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Supporting pregnancy at work

Everything you need to know about managing a pregnant employee

In this article
Pregnancy symptoms at work (physical and mental)7 practical ways to look after a pregnant employee at workYour legal responsibility towards a pregnant employee Things to know about maternity leave

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  • Pregnancy can be a difficult subject in the workplace and many employees worry about the professional implications of having a baby.
  • Understanding the symptoms related to pregnancy — all-day sickness, tiredness, mood swings, headaches, general discomfort — will help create a supportive working environment for pregnant employees.
  • As well as physical challenges, pregnancy can lead to mental health challenges: 1 in 5 pregnant women experience depression and anxiety during pregnancy.
  • Support pregnant employees by checking your policies for your legal responsibilities and make mental health support readily available.

When an employee tells you they’re pregnant, it’s natural to have a few conflicting emotions as a manager. You can be genuinely delighted for them, while your brain whirs away noisily in the background trying to work out the impact that a pregnancy could have on your team or your targets. 

Equally, for the employee, it‘s a big conversation. They might experience some anxiety about how you’re going to receive this news, and what the timing means for her professionally. However invested she is in her job, pregnancy feels like a pretty big job, too. It can be an overwhelming time all round.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at how pregnancy might impact somebody at work, how you can support them, and what your legal responsibilities are when it comes to treating pregnant employees fairly.

As always, treating an employee with empathy means understanding a bit more about the situation they’re in. So, let’s start with…

Pregnancy symptoms at work

Pregnancy affects everybody differently. And though it’s not an illness, it can pack a pretty punch when it comes to physical symptoms. Getting to know some of the most common ones can equip you and your team to be as understanding as possible.

  • All-day sickness
    Nausea and vomiting are common throughout pregnancy, but particularly in the first trimester. Unfortunately “morning sickness” is a misnomer, and it can hit at any time of day. Nausea usually comes hand-in-hand with food aversions and a sensitivity to smell.
  • Tiredness
    Early in pregnancy, hormonal changes cause exhaustion and disrupted sleep. As well as building a whole new human, a pregnant person’s body is busy creating a new organ, the placenta. All of this takes a lot of energy, so they can expect to feel more drained than usual. Later in pregnancy, the act of carrying around the weight of a baby all day adds to the feeling of fatigue. 
  • Mood swings, headaches, feeling faint or dizzy
    These symptoms are all down to a feisty surge in hormones.
  • Backache or achy joints
    During pregnancy, ligaments in the lower back and pelvis become softer to prepare for birth, which can put extra strain on your employee’s back and hips.
  • Swollen ankles
    A growing womb restricts the blood flow to a pregnant person’s lower limbs. This can cause fluid build up and painful feet or ankles, especially if they spend a lot of time standing up at work. 
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
    Some pregnant women are prone to this condition, which causes pain and numbness in the hands and fingers. Employees who type a lot, or do repetitive physical tasks are more likely to be affected.
  • Needing the loo more often
    Pressure on the bladder increases as the baby grows. Pregnant people are also susceptible to getting bladder and kidney infections.

It’s worth noting that lots of employees won’t disclose their pregnancy in the first trimester, which is when physical symptoms like nausea and fatigue are typically at their worst. 

Sadly, miscarriage affects 10-15% of all known pregnancies, and around 80% of those losses happen in the first trimester. As a result, women are often advised to keep their pregnancy not exactly a secret, but basically a secret, out of fear of upsetting other people or to negate the need to have difficult conversations at an already difficult time. 

This 12-week taboo is a complicated cultural expectation that’s being challenged by more and more women. Because arguably, those first three months are when pregnant people and their partners need the most support. Even more so if they experience a pregnancy loss.

Read about supporting a bereaved colleague at work. 

Mental health and pregnancy

As well as hormonal and physical changes, pregnancy can bring about mixed emotions and serious mental health challenges, compounded by new experiences and uncertainties about the future. 

A staggering 1 in 5 women experience mental health problems during pregnancy or after birth. The most common disorders are depression (experienced by 17% of pregnant people) and anxiety (experienced by 23%). These numbers are significantly higher than data for the general population, and they rise even further if the pregnancy is considered high-risk.

Women who have experienced an eating disorder in the past may experience a relapse as their body changes shape or size through their pregnancy. Some women may develop a severe fear of childbirth, too, known as Tokophobia

All of these conditions are treatable, usually through a combination of medication and talking therapies. As an employer, nurturing an open culture around mental health topics and challenging any stigma that exists in your business is key to both recognising when someone’s struggling and getting them the help they need. 

If you already have mental health support like Spill in place at work, then make sure to tell your whole team – but in particular pregnant employees and new parents – about the resources that are available to them. 

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7 practical ways to look after a pregnant employee at work

Once you know someone in your team is having a baby, it’s a good idea to ask them about any adjustments you could make to their schedule or their environment that would make things more comfortable.

  1. Relax your uniform policy (if you have one), and make sure that sizing up regularly won’t leave your employee out of pocket. Something as simple as being able to wear trainers might mean the world to a pregnant person who’s on their feet a lot.

  2. Encourage flexible hours and allow more regular breaks. To snack, to nap, to rest, to avoid the rush hour or, if needed, to vomit in peace. Being able to work from home can make a big difference to someone’s productivity, too. This is easier if flexible working is already an established part of your company culture.

  3. Make sure your employee has the right working setup. Providing a budget for a standing desk, a foot rest, lumbar support or even an exercise ball to use as a chair might help pregnant women to feel more comfortable if they’re behind a desk for most of the day. Providing a comfortable chair and access to drinking water for women who spend a lot of time standing at work is equally important.

  4. Don’t ‘out’ them before they’re ready. Let your employee decide when to tell their colleagues that they’re pregnant. Some women may want to keep it quiet for as long as possible, for personal reasons, medical reasons or simply because they’d rather not be treated any differently by coworkers.

  5. Make sure your maternity policy is clearly articulated. This is a helpful thing to do, even before someone tells you they’re pregnant. Your employee will likely want to check this policy before she’s ready to tell you her news – so keeping it somewhere that’s easily accessible, and writing it in a way that’s simple to understand benefits everyone.

  6. Don’t mention the bump! Unless your employee brings it up specifically, it’s best to avoid making comments on the size of her baby bump, especially compared to someone else you know or your cousin’s friend’s pilates teacher who didn’t know she was pregnant until she was eight months along.

  7. Check-in often. Workplace stress can have a direct impact on the health of the baby. Add extra 1-2-1s into the diary to check how your employee’s doing, and to see whether they need any adjustments or extra support. Some women are happy to take on extra responsibility while they’re pregnant, others would prefer to adjust, reduce or rebalance their workload. The only way you’ll know is by asking. 

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Pregnancy rights at work: your legal responsibility towards a pregnant employee 

Risk assessments for pregnant workers

Making sure your employee is safe at work should be your number one priority when they’re pregnant (and when they’re not, for that matter). Legally, you have to do an individual risk assessment when an employee tells you they’re pregnant, and regularly review it as the pregnancy progresses. A risk might include something fairly obvious like lifting heavy objects, exposure to nasty chemicals or diseases, or working at great heights. It might also be something less drastic, like standing for long periods of time, or exposure to work-related stress. 

If you find anything in their roles, responsibilities or environment that does pose a risk to your employee or their child, you need to remove the risk, or find suitable alternative work for them to do. The Health and Safety Executive has more detailed guidance on risks and risk assessments during pregnancy. 

Antenatal appointments

Pregnant employees have the right to paid time off during work hours to travel to and attend antenatal care appointments. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been employed at your company – baby comes first. These appointments might include ultrasound scans, vaccinations, medical and midwifery appointments or parenting and relaxation classes if they’ve been recommended by a doctor, nurse or midwife. If your employee is the pregnant person’s partner or spouse, they’re also entitled to attend up to two antenatal appointments as well, though legally this doesn’t have to be offered as paid time off.  

Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace

Another legal consideration is that your company cannot discriminate against a pregnant person, according to the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination means unfair treatment, so that includes not hiring a pregnant candidate if they’re the best person for the job, penalising pregnancy-related absences, or not giving a pregnant person a promotion they’ve earned fair and square. This protection extends to someone who’s on maternity leave and someone who’s recently given birth. 

If a pregnant person is underperforming at work, you can still manage them in the same way that you’d manage anyone else who isn’t delivering in their role. You just have to be absolutely certain that the performance issues aren’t pregnancy related, and that you’re not treating that person unfairly or unusually when it comes to performance plans or disciplinary procedures.

Things to know about maternity leave

Getting your parental leave policies in place helps to make sure your company treats every employee fairly when they have a baby. If your business has never needed to use your parental leave policy before, then the government has published a brilliant guide to statutory maternity pay and leave. This lays out who’s eligible for what. 

Some other things to remember when sorting maternity leave arrangements:

  • Your employee needs to let you know that they’re having a baby at least 15 weeks before the baby’s estimated due date to qualify for statutory maternity leave. (A pregnancy is 40 weeks long. Your employee will usually find out their estimated due date at their first ultrasound scan, which happens at 12 weeks.)

  • While your employee is on leave, their holiday allowance (including bank holidays) builds up as usual. You can’t take holiday while on maternity leave, so it’s best to discuss when your employee would like to take their holiday – and what’s possible in terms of rolling this allowance over a calendar year – ahead of time. Acas has a good guide to having a holiday entitlement chat with your employee.

  • Employees can work up to 10 paid days during their maternity leave. These days are called ‘keeping in touch days’ or KIT, for short. Both the employee and employer need to agree to KIT days. They can be used for normal work, training, company days, conferences, meetings or just keeping in touch with the team. Even if your employee only works for a couple of hours on any particular day, it’ll count as one of their KIT days.

  • You can contact your employee while they’re on maternity leave, as long as you do so respectfully. Make sure to ask in advance how they’d like to be contacted. The law condones “reasonable contact” so feel free to get in touch about any developments in your company, or to arrange their return to work. In fact, there are some instances where you must make contact with your employee while they’re on leave, to protect them from discrimination. This includes letting them know about any promotions, pay rises or job opportunities they’re eligible for; possible redundancies in the company; and any reorganisation in the business that could impact their position. 

That’s a lot to think about. As well as regular catch-ups to talk about ongoing support while they’re pregnant, getting a meeting in the diary towards the end of your employee’s pregnancy to talk through all the practical policy stuff (and to wish them the very, very best) is always a good idea. 

Use Spill’s mood-tracking tools and therapy to get your employees (pregnant or otherwise) the mental health support they deserve.

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