Ondine Jean-Baptiste is a freelance writer and creative based in New York City who loves reporting on women and all the ways in which they fight adversity. In her free time, she manages @thecatcallcollective on Instagram, an online community to share and support stories of gender-based harassment.
It’s hard enough trying to navigate your workload while learning to tend to the new needs of your body during pregnancy. To then suffer a miscarriage is an intensely emotional and personal experience that you’ll need time to recover from.
How do you communicate that need to your workplace, though? And if you’re a manager, how do you help your direct report who’s recently had a miscarriage ease back into the office?
Figuring out how to address pregnancy loss at work is not easy, and there’s no perfect answer because everyone deals with it differently. Whether it’s you who’s experienced the loss, your coworker, or your direct report, it takes compassion and flexibility to create an action plan that’s in the best interest of the woman involved.
Here are a few ways to appropriately and respectfully have that conversation.
Tips for Employees Who’ve Had a Miscarriage
Know your rights
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave to care for their own serious health conditions. Miscarriage falls into that category. States, localities, and companies themselves also have laws or policies surrounding paid sick leave, temporary disability insurance, or bereavement-like leave (although miscarriage isn’t traditionally a part of bereavement leave). This fact sheet is a good resource, as is this map from the Department of Labor.
Decide how you want to talk (or not talk) about it
How you deal with your pregnancy loss is up to you—you may want to talk about it, you may not. It’s important for you to decide what you prefer.
That said, going to work and pretending like this major life event didn’t happen could be potentially more damaging in the long run. To repress your feelings and delay your healing process could cause you to react negatively in other ways, like being unintentionally hostile toward coworkers or your spouse.
Depending on how many people knew about the pregnancy (and how many you hold close relationships with), choose how little or how much to share so your coworkers understand you’re in the midst of processing something difficult.
If your coworkers or manager know you were pregnant, you’ll probably have a few uncomfortable conversations. But you have some options: You can ask your manager to tell your team, you can talk to coworkers one on one, or you can share the information with your group yourself. What’s important is to be direct about how you’d like to address your loss moving forward.
A few examples:
I wanted to let you know that I recently had a miscarriage. I’m understandably upset and think I’ll need some time to work through my emotions. If you could share this information with the team on my behalf, I’d really appreciate it. Please let them know how much their support means to me, but also tell them I’ll need some time before I’m able to discuss it in the office.
Unfortunately, I recently lost the baby. My partner and I (if applicable) are heartbroken. We believe it’s important to lean on each other in times like this, so if you have kind thoughts or hopeful words, I would be open to hearing them.
I want to thank you all, first, for your support of my pregnancy thus far. Unfortunately, I recently lost the baby. I’m understably upset, but I wanted to make sure I told you all so you’d understand why I’m going to be less “myself” for a while. I hope you’ll understand, too, my request for privacy at this time.
Take the time to address your physical needs, process what happened, and talk to someone outside work who gets it
In the event that you might have doctor’s appointments or even surgery after your miscarriage, it is best to take some time off. You are the best judge to assess how much you want to share with your manager or direct supervisor, but omitting too much of the truth and downplaying some much-needed PTO as illness or vacation might strain the relationship. If you feel uncomfortable talking about your loss, it’s okay to acknowledge that in your conversation with your manager:
I’m a private person, but I want to be transparent. I recently had a miscarriage and need to take some time off to heal. I hope you understand my need for privacy and rest at this time.
Ideally, your company or manager will be understanding, but if they’re not, remember you have the right to take time off for your health.
Tips for Managers
Make sure your employee understands her rights and your company policy, but do so in a way that helps her know you’re on her side
You can’t expect someone who has just miscarried to be back at the office at peak performance, and her doctor will most likely advise a recommended amount of time to heal dependent on the specific circumstances of her situation.
I know this is a tough time for you, and I want to be able to support your healing process. Our company policy is [explain briefly], and there are options through FMLA that will give you the time off you need. Let’s talk about what you and your doctor think works best.
As much as you would like certain projects to move along, your employee is the best person to decide when she can mentally and physically feel ready to return to work.
Work with your employee to ask directly what she needs
You might not be able to provide all that they ask, but being straightforward about what resources you can provide will help you both be on the same page about expectations concerning productivity and being present at work.
Here are a few questions you can ask to start that conversation:
Would you like me to talk to the team for you, or is there another route you’d like to take? (See the employee tips above for helpful guides there.)
Our company policy is [explain briefly]. Do you need some time away from the office? If so, let’s talk about what’s on your plate, and how we can divide that up.
What are you finding is hardest for you to deal with right now? Let’s talk about ways to mitigate those issues in the office.
Have you looked into how our health care plan (if applicable) or company benefits could help you find someone to talk to?
Be understanding, even after her leave period is over
It’s unlikely you’ll be able to overhaul a company policy for an employee to get more time off if she needs it, but there are other ways to address her needs. Try offering flexible hours or the option to work from home if she’s struggling when she comes back.
Tips for Coworkers
Offer your assistance and try your best to be accommodating.
Giving an extension on a deadline or picking up some of the work on a project provides some relief for your coworker who is grieving, especially if you don’t consider your relationship close but want to help in some way. If you consider yourselves more friends than workplace acquaintances, go beyond just saying you’re “there if they need anything” and drop off a meal or pick up some groceries on their behalf.
Do not push for your coworker to divulge how they are feeling.
Everyone has different needs and emotions processing a miscarriage, and they may not feel comfortable or emotionally capable of sharing details with you. In an effort to ease your own discomfort, you might feel inclined to give advice or implore them to spin the unexpected situation in a positive light—this can make them feel invalidated and alienated. When at a loss for the right words, keep it short and true to what you’re feeling: share your condolences as well as extensions of support and love show that you are there for them in this trying time.
I’m sorry for your loss. Know that I’m thinking of you and am here if you need support in any way.
Around one in four pregnancies end in loss, and it’s important to remember you are not alone. Although there is a long-standing stigma around women’s health, especially around reproductive topics, miscarriages are incredibly common and not your fault.