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How workplaces can be more pregnancy-friendly, and what the benefits are

ABC Health logoABC Health 12/07/2018
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For Michelle, the hardest thing about being pregnant at work was experiencing severe morning sickness — and pretending she was fine.

"I was incredibly sick but I couldn't tell anyone. I had to pretend I was OK even when I wasn't, so no one would find out," she says.

Things got easier once she'd told her boss and colleagues, but later in pregnancy there were new challenges.

"It was harder for me to get around physically. Just travelling to meetings, walking up stairs — and of course being so tired all of the time — made it harder to get things done as quickly as I had been used to," she says.

Michelle's is a common story.

These days many women choose to work for as long as possible before taking maternity leave and, for many, once-easy tasks become more challenging as their due date approaches.

Women also struggle with expectations that they'll be able to do the same work at the same pace they've always done — even when they're 38 weeks pregnant.

"It's one of the hardest parts of this whole process — that whole expectation that pregnancy is just like adding aspirin to water, and you go along this process and the child pops out at the end of it," says Dr Caron Jander, an occupational physician.

That expectation can come from bosses and colleagues — but it can also be self-imposed.

"People are very fearful of seeming like they're weak if they're pregnant," Dr Jander says.

So how do we make workplaces more pregnancy-friendly?

Dr Jander, who's also a member of the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (AFOEM), has helped develop a guide for employers and women navigating this terrain.

Building pregnancy-friendly workplaces

For workplaces wanting to better accommodate pregnant employees, flexibility is the name of the game.

While workplaces shouldn't see a pregnancy as a problem to be dealt with, they do need to be open to making changes.

Dr Jander says there are a number of risk factors that need to be taken into account, which can be applicable to any workplace from a corporate environment to a factory floor.

The factors can be categorised as either 'solid' or 'soft'.

"Solid risks are those that aren't going to change. So if you've got certain chemicals or certain pressures, they're hard cast exemptions from working," Dr Jander says.

Soft risks, however, can be changed to suit the needs of different pregnancies.

They include standing time, heat exposure, meeting attendance, rest breaks and pace of work.

"It's important for people in the workplace to realise that each person's pregnancy will be different," Dr Jander says.

"Firstly, look at the workplace, the demands of that and what one can change.

"Consider key performance indicators (KPIs) and that they might need to be reviewed."

It's also important for women to be honest about what they can and cannot do. Workplaces can use that information to modify a role.

"It's almost like a return to work plan that we would do for people coming back to work from injury," Dr Jander says.

"It's a 'preparing for pregnancy' plan to say, OK, these are the realistic steps."

Dr Jander admits that for some roles, change isn't possible.

An armed guard, for example, can't take toilet breaks when they're guarding a vehicle loaded with money.

"And you can't expect them to be carrying guns," Dr Jander adds.

"So it really is taking the individual circumstance, and individual workplace and the expectations, and then merging those together."

Needing help is not a sign of weakness

Dr Jander's advice to women is to remember that their needs — both physical and emotional — will shift during different stages of pregnancy.

Women's bodies, she says, are not things of steel, and accepting that is not a sign of weakness.

"When we're born as a woman, we're not born with a capital 'S' on our stomach that says we're Superwoman," Dr Jander says.

"Accept the fact that, sometimes, you're not going to be able to do as much as you were doing before, and that things will take longer.

"The most important thing is to be honest with yourself and, if you're struggling, ask for help." 

That could be as simple as needing an extra few minutes to walk to a meeting, or having to take a rest break as sleep becomes increasingly difficult.

There are also psychological changes to consider during pregnancy. These can also be overwhelming, says Dr Emma Symes, a clinical psychologist at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne.

"The psychological processes of pregnancy parallel the physical aspect. Adjusting to those is sometimes challenging," she says.

"The symptoms of pregnancy can mimic some of the symptoms of anxiety, such as shortness of breath, nausea or fatigue.

It's necessary to recognise the physiological and psychological changes that women experience in pregnancy in order to accept and manage them, Dr Symes says.

"These transitions are so important to the woman's identity and her sense of being able to make an important contribution within the workplace," she says.

Dr Jander says these changes can come as a shock to the women experiencing them.

"It's very challenging, especially for people who have set very high goals in the past. They actually have to slow the process down," she says.

"It's hard, especially in the workplace, where you are so used to being in control of the environment and being in control of your life, and suddenly things are changing around you which you have no control over."

The right time to tell work

Dr Jander acknowledges that in some workplaces, a woman who reveals she's pregnant risks certain ramifications, for example around work security.

She's hopeful the AFOEM guide will help change that.

It outlines benefits to providing a pregnancy-friendly workplace, including retaining talented staff, reducing absenteeism and facilitating return to work following parental leave.

"I'm hoping it will help workplaces realise that there's actually a benefit in keeping people on with experience and not to see [pregnancy] as being a problem, but rather that it's actually a positive," Dr Jander says.

She also wants women to realise there are many benefits to speaking up.

"I really want women to feel it's not a bad thing to tell people you're pregnant because then people can work with how you are on the day," Dr Jander says.

"If you're having a bad day, be honest about it and then people around you can support you."

Dr Jander hadn't wanted to tell her colleagues about her first pregnancy when it was in its early stages.

"We were doing X-rays and, therefore, although I didn't want to tell them I was pregnant — because it was a very male-orientated environment and this was the early '90s — I actually had to because I would've put the developing baby at risk," she says.

"The first time I told them I could see them looking at me as if I was sick or I had a contagious disease."

She miscarried the pregnancy but was relieved to be able to share why she needed time off work.

"I could say to them, 'look, this is what's happened', and they were so supportive. So reflecting back on that it was the right thing to do," she says.

"Of course," says Dr Symes, "it's [also] the woman's right not to tell, especially if she's had reproductive losses or there are sensitivities around this pregnancy."

What's most important is to accept that "the road is unpredictable", Dr Jander says.

"The big thing to remember when you're pregnant is that you're not sick, but you're also not healthy.

"You've got work with your body and not against it."

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