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HR must do more for those experiencing baby loss

Around one in four pregnancies will, sadly, end in a loss.

The odds are such that it's likely you know someone who has experienced or been impacted by a miscarriage – and yet you might never know because many people simply don't feel comfortable discussing the topic.

Eight out of 10 miscarriages happen before the milestone of 12 weeks' gestation, meaning that many women who experience one might not have even told their close family and friends they were pregnant, let alone their work colleagues.

Organisations urged to sign Pregnancy Loss Pledge

Not feeling comfortable to tell anyone what is happening can intensify an already isolating experience – something I know only too well, having experienced a miscarriage when I was 10 weeks pregnant in 2015.

It was my first pregnancy and my thoughts had been far from the possibility of anything going wrong. But when it then did, it came as a terrible shock.

I was left devastated and like many other women, I began feeling extremely anxious about how I could tell others, including my manager and colleagues.

To compound the situation, I was on secondment with a client at the time and was worried about jeopardising their relationship with my firm by taking time off sick to cope with the miscarriage.

I was fortunate: my fears were quickly allayed because the right questions were asked, the right support was given, and there was absolutely no expectation that I should rush back to work before I was ready.

Unfortunately, my husband did not experience the same level of support or kindness from his then employer.

They treated our situation as something his wife was going through rather than something he was personally experiencing as well.

He has still not forgotten not being allowed time off to accompany me to any medical appointments, and this ultimately harmed his relationship with his employer.

Hot topic: Early-stage pregnancy loss

In the time since my own miscarriage, it astonishes me, as an employment lawyer, that there are still no specific laws relating to miscarriage or pregnancy loss, including time off or pay entitlements for miscarriage.

There are, of course, specific protections relating to childbirth.

However, miscarriage in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy is not classified in law as such and so the mother and her partner have no statutory rights to maternity or paternity leave, and neither do they qualify for parental bereavement leave.

Employees can get time off for miscarriage under certain pregnancy protected leave, in particular section 18 of the Equality Act 2010, which provides for what is known as a 'protected period'.

However, that period is limited to two weeks after the end of the pregnancy and there has to be a link with some form of sickness.

So effectively employees experiencing miscarriage are left to fend for themselves, with only annual leave, sick leave, compassionate leave – if their employer provides it – or unpaid time off as options. In many cases, employees have to simply look to the goodwill of their employer for time off.

Baby Loss Awareness Week: How to support your employees

There have been efforts to reform the law. The Miscarriage Leave Bill seeks to grant three days paid leave for grieving parents.

However, with a second reading in the House of Commons still postponed, this situation continues and no changes have actually been made.

Despite reforms to the law stalling, employers can (and, arguably, should) take a number of practical steps to ensure their employees are receiving the right support, including whether they need flexibility or adjustments to their working pattern, access to counselling, or simply time off to heal. Checking in without pressuring is key.  

Businesses can also make positive changes by having a miscarriage policy that helps everyone, not just the childbearing person.

Employers should ensure that any time off for a miscarriage or pregnancy loss doesn’t impact an individual’s absence record and isn’t otherwise used against them, for example, in the context of redundancy selection, disciplinary issues or short-term sickness absence management.

Equally paramount is making sure that information about what’s happened isn’t shared without the employee’s consent.

Back to basics...bereavement support

While miscarriage and pregnancy loss is deeply personal, it’s also something that so many people experience that it’s in everyone’s interest to develop a thoughtful, kind and supportive approach to it.

We know we’re not where we ought to be in terms of the law, but businesses have the ability and choice to determine how they wish to support people experiencing such a loss, because their people are their most precious asset.

Charlotte Reid is senior associate in the Employment, Engagement and Equality team at international law firm RPC