Hannah describes her experiences of miscarriage and the support and understanding she had at work – and shares some suggestions for others
What most managers and coworkers won’t realise is that miscarriage really can have a similar level of physical recovery and healing as postpartum, after birth
There’s no drop-down option for absence at work due to miscarriage. Sitting in my bed shortly after returning from hospital where my husband and I found out we were losing our first baby, I tried to log my absence from work in our online HR tool. I got stuck hovering over ‘Bereavement’ and ‘Sickness’. It was sort of both. I was physically very unwell: I would go on to suffer two months of bleeding and cramping, two difficult internal procedures and a womb infection. But I was also grieving and lost. I could have never anticipated the impact it would have on my emotional and mental well-being. Miscarriage is so little understood, especially in workplaces, it’s no wonder there’s no option for describing the mix of bereavement and sickness which ensues.
It may seem surprising that a woman going through miscarriage would immediately think about how they are going to deal with it at work almost within minutes of it occurring. The pressure to get back to work promptly is charged with an underlying stigma that if bosses find out your real reason for absence you may get penalised against future promotions or receiving new projects, that you could jeopardise your career or at worst be put up for redundancy. Before my first pregnancy loss, I headed up a fast-paced editorial team at a large media company based in London. By the time of my second miscarriage, five months later, I ran a team of 10 eager millennials. I felt a huge sense of responsibility to them, as well as my peers who were also team leaders, as well as our online communities.
I was lucky enough to have a very empathetic, discreet and caring manager. She already knew I was pregnant as I had previously needed her help to decline travel requests appearing around my due date. I told her straight away and she told me to take as much time as I needed, that she’d re-distribute my work, manage my team while I was away, and cover my reason for absence if I wasn’t able to share what had happened yet. I am forever so grateful to her to this day. She has children of her own and friends who had experienced pregnancy loss, but this level of understanding is rare.
Similar to babies and pregnancies, no two miscarriages are the same. With my first miscarriage, although my physical symptoms were unbearable, mentally I felt ready to return to work after just a few days. Not only was it a great distraction to me, I really valued my work and it gave me a renewed sense of purpose. I applied my skills with a noticeable burst of energy. With my second miscarriage, I experienced the opposite: a quicker physical recovery but an emotional debt and void unlike anything I’d known. I lost interest in everything and sought out counselling for new symptoms of depression and anxiety. Like most women who experience miscarriage, the sense of loss and bereavement will remain with me throughout my life. Those early days and months were so raw. As I tried to get back to work I’d be unexpectedly knocked sideways by a deep sense of sadness and longing, resulting in floods of tears and an inability to carry out even the most mundane tasks. The usual stresses of workplace politics or a difficult meeting were easy triggers. I’d inevitably hold it together until the end of the day, then be unable to hide my grief, letting it spill out into my surroundings wherever I was, usually somewhere public like a packed bus commute home.
I decided to be open with my colleagues after my first miscarriage. I found a really useful pdf leaflet from the Miscarriage Association on ‘Miscarriage and the Workplace’ which had information on miscarriage, tips for managers such as suggesting a phased return to work, and suggestions of what to say and what not to say for coworkers (for example, to avoid asking how far along you were, which still riles me to this day). A friend of mine had also made a podcast about miscarriage, which I knew would help some friends and colleagues understand better what I was going through. I sent these two links round to my immediate direct reports, many of whom were in their twenties and yet to go through the period of life where multiple friends would struggle with fertility and pregnancy.
I also asked my manager to speak to the other team leaders, a group of seven smart women who, being more mature and experienced, reached out to me with messages of support.
One woman, another manager with beautiful daughters of her own, took me aside into a small meeting room and held my hand. She told me she had experienced multiple miscarriages before having her daughters. She gave me the advice to be compassionate to myself during this time, and sent me a pair of warm snuggly socks. Even one of the most senior leaders of our company, a man with a global high profile and huge workload, took time to invite me to his office to ask how I was doing, explaining he and his wife had been through something similar. I never expected this level of care from within my workplace. To everyone else, I was simply unwell, although I’ve got no doubt the real reason was whispered among curious colleagues. If you are in an office reading this now, look around — if you are working with other women it’s possible some of them are dealing with pregnancy loss, or fertility issues. My experience was a stark reminder to be mindful of what others might be going through.
I was also lucky enough to work the majority of my recovery from home, punctuated with meetings in the office and our Christmas party, which I forced myself to go to and immediately regretted as a coworker waxed lyrical about the difficulties of being a new mum to a beautiful baby girl, showing me photos. I nodded politely and excused myself to go to another trip to the loo to change my pad which I had leaked through and risked spoiling my fancy dress.
What most managers and coworkers won’t realise is that miscarriage really can have a similar level of physical recovery and healing as post partum, after birth. I bled so heavily with my first loss, requiring frequent long trips to the toilet to sort myself out and changes of clothes, teamed with mind-numbing exhaustion. I was pale and iron deficient. Outside the house, I’d often get caught out by a huge clot appearing in my pants, and sometimes bleeding onto my jeans. If I had to go to the office every day I would have for sure experienced some level of shame.
With my second miscarriage, I simply didn’t have the energy to share my reason for absence beyond my line manager, who once again was understanding. I had lost the strength to deal with the well meaning looks and comments. I took longer off this time, two weeks post surgery. Physically I bounced back, but emotionally I was completely bereft and utterly deflated. I considered also taking longer sick leave when depression became overwhelming, but once again I found my work a useful anchor to me, giving me a strong sense of purpose.
Miscarriage doesn’t come with an entitled period of leave like a full term birth, though qualifies you for sick leave. Many companies have no policy for how to deal with women experiencing miscarriage. But to support their employees and enable them to recover physically and emotionally and return well to work I feel they should do. Until then, I urge managers and coworkers to get clued up about miscarriage and look out for ways to support your team and colleagues when it happens.
To those experiencing pregnancy loss and looking for ways to deal with it at work. Here is my quick advice:
- Be open with your manager and immediate team. It may be uncomfortable for you and you may get the odd annoying comment or ignorant remark, but it will pay off in the long run, if not for you for someone else.
- Send your team the Miscarriage and the Workplace leaflet — this explains a lot so that you don’t have to, and they will be appreciative of the advice on what to say and what not to say, which I believe is the root of most awkwardness around miscarriage.
- Ask to work from home if you can, for as long as you need to feel physically able to return to the office. Don’t rush this.
- Don’t force yourself to attend any work meetings or work events if you don’t feel up to it. Especially office Christmas parties where there is karaoke and you are stuck on a boat.
- Seek out other women who offer support and lean on them. Don’t be afraid to tell a trusted colleague who might cover for you at a meeting or have your back on a work project.
- Reach out to the Miscarriage Association private Facebook groups, where I found many long hours of peer to peer support.
A final note to those going through multiple miscarriages for their first pregnancies—as I often would skim read articles looking for any final word of hope. Our third pregnancy was successful and we welcomed our rainbow baby daughter into the world in June. Keep going and stay strong. x