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Dec 16, 2020

My husband and I couldn’t have imagined the paths we’d have to navigate on our journey to becoming parents. At 20 weeks pregnant, we thought deciding whether we’d find out the sex of our baby would be the hardest part of our doctor appointment. We had no idea that what the ultrasound technician would see would set in motion 10 weeks of appointments with maternal fetal specialists, steroid injections to strengthen our unborn baby’s lungs, consults with NICU staff, calls with surgeons from across the country, and a hospitalization. And that this would eventually end with the birth of our baby, Charlie. And his death.

While 1 in 4 pregnancies end in a loss, most people aren’t aware of that statistic when they make plans to expand their family — and neither are their employers. Thoughts and conversations largely focus on planning for positive outcomes, and understandably no one wants to consider unthinkable scenarios. But the reality and the long-standing stigma around pregnancy and child loss mean that when it comes to developing HR policies, companies often fail to account for such events. 

Time to Heal

After Charlie passed away, my employer encouraged me to take as much time off as I needed. But how much time did I need? I had no idea. 

I felt guilty taking the amount of time I had planned to take off for a maternity leave since I didn’t have a baby I would need to care for. All I knew for sure was that since I delivered via caesarean section, I’d need to take time off for physical healing. This is an important piece to consider regarding FMLA and bereavement policies. 

How much time off should employees get? Will they need to use sick or vacation time? What portion of that time off will be paid and at what amount? 

Kate Nyquist, an environmental educator/communicator in the government sector, makes the argument that employees should not be forced to use vacation time for bereavement and mental-health leave. She speaks partially from experience, facing the need herself to dip into vacation time to grieve and transition back to work after multiple miscarriages.

Sometimes I was extremely sad. Or I would be completely exhausted after an appointment with a therapist and was in no condition to go back to work,” Kate explained. “But whereas I could use sick time for appointments, I had to use vacation time for any other time I was away, even if it was related to my loss.”

At some employers, when pregnancy loss is covered by bereavement policies, there are stipulations where bereavement leave does not apply to early pregnancy losses. For example, a baby might have to be at least 20 weeks in gestation before a loss for a person to take bereavement leave. 

Jenna Williams, a creative brand strategist, urges employers to recognize that every pregnancy loss is a loss, whether it happens at six, 12, or 19 weeks. 

After struggling to conceive naturally, Jenna and her husband found out that they were pregnant only to learn shortly after, at eight weeks, that their baby had no heartbeat. Jenna immediately underwent a dilation and curettage surgery and took about two weeks off before returning to work. Jenna’s boss, co-workers, and HR team members were flexible, caring, and supportive throughout her situation, which she said lifted a huge weight from her shoulders.

“Employees who suffer a pregnancy loss at any stage should be allowed bereavement leave,” Williams says. “If that is not an option, ensuring the affected employee has other appropriate options for time off is critical. If an employer supports the employee well in a time of crisis, the person’s loyalty to and pride for the company is likely to increase significantly. Just as if an employer treats an employee poorly, their loyalty to and pride for the company is likely to decrease significantly.”

It’s also worth pointing out that as more and more organizations are expanding their FMLA policies to include paternity leave, it’s important to consider that bereaved dads may need some time and support, too. Jason Moffett, an IT director, shared his experience after he and his wife Laura experienced back-to-back pregnancy losses.

“Returning to work was actually something I felt I needed to do, to get back into the normality of the daily grind, and I definitely lost myself in the work in the following months,” Jason explained. “This didn’t help in the long run, however. I was wrapped up in the work and was definitely distant from Laura. I didn’t feel like I was always there to be emotionally supportive for her.”

“The Cold Paperwork of HR Forms”

As mentioned, a lack of communication and understanding or policies with no room for flexibility can result in an employee’s decreased respect for the organization. While Kate experienced flexibility, support, and compassion from her manager and co-workers who knew what she was going through, her experience with HR policies and procedures left her frustrated. She needed to take three days in a row off after her first miscarriage, which was classified as medical leave because her organization did not have a bereavement leave policy. Yes, her employer did give her time off, but by classifying it as medical leave, HR made taking it more cumbersome and frustrating by requiring Kate to complete FMLA paperwork even though she had enough sick time to cover the days she was out.

“I understand how FMLA protects an employee, but requesting that I complete the paperwork immediately meant that I had to relive my miscarriage through the cold paperwork of HR forms, call my doctor’s office to make sure they would sign off on my miscarriage, and then ultimately disclose to HR that I’d had the miscarriage,” Kate explains. She adds that it all felt like a very cold response from HR staff and that the overall experience was why she did not take any time off after her second pregnancy loss.

“I was receiving such a compassionate, understanding, and flexible response from my management — and exactly the opposite from HR,” Kate says. “I was reminded by a colleague, ‘HR doesn’t work for you, the employee. They work for the organization.’ And that made me sad, because until that point, I had felt like HR was a safe part of our organization and a resource to me, one that would work with me to make the best of any situation.”

Transitioning Back to Work

Grief of any kind can be disruptive, making the transition back to work difficult. What’s more, grief surrounding child loss can also be incredibly isolating due to the associated stigma. Of course, the transition will likely never be easy, but there are things that companies and organizations can do to make it easier.

For me, being able to take the time I needed to heal, mentally and physically, meant starting the transition back on the right foot. My employer presented many options for what coming back to work could look like — remote, part-time, full-time, etc — but ultimately left it up to me, while being clear that my decision was not set in stone. 

I began by working from home part-time. I appreciated having a distraction and easing back into a routine, but my ability to concentrate was severely diminished. I had good days and bad days, which were impossible to predict. Looking back, what I appreciate most is that my employer understood, perhaps more than I did at the time, that grief is not linear and this type of experience is incredibly common.

Jenna agrees. “It was hard for me to focus. My attention wandered a lot,” she says. “The first few weeks, my goal was just to function — go to my meetings, take a lunch break, and complete one task or project a day, no matter how small.”

I also worked closely with my manager to draft an email with the level of detail I wanted to share with other colleagues for her to send on my behalf before I went back to work. The reason was because the last time co-workers had seen me, it was quite obvious that I was having a baby, and I dreaded what the next encounter might look like. Congratulations! When did you have the baby?

This is why companies should create leave policies for loss of immediate family members that include a predetermined combination of paid or unpaid bereavement days and if necessary, unpaid FMLA time. Employees can then work with their supervisors to choose exactly what works best for them, including potentially weaving sick leave or PTO time. This allows an organization to accommodate operations based on workforce size and type. It also gives workers flexibility because every situation can be very different.

For example, bereavement policies like the one Facebook announced in 2017 are widely viewed as the “gold standard” and something to strive for. But in the meantime, at a minimum, start by revisiting company policies and consider making them more compassionate by increasing the amount of paid leave for bereavement, including related to pregnancy loss. 

Now, obviously, no policy can fully address situations like this, but having policies in place to address the administrative side of things can take away some of the worry and give more capacity for healing.

Mental Health Resources

Another way that employers can be proactive in helping their employees through a loss and make their return to the workplace more successful is by providing resources to address their mental health. 

I’m lucky to live in Minnesota, where there’s a fairly ample number of resources available to support bereaved parents, but that’s not as common in other parts of the country. Families are all too often faced with compounding factors of a lack of available resources, the dual stigma around seeking mental health support and child loss, and a reduced capacity to research and assess support options during a time of crisis. 

To have an employer provide these types of resources and then allow employees time to take advantage of them can be an extremely vital piece of the healing process and reintroduction to the workplace. This is where leaning on an outside expert can be helpful. It’s very likely that you’ll need to look beyond your employee assistance program (EAP) for adequate support by working with employer-sponsored benefits programs specializing in return-to-work transitions after a child’s death or illness.

Moving Forward

Organizations must start spelling out or expanding upon their FMLA or bereavement leave policies to incorporate pregnancy loss. Even something as simple as incorporating the words “pregnancy loss” into your policy can be impactful.

For the millions of people, like my husband and me, who have experienced or will experience the loss of a child, such a policy shift can have a significant impact on how they’re able to move forward.