Miscarriage is incredibly common. In fact, research suggests that up to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. What’s not common, however, is workplace policy that supports pregnant employees and their partners when they experience this kind of loss.
In 2019, Michigan state Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden (D) introduced a bill that would require eligible employers in the state to provide paid leave to workers if they suffer a miscarriage or stillbirth (or if their partners do). This legislation stemmed from her own miscarriage experience at the beginning of her first term in office.
“It was definitely the greatest sense of loss I’d ever felt, and I wasn’t prepared for that,” Bolden told HuffPost. “It’s really hard to explain the highs and lows you go through, and the hormones. I didn’t realize how common miscarriage was, and I didn’t realize how emotionally traumatizing it can be.”
Despite how common it is, this sort of loss remains shrouded in silence and feelings of shame. As a result, families often don’t receive the workplace support they need.
Paid leave after miscarriage makes a difference
“Experiencing a miscarriage is much like experiencing a death, and we give people time to grieve if a parent or spouse passes,” Bolden said. “So I started to think about all of the families and how common this is. But a lot of times they aren’t getting the meals and support they would after other losses. It’s usually very internal. And people should be able to take that time to grieve.”
Miscarriage, like other losses, can impact job performance. Although the expectant parents didn’t get the opportunity to know their baby, they mourn the loss of the dreams they had for that child, the future they imagined and the memories they hoped to create.
“You need that time to reconcile that you thought you were going to bring a life into the world, and now you aren’t,” Bolden said. “There’s also physical trauma. Miscarriages can be physically painful and require medical appointments. If you watch TV, you might think it’s a one day event, and then it’s over. But that’s not the reality.”
Maryland-based therapist Julie Bindeman specializes in reproductive challenges. She believes there are very practical reasons to provide leave to employees experiencing pregnancy loss.
“Someone who is in mourning is not going to be productive,” Bindeman said. “If I’m the employer, and I have someone who’s suffered any kind of loss, including pregnancy loss, they’re probably going to be forgetful, they will miss deadlines, they will not be able to attend to projects in the way they need to be attended to.”
Requiring an employee work during the acute stages of grieving can also create more problems, Bindeman explained.
“It’s setting up another layer of failure,” Bindeman said. “They’re trying to go to work, take their mind off the loss and distract themselves with their job ― probably to a degree that isn’t as successful as they wish. When they find they aren’t able to answer questions or solve problems as quickly, then they feel incompetent on top of their grieving, which can further reduce productivity and confidence. That’s why leave policies are so important.”
Legislative advancements have been slow
Bolden’s 2019 bill did not advance in Michigan’s legislature, though she did refile it as part of a larger package last year. Legislators in other states, as well as local government officials, have introduced ― and even implemented ― similar measures to provide paid leave after pregnancy loss, but these policies remain rare. And they’re sometimes designed in such a way to include miscarriage in companies’ existing leave policies, which not all employers offer.
A Kaiser Health News article last month reported that 35 states and five localities have laws requiring employers to provide pregnancy-related accommodations “which can include time off to recover from a miscarriage,” and that nine states and Washington, D.C., have paid family leave programs, which may cover serious medical complications related to miscarriage.
The article also noted that 13 states, 20 cities and four counties have laws in place mandating paid sick leave for medical needs, which can apply to workers dealing with mental and physical health issues due to pregnancy loss.
Notably, Oregon is the only state to mandate paid bereavement leave. And in October, the city of Portland approved measures to include time off for employees who’ve had a miscarriage, stillbirth or other type of pregnancy loss, including abortion.
On the federal level, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) introduced the Support Through Loss Act last year to provide at least three days of paid leave to workers experiencing miscarriage (as well as other losses while trying to grow their families, like an unsuccessful round of in vitro fertilization, a failed adoption or surrogacy arrangement, or a medical diagnosis that impacts fertility).
“For too long, individuals and families experiencing pregnancy loss have been left to suffer in silence due to the cultural stigma and taboo and a lack of awareness,” Pressley said. “Impacted families deserve to be met with compassion, care, paid leave and holistic support and resources.”
The Support Through Loss Act “sends a message to those who have experienced pregnancy loss that they are not alone, and ensure that they get the resources, workforce support, and care necessary to recover and heal,” Pressley added.
The bill has not yet advanced in the House or Senate. Under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, employers are prohibited from firing, cutting pay or demoting an employee due to pregnancy or a pregnancy-related medical condition like miscarriage, but labor rights advocates have complained that the law leaves much room for interpretation.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, eligible workers can take unpaid leave to deal with serious health complications resulting from pregnancy loss.
There has been more progress in the private sector
Although legislative efforts targeted at families experiencing miscarriage have been slow, there’s been some progress in the private sector as more companies update their leave policies to include these types of losses.
In December, Pinterest announced that the company would be offering four weeks of paid leave to parents who experience pregnancy loss.
“We know that these types of situations are happening and employees are suffering in silence, or they may not feel empowered to ask their managers or business partners about it,” Alice Vichaita, head of global benefits at Pinterest, told HuffPost. “We want to be intentional in including this to normalize pregnancy loss and that people feel empowered to speak to their managers about this.”
Pinterest’s new policy is part of an overall effort to look at leave and fertility-related benefits holistically, as there are many different ways to grow your family ― and therefore many different challenges that can arise along the way, Vichaita noted.
“We really feel that people do their best work when they feel seen and supported,” Vichaita said. “It’s such a challenging time in one’s life. We wanted to make sure we’re there for them in life’s biggest milestones, including all paths and stages of parenthood. This kind of loss is often part of one’s journey in trying to become pregnant, so we want to provide space to grieve the loss.”
Following her experience with miscarriage and stillbirth, “The Bachelor” alum Ashley Spivey started encouraging her Instagram followers to talk to their companies’ HR representatives about including pregnancy loss in their leave policies. Vichaita supports this approach.
“I think certainly one way [for employees at other companies] to make progress is to talk about it, raise it with their manager and their benefits team,” Vichaita said. “That furthers the goal for a lot of companies out there, which is to create a workplace that is truly inclusive.”
Rewriting policies comes with challenges
Companies tend to handle pregnancy loss-related leave on a case-by-case basis instead of creating a standing policy, according to human resources expert Liz Ryan.
She noted that traditional bereavement leave policies are a subject of much debate in the HR world due to rules about the degree of closeness between the employee and the person who died. Some companies only offer bereavement leave if the person who died is the employee’s parent, grandparent, sibling, spouse or child.
“That means that you won’t get bereavement leave if your mother-in-law passes, even if she lived with you and was like a mother to you,” Ryan explained. “It means you won’t get bereavement leave if a step-parent dies. This is foolish and anti-human (anti-teamwork, anti-culture) in my opinion, but it’s common.”
Because pregnancy loss involves a medical event, Ryan noted that companies might be more inclined to classify miscarriage-related leave as a form of medical leave rather than bereavement. It’s not unheard of for stillbirth to be included in bereavement leave policies, however.
“In my view, the last thing we need is a policy that gives an expectant mother bereavement leave if she loses a pregnancy after X weeks and denies the leave if she loses the pregnancy earlier, but that is how policies work,” Ryan said. “It makes way more sense to say that when an employee needs a personal leave, they can get one. They should not have to prove they had a miscarriage to get the leave.”
For Bindeman, the answer is establishing leave policies with more flexibility, as every pregnancy and loss situation is different.
“It’s important to recognize there are hormonal sequences, emotional ups and downs, and medical issues,” Bindeman said. “Sometimes there’s surgery ― emergency C-section, D and C, or D and E ― or there might a labor and delivery, which is still taxing on the body, so there’s a need for physical recovery. That doesn’t even scale in the emotional recovery, which varies from person to person.”
In Bindeman’s ideal world, each employee would have a “leave bank” of paid days that they can pull from or donate to a colleague if they don’t need to take leave but someone else does.
“The right answer is that when someone is expecting and something terrible happens during the pregnancy, the company gets behind and supports the pregnant person and their family,” Ryan said. “It’s not a matter for policy. It’s a matter for simple humanity, especially in organizations that promote their great culture.”
How to advocate for change at your company
Even if your company doesn’t have an ideal policy or approach to miscarriage and paid leave, there are ways to make the workplace more hospitable to employees experiencing pregnancy loss.
Review the employee handbook for any mentions of miscarriage, and then set up a meeting with your HR representative to talk about the benefits offered to parents in this situation ― or lack thereof.
The website for the nonprofit PL+US (Paid Leave for the United States) has a step-by-step guide for employees to help them make the case for paid family leave at their companies, as well as other resources that can inform these conversations. Spivey’s Instagram highlight on paid leave also includes a sample email you can send to your HR rep asking that pregnancy loss be included in existing policies.
Show up with a list of questions and proposals. If the handbook doesn’t mention pregnancy loss, offer suggestions for updated language to make the leave policies more inclusive. Try to rally a few co-workers to email HR about this issue as well. And be sure to follow up after your conversation to see if any changes will be implemented.
If you have a colleague going through pregnancy loss, be mindful that they are likely dealing with a lot of difficult emotions.
Check in on them to see how they’re coping, share your condolences and offer a listening ear should they need it. Whatever you do, don’t give them platitudes like, “it was God’s plan,” or make comments along the lines of “at least you know you can get pregnant.”
If possible, you might offer to help with their workload during this grieving period as well. Even if you don’t have the perfect thing to say or do, just focus on being a compassionate person and make it clear you’re there for them, however they may need you.