How to deal with your pregnancy in the workplace

Pregnancy puts a woman’s body under huge pressure, often leaving her exhausted. A supportive work environment is essential, says Helen O’Callaghan.

CUBICLE door locked, she huddles down on the bathroom floor. 

Just a quick cat-nap, just a 10-minute sleep might get her through the next hour in the office. 

She’s four months pregnant and the fatigue, literally, has her floored. 

This real-life anecdote represents one woman’s effort to balance her pregnancy and career demands.

And she’s not alone. There’s the woman who reports that, during pregnancy, she’d sleep in the car before driving home after work. 

And the luckier woman, whose employment provided a bed upstairs for when debilitating pregnancy exhaustion set in.

From the first-trimester symptoms of morning sickness, dizziness and an urgent, frequent need to pee, to the later ones of bad backache courtesy of the growing bump and puffy, swollen ankles, pregnancy is no picnic for your body.

Physically, a pregnant woman undergoes massive changes to every body system. Cardiac output increases, temperature increases, digestion changes, blood volume increases by about 50%.

“Her brain is also changing — increase in the hormone oxytocin literally changes her brain structure so she’s hardwired to love her baby,” says midwife and founder of GentleBirth Tracy Donegan.

And yet the show must go on. 

No matter her profession or job type, her attention to detail must be unwavering — she must stay the course.

Along with the physical and mental demands of pregnancy, there are many work-related concerns: What risks does her work pose to her unborn baby? How will her colleagues take the news? What will her employer say?

HR consultant Alex Kotsos has always worked in large multinationals and in the corporate sector. 

She says announcing pregnancy can be a major issue for women. 

“They reported worrying about ‘what my manager would think as I had only just come back from another maternity leave’ or ‘my manager’s face dropped when I told them — you could see they were already worried about how the work would get done when I was away on maternity’.”

Kotsos says manager style and experience dictates how they take the news. 

“Working fathers as managers are often quite excited and supportive of pregnancy. 

"If the manager’s a working mother, her own experiences [managing pregnancy and work] really shape how she behaves — if she was sick but struggled on, she expects the same of others. 

"Managers with no experience of children often struggle with even knowing how to interact with a pregnant woman.”

Orla O’Connor, director, National Women’s Council of Ireland, has met women who postponed announcing pregnancy until required to do so (employees must give four weeks written notice of intention to take maternity leave). 

“Women try to keep the status quo, particularly if they’re in low-paid, precarious work where hours can be changed quickly and without a lot of notice.”

The only major Irish research into pregnancy at work was conducted in 2011 by the former Equality Authority and the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme.

Seventy one percent of women found their employer supportive during pregnancy and 63% were satisfied with their treatment at work. 

But three in ten reported unfair treatment — including dismissal, reported by 5% of women. 

Other forms of unfavourable treatment included loss of salary/bonus or denial of promotion, being given unsuitable work or workloads (12%) and receiving unpleasant comments from managers/co-workers (8%). 

Eight percent of women had been discouraged from attending antenatal appointments during work time.

The research also highlighted the rise in queries about pregnancy-related discrimination and in cases brought to the Equality Tribunal during Ireland’s period of austerity. 

Even more recently, a sample search of cases before the Tribunal during the March 2015 to March 2016 period returned 24 decisions that referred to pregnancy.

These included a case taken by a dental nurse/receptionist. 

She worked for the employer for just under a year — her employment ended soon after she told her employer she was pregnant. 

Another case taken by a public sector worker heard about ‘undue pressure to take the lead on a [project] despite her reported sick leave and maternity leave’ and how she endured ‘withdrawal of cordial working relations following disclosure of her second pregnancy’.

The period of pregnancy and maternity leave is a ‘specially protected period’ under Irish employment legislation and EU law, with women protected under the Employment Equality Acts and the Maternity Protection Acts. 

These protections include maternity leave rights, right to time off for pre-natal care and entitlement to return to her job or equivalent post on terms and conditions no less favourable than what she had pre-pregnancy.

Other legislation obliges employers to look to the health and safety of a pregnant employee. 

This means assessing the workplace for hazards posing a risk to expectant mum and her unborn child. 

If a particular hazard can’t be removed, the Maternity Protection Acts provide that the employee may be placed on health and safety leave.

A July 2015 www.eumom.ie survey of more than 300 pregnant women found 80% reporting that their employer doesn’t offer opportunities to work remotely and 63% felt their employer doesn’t have favourable conditions for working mothers. 

Kieran Sludds, senior inspector with the Health and Safety Authority, says the 2007 Safety, Health and Welfare at Work legislation requires employers to ensure pregnant, post-natal and breastfeeding employees are able to lie down to rest in appropriate conditions.

Some jobs are obviously tougher than others for pregnant workers. 

Hairdressers and teachers on their feet all day, Gardaí and nurses at the frontline of emergency and crisis situations, have it hard, particularly if their pregnancy isn’t smooth sailing physically and emotionally. 

Sludds says if a doctor certifies the pregnant employee shouldn’t work at night between 11pm-6am, the employer must transfer her to day work or if this isn’t possible facilitate her taking health and safety leave.

Phil Ní Sheaghdha, director of industrial relations with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, says 99% of nurses and midwives are female and a large proportion of childbearing age — they make up one-third of the total healthcare workforce. 

Within the field there are plenty of risks to pregnant workers and their unborn babies — heavy lifting, exposure to infectious diseases, exposure to anaesthetic gases for theatre nurses or having to wear a very heavy lead apron if you work in x-ray. 

“Our members in the main say these big issues are addressed [by employers],” says Ní Sheaghdha.

Of concern though is the regular exposure of pregnant workers to violent, inappropriate behaviour, particularly in A&E. 

It has now been agreed (as part of the recently-concluded Emergency Department agreement) that an immediate review of security arrangements be undertaken. 

“We’d be placing special emphasis on security arrangements for pregnant workers,” says Ní Sheaghdha.

Another big concern is lack of replacement of women on maternity leave. 

“In a busy, acute hospital, you’ll have at least one or two staff members from each ward on maternity leave or out on maternity-related illness at any one time.

“This has to be factored into workforce planning and to safe staffing numbers. During the moratorium, maternity leave wasn’t covered, so everybody was left with the same work volume and less staff.” 

And bear in mind, says Ní Sheaghdha, that a woman, six months pregnant, who hasn’t yet started her maternity leave, could be one of those working to fill the void created by non-replacement of a colleague on maternity leave.

Alex Kotsos has heard from women on the receiving end of negative comments about their maternity leave: ‘Oh! You’re going to be off for six months? Lucky you, enjoy the break!’

Such lack of understanding packs a big punch when the woman knows she won’t be replaced during maternity leave: “They know there’s pressure on fewer staff to do their piece of work. 

"It can cause huge pressure on them before they take their leave,” says O’Connor. 

“Women with difficult pregnancies, conscious of taking a longer leave and sick leave, really feel under pressure.”

Dr Kara McGann, senior labour market policy executive with Ibec, says sometimes managers may see only a pregnant woman — rather than a competent professional — and try to protect her during the nine months. 

“They can look at a pregnant employee’s projects and workloads and remove her from difficult client interactions, key decisions or challenging work projects. 

"It’s well meant but can totally undermine the pregnant employee, she can feel she’s being sidelined and view it as discrimination.”

McGann says pregnant employees should always be consulted before such decisions are made on their behalf. 

“The woman can still have lots to contribute too on projects and decisions that mightn’t come to fruition until she’s on maternity leave.”

Ibec has developed a Maternity & Parenting Toolkit, outlining best practice for employers around positively managing their workforce during pregnancy, maternity leave and return from maternity leave. 

It highlights the line manager’s role in ensuring the employee is supported through their pregnancy — and that they go on maternity leave feeling valued. 

It recommends open, ongoing communication with the woman and advises the manager’s first message on hearing the pregnancy news ‘should be congratulations, querying how she is feeling, any concerns she might have and how she wishes to communicate the news to [colleagues/clients]’.

It’s tricky terrain, especially in multicultural Ireland. 

The Toolkit cautions: ‘In certain cultures, discussion of pregnancy is considered embarrassing or private — some minority ethnic women aren’t comfortable discussing their pregnancy with a male’.

The Toolkit also encourages organisations to provide a buddy for the expectant mum — a colleague who has been through the experience. 

Typical conversational topics might include ‘coping with morning sickness/tiredness; announcing the news to team/colleagues, where to get best maternity work-wear, tips for travelling while pregnant’.

There’s plenty practical stuff expectant mums can do in the workplace to mind body and baby, says Donegan. 

Keep healthy snacks and drinks by the desk to prevent blood sugars dropping. In good weather, get out at lunchtime for light exercise or a nap. 

Do most challenging tasks first thing or when feeling your best rather than mid-afternoon when you’re in a slump.

In later pregnancy, swap chair for a yoga ball a few times daily — great for lower back and helps baby into more favourable position. 

Wear comfortable clothes and shoes — support tights will help prevent swelling. 

As pregnancy progresses, invest in maternity support belt to help redistribute weight and reduce back pain. Sit whenever possible.

With the right supports, balancing work and pregnancy demands mightn’t be a doddle — but it will be more doable.

In a small company any disruption is a big deal

Cork woman Sharon O’Donovan, 35, is seven months pregnant with her first child. She is the general manager at publishing company Mercier Press.

“I told the directors just before my 12-week scan. It’s a small company — just seven colleagues. 

"We’re very close and I knew they’d be happy for me. But in a small company, any disruption to the office is a big deal.

"The publishing industry is specialised and it can be hard to cover absence — I’m going to be out for seven months. 

"The directors’ first concern was for me rather than how the business would fare. It was ‘what can we do for you?’ 

"They said we’d talk the following week about what could be sorted out for the company.”

The company plan to fill the gap by hiring full-time an intern already working for them and by splitting Sharon’s tasks between the directors.

“I was able to say to my colleagues: ‘I’m going to be gone but we have this plan in place — everything’s going to be fine’.

“I’ve had a very good pregnancy, no morning sickness. The first four months, I had extreme tiredness. 

"One day, I had to leave work at 10.30am, go home for a nap and return later. A bigger company mightn’t have that flexibility. 

"I can’t understand how women go through it. They just have to stick with it and wait for 5pm to go home.

“I’ve developed pelvic girdle pain. My pelvis is out of whack, causing pressure and pain in my back. Some days, I’m limping. 

"The problem is sitting in the office all day or travelling — I have to go to Dublin often. My back can be very painful the day after.

“My colleagues have been doing a lot of travel for me. The directors allow me work from home. 

"I was in Dublin yesterday, my back’s sore and I’m working from home today.

“I have friends who do bar work and are on their feet seven hours a day. 

"A friend got sciatica and had to go on sick leave two months early. Another friend, a teacher got anaemic and was dizzy — she had to go on sick leave.

“I would have had to [take sick leave] but it hasn’t been necessary because my company is supportive.”



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