019

Pregnancy & the office: Top tips to navigate pregnancy and your professional life

Expecting a baby brings about huge life changes, and these all have to be juggled with work. Jen Hogan offers some guidelines for navigating pregnancy and your professional life

Maternity leave is currently 26 weeks, with 16 weeks additional unpaid leave, which begins immediately after the end of maternity leave.
Maternity leave is currently 26 weeks, with 16 weeks additional unpaid leave, which begins immediately after the end of maternity leave.

Jen Hogan

Pregnancy is a time of many questions, and never more so than when you're working outside of the home.

Trying to find out your entitlements and coping with common pregnancy niggles can be made all the more difficult if you're still trying to keep news of your impending arrival under wraps. So when is the best time to tell your employer? Is there any way to make morning, aka all-day, sickness any more manageable and less obvious to your colleagues? And what if it all becomes just too much to handle?

Midwife and PHN Cliona McLoughlin believes most people keep news of their pregnancy to themselves until at least 12 weeks in, because after this time, the risk of miscarriage drops significantly. The difficulty this presents, however, is the consequential handling of early pregnancy symptoms in secret.

"During the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, women are usually very, very tired," Cliona says. "It's very important that they get rest and go to bed early because they're still working their normal hours."

Pregnant woman at the office
Pregnant woman at the office

In addition to this, early pregnancy also brings the dreaded morning sickness. Cliona explains that morning sickness is generally caused by the increase in hormones and, in particular, the high levels of oestrogen.

"One of the things that happens in the beginning of pregnancy is that the carbohydrate metabolism seems to be interfered with and that, in turn, can lead to morning sickness.

"For some women, it's worse than others. Not all women have morning sickness, but the majority of women, I'd say over 70pc, would have some degree."

Cliona says that for most women, morning sickness passes over around the 12-week mark - but for some women, unfortunately, it can continue well beyond that, though she is keen to stress that this is quite rare.

"It can become a medical condition known as 'hyperemesis gravidarum'. The person we're most familiar with suffering from this is Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, who was admitted to hospital during both of her pregnancies."

Eating little and often is Cliona's recommendation in trying to combat nausea and sickness, "maybe keeping crackers by the bedside and nibbling on them before you get up".

She also advises that women take their maternity leave, at the very latest, when they are due to begin it and not be tempted to work beyond that date.

"I would actively discourage women from working up until a week or two before the baby is born."

She points out that the commute to work also needs to be considered. It's very important, she adds, "always to bear in mind that pregnancy is a physiological event and not a pathological event".

Eating properly, taking your breaks at work and availing of pregnancy and birth education, such as antenatal and breastfeeding classes, are very important, Cliona stresses.

Wearing support tights or support stockings can help with swollen ankles, a typical late-pregnancy discomfort. Cliona recommends having your feet slightly elevated, if at all possible, in the confines of the office.

Nutritionist Alva O'Sullivan, from Alva O'Sullivan Nutrition and Fitness, believes that what you eat can make a real difference to how you feel during pregnancy. She believes that managing your diet can help you to cope with the additional challenges posed by working outside the home during this time.

Alva says that the foods an individual can tolerate while they're struggling with nausea and morning sickness can differ from person to person. She feels in the early stages, you "shouldn't panic too much about whether you're getting all the nutrients" or "is there enough variety in my diet". She recommends "eating small snacks throughout the day to keep your tummy settled and keep your blood sugars stable.

"The best foods really to settle your stomach are carbohydrates: things like bread, pasta, rice, oats and, if you can, eat them with some kind of protein source."

Alva suggests crackers and cheese or toast with almond butter or cashew nut butter, "full of great proteins and fat" as potential snacks and says the key is keeping it simple. "A bowl of cereal - the best cereals probably to choose are shredded wheat, Weetabix or a bowl of porridge."

She advises: "Don't panic if it's evening time and that's all you can face, a bowl of porridge. It's simple, it will stay down, hopefully, and it is nutritious. All these type of foods are good whole foods."

Alva says it's important to move away from the three-meal-a-day thinking, to focus on small meals and "just going with your body". As long as morning sickness is restricted to early pregnancy and isn't excessive, she doesn't feel there is any need to overly worry about missing out on nutrients.

There is one thing in particular she places huge importance on, however. "Hydration is really important," she says. "I can't overemphasise the importance of that.

"If water bores you, even have something like a herbal tea - stay away from caffeine and alcohol obviously."

Sipping throughout the day can help ward off dehydration. While she doesn't advocate relying solely on soft drinks for hydration, she does concede that the Irish mammy's solution for everything, of "flat 7UP", has its place, if all else fails.

So, with the managing of some of the more unpleasant symptoms of pregnancy taken care of, what are your legal obligations to your employer - and your employer to you?

Maternity leave is currently 26 weeks, with 16 weeks additional unpaid leave, which begins immediately after the end of maternity leave. Payment depends on your contract of employment. Some employers top up Maternity Benefit pay, which is a Department of Social Protection payment, while some employees receive this payment alone. Entitlement to Maternity Benefit, however, depends on having sufficient PRSI contributions.

Jane, a HR business partner, says that while employees are not obliged to inform their employer of their pregnancy until four weeks before they intend to take maternity leave, many will advise their managers well in advance of this so as to avail of their legal entitlement to attend antenatal appointments and some antenatal classes with pay.

Pregnancy sickness, Jane advises "is treated as normal sick leave" by most companies and the "company's sick-leave policy will apply".

While pregnant employees are entitled to have a risk assessment carried out, many would have their more straightforward requests met at their suggestion, Jane reports.

"Where possible, we would put in place measures to assist them," she says. "We would often have situations where people would request seated roles and we would usually be able to accommodate them. If we receive a doctor's certificate making a suggestion, we would generally send the person for an occupational health assessment."

However, she adds: "If someone's job is being changed fundamentally, we would look for expert advice on it.

"If you can't offer an alternative, then you would put them on health and safety leave, where they would stay at home and be paid."

Depending on the organisation, they may move to Health and Safety Benefit after this. "This is a legislative entitlement," Jane advises.

And what if you want to start your maternity leave early?

"Most people don't, but the odd person does," Jane says. "Legally, a person must start their maternity leave (at least) two weeks before their due date."

If you so desire, however, it is possible to start your maternity leave any time from 24 weeks pregnant.

Officially, you must give notice in writing four weeks before you intend to start. There is a legal requirement to take at least four weeks after the birth of your child.

The biggest point of concern for companies, when it comes to maternity leave, is cover.

Jane explains: "When are they going to be out? Is there a chance they'll end up out early?"

"If the company pays the full 26 weeks' maternity pay then they are under budget constraints. It's extremely costly if you bring in somebody. You have a double salary to pay."

After maternity leave, an employee is entitled to return to the same job with the same contract of employment. If this is not possible, the employer must find suitable alternative employment on similar terms.

The good news is that, while your employment terms cannot be worsened by the fact that you have taken maternity leave, you are entitled to avail of any improvement in conditions, pay or otherwise, that might have occurred while you were on maternity leave, once you return to work!

Nutrition for morning sickness and nausea

Nutritionist Alva O'Sullivan suggests 10 healthy, simple meals that will keep blood sugar stable, energy high and fight nausea

Eating small meals frequently that contain carbohydrates and protein will help fight nausea. Keep meals simple and avoid spicy, sugary and greasy foods

1. Oatcake crackers with sliced cheese and tomato

2. Toasted brown bread with almond or cashew nut butter and topped with sliced banana

3. French toast (brown bread dipped in beaten egg and cooked on a pan with some butter)

4. Wholegrain low-sugar cereal (shredded wheat, porridge, no-sugar muesli, Weetabix) with milk and berries

5. A piece of fruit and a handful of raw nuts

6. Natural yoghurt with a tablespoon of seeds and fresh fruit

7. Toasted wholemeal pitta with hummus

8. Brown bread with a sliced boiled egg

9. Fruit smoothie made with fresh berries, ½ banana and Greek yoghurt

10. Baked potato topped with grated cheese.

Irish Independent

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