Having a miscarriage can be a devastating experience that brings a range of difficult feelings, from grief and shock to anger and anxiety. One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, yet shame and stigma prevent us from talking openly about it — particularly in the workplace.
Miscarriage, the loss of a child during the first 23 weeks of a pregnancy, can be extremely traumatic. Not only is it a unique type of loss, the issue is further complicated because organisations are often reluctant to deal with personal issues affecting women, such as miscarriage or menopause.
Many companies are built on masculine norms, which can often mean women’s personal issues — including miscarriage — are silenced. Women who spoke to Yahoo Finance UK recalled having to return to work just days after having a miscarriage and hiding their pain from colleagues and managers, all while trying to come to terms with their loss.
Hannah*, a 37-year-old chartered accountant from London, didn’t tell her employer when she experienced pregnancy loss. “I felt I could not talk about it,” she said. “I tried to continue as normal and used to run out the classroom and cry in breaks.
“I think if managers supported early pregnancy better so it was not a ‘secret’ at work then support for pregnancy loss at work would be vastly improved.”
In some cases, women are forced to struggle with unsupportive employers who are unwilling to give them the time off to recover physically and emotionally.
“When I experienced recurrent miscarriages my work was not very helpful at first because my manager lacked empathy,” according to Amy*, a social worker from Yorkshire.
“I was expected to come into work on the day I was miscarrying for the first time, and I was asked to take time off in lieu to have the afternoon off,” she said.
“When I returned I mentioned I was still suffering with pain — my manager’s response was to ask what I was going to do to manage the pain so it didn’t impact on my work. They never spoke about my miscarriage directly to me, but when I referenced it they just said I should ‘focus on positives.’”
Pregnancy loss can affect people in different ways — both emotionally and physically — so there is no single way for employers to address it. Some people experience intense grief that can last for weeks or months, and others cope well at the time but struggle later. Women affected by recurrent miscarriages can often suffer long-term emotional stress.
The workplace can be a difficult place for someone who has experienced a miscarriage. Whether it’s a colleague who has just had a baby or someone who is newly pregnant, ordinary events become emotionally challenging.
“Not everyone wants to talk about their miscarriage — some would rather keep it private and that should be respected — but if they do, employers and colleagues may wonder how best to respond,” according to Ruth Bender Atik, national director of the Miscarriage Association.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer, but perhaps the golden rule is to listen. Don’t make assumptions about what the person is feeling or needs — instead ask them, and keep in mind that their needs may change over time,” Atik said.
”We know that the attitudes and behaviour of employers and staff can greatly affect how someone copes with returning to work after miscarriage, so a workplace that is informed and compassionate when it comes to pregnancy loss can really make a difference.”
Most women need at least several days’ sick leave after a miscarriage, but others take longer to recover both physically and emotionally. The Miscarriage Association advises that this will need to be signed off work by their doctors. Men whose partners have miscarried may need compassionate leave, either for themselves or to allow them to care for their partners.
In some cases, a woman may need a “stepped” return to work after a miscarriage, with a gradual return to their responsibilities. Depending on whether or not they want one, a one-to-one meeting may help them talk through any challenges they’re experiencing after returning to work.
After her fourth miscarriage, Amy moved to a different team and was referred to occupational health, put on a stress management plan, and given free counselling. “I was still working for the same organisation so I really didn’t understand why my previous manager hadn’t offered any of this,” she said. “I had several other losses after this and my manager told me to take at least six weeks off to grieve.”
A “pregnancy/miscarriage” strategy was also put in place to support Amy, and she met some colleagues outside of work before her return, which meant she could get on with her job instead of answering questions, or getting hugs and sympathy.
“I think if all managers understood that a miscarriage is an actual loss and bereavement it would make a big difference to how women feel returning to work after pregnancy loss,” she said. “Talking about it and not avoiding the issue is so important.
“If managers can take the lead when it comes to discussing how to return to work and how long you’ll be off in a sensitive manner, this makes a big difference. Just asking ‘when will you be back?’ without any support or compassion adds pressure and ups the guilt we’re already feeling.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.