Why supporting pregnant employees means supporting all employees
Engagement 6 minute read

Why supporting pregnant employees means supporting all employees

Megan Orr | August 9, 2022

Supporting pregnant employees may seem obvious, but many pregnant people still experience discrimination within the workplace—despite pregnancy being a protected class. Learn more about pregnancy discrimination and what you can do to better support all of your employees.

In a recent LinkedIn post, attorney Leena Yousefi, pregnant with twins, described her experience of working while pregnant and how pregnant people are, in their most fragile state, “threatened with [their] security if [they] don't get up and force [themselves] to work to earn money for [their] families”. 

Leena, at the end of her emotional post, encourages people to “reexamine the cruel standards we have subjected women to, and create a world where our children do not have to choose between work and being human”. 

As usually happens on the Internet, the comment section for Leena’s LinkedIn post is a mixed bag. Many people applaud Leena for her candour, noting how outdated and limited maternal support and general sick leave can be, while also sympathizing with her struggle. Others, naturally, don’t think that giving pregnant people special treatment is fair to everyone else. 

As one commenter writes: “Just stop working and be a homemaker... Or stop complaining about the pressures of work life…” 

As a result of the pandemic, the Canadian government mandated that all employers give their employees 5 days of paid sick leave. The mandate was a win for people who previously didn’t have any sick days, but 5 days really doesn’t cover a lot when you’re dealing with long-term or chronic illnesses—or pregnancy. 

Babycenter writes that pregnant people can deal with a slew of challenging symptoms, such as “morning sickness, itchy skin, gas and bloating, bleeding gums, yeast infections, swollen ankles, and frequent urination,” to name only a few common side effects. These are the symptoms that are considered typical in a healthy pregnancy, not a pregnancy that’s medically complicated. 

The Mayo Clinic writes that high-risk pregnancies can include symptoms such as severe headaches, persistent nausea and vomiting (that isn’t just in the morning and can last the entire pregnancy), changes in vision, severe and sudden swelling in the face, hands, and fingers, dizziness, and depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, pregnant people are supposed to go on living their lives, show up to work every day, and “stop complaining”.  

First and foremost, your organization needs to ensure that pregnancy discrimination isn’t taking place. 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes pregnancy discrimination as “treating a woman (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth”. 

While pregnant people are considered a protected class, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t face discrimination. The Harvard Business Review writes that “discrimination can have real consequences for a pregnant employee’s career outcomes, including reduced salary, promotions, and social capital”, as well as the stress of discrimination causing potential adverse health outcomes for both parent and baby. 

In studies conducted by the Harvard Business Review, they found that pregnancy discrimination caused an increase in stress in pregnant people which raised the risk for postpartum depression, and “also led to lower birth weights, lower gestational ages, and an increased number of doctors’ visits for the babies a few weeks after birth”. 

So not only is pregnancy discrimination negatively impacting your pregnant employees, but it’s also putting their and their babies’ health at risk. The Harvard Business Review advises several things for employers to do so they’re better supporting pregnant employees: 

  • Ensure you’re aware of your provincial guidelines around maternity, paternity, and parental leave. As a manager, you’re likely one of the first people that your employee will disclose their pregnancy to, so it’s important that you’re able to provide clear information and resources for them as they begin to plan. 
  • Be ready for an open dialogue and listen. A pregnant person’s needs may change day-to-day and you shouldn’t assume anything about what kind of support they need. The Harvard Business Review advises against immediately offering a reduced workload, as it can “have the unintended consequence of financial stress, but a pregnant employee may also experience it as demeaning or even discriminatory”. 
  • Managers should work to facilitate positive coworker interactions as well. Whether it’s setting up coffee breaks, coworker lunch hours, or virtual catch-ups for while your employee is on leave, the Harvard Business Review notes “that employees who felt supported by both coworkers and supervisors benefitted from the largest reductions in prenatal stress”. 
  • Ensure your workplace is generally inclusive and free of discrimination. Employers who already feel safe and included in their workplace are likely less worried about experiencing pregnancy discrimination. 

The conversation, while centered around supporting pregnant employees, is really about offering all employees more flexibility. 

Many of the comments on Leena’s post argued that offering pregnant employees special treatment doesn’t seem fair to other employees who cannot or choose not to have children. Working parents receiving accommodations that their childless coworkers don’t receive is a common concern amongst employees. 

So how can organizations be better about supporting pregnant employees, while also ensuring that all employees are treated equally? 

Employers can offer more paid time off and increased flexibility to ensure that all employees are able to take care of whatever their needs may be.

Employers need to ensure there's no “us versus them” mentality within their workplace. Accommodations should be offered on the basis of “if an employee is dealing with an illness or challenging life circumstance” rather than “if an employee is pregnant”. 

The Harvard Business Review writes that “managers are key to normalizing the mindset that flexible work arrangements are rights, not special privileges”. Offer employees the flexibility to go to appointments during the day and make up time as needed, start their day earlier or later, and book time off as needed. Additionally, employers should consider increasing the amount of personal and sick time their employees are able to take. 

Ultimately, supporting pregnant employees means creating an overall supportive company culture. Managers should lead by example, utilizing flextime and taking time off as they need to, while also encouraging all of their employees to do the same.  

If you’re not sure where to start supporting pregnant employees or other employees dealing with an unexpected or prolonged illness, check out our employee leave of absence policy template for more information on types of leave and what employees can expect.

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