Pregnancy is a big life change and it is natural to feel a mix of emotions, from excitement to stress and/or worry. In some cases worries start affecting every-day life, accounting for the 1 in 5 expectant and new mothers who the NHS say experience mental illness during the perinatal period (i.e. during pregnancy and one year post birth).
Mental-health issues during pregnancy may be exacerbated by worries about how pregnancy will affect employment, particularly given the ongoing issues presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. One study has even found that pregnant women and new mothers are three times as likely to suffer from poor mental health in the wake of the pandemic.
Given the high levels of mental-health issues among pregnant women, what should employers be looking out for and what practical steps can you take to help?
Advice for employers
Pregnant women are considered ‘clinically vulnerable’ to Covid 19, meaning that, although government guidance is that employees can now return to the workplace, many may not want to or may not feel able to do so. This can exacerbate mental health issues as many women feel in a ‘limbo’ between the pandemic and returning to ‘normal’. Pregnant women may also experience anxiety about whether or not to have the Covid 19 vaccine. A recent study by the maternity rights group Pregnant Then Screwed found that 8% of all pregnant workers currently feel that their workplaces are unsafe; this figure rises to 13% among BAME women, who are more at risk from COVID.
When an employee informs you that they are pregnant, you must carry out a health and safety risk assessment. This is a legal duty that pre-dates the pandemic, but is even more relevant now. To ensure that the workplace is safe for a pregnant woman, you might consider:
- Providing personal protective equipment;
- Putting in place social distancing measures;
- Putting in place flexible working hours;
- Maximising home-working where possible, particularly for women beyond 28 weeks pregnant.
If reasonable action does not reduce the risk, you should offer a suitable alternative job on similar terms and conditions. If this is not possible, the employee should be suspended on full pay as long as necessary to avoid the risks.
- Undertake an OH assessment to address any adjustments that can be made to assist with any pregnancy-related mental or other health issues;
- Allow reasonable paid time off for ante-natal appointments recommended by a medical professional – these are not just medical appointments and might include relaxation classes, for example;
- Ensure that you have a supportive and clear maternity policy which is accessible to all staff;
- Provide training to managers to ensure that they are aware of the particular mental-health issues experienced by pregnant women and how these can be addressed in the workplace;
- Carry out well-being checks with pregnant women/new mothers to ensure that any concerns are being listened to and addressed.
- Where one is available, refer them to your Employee Assistance Programme, to ensure that they have an alternative outlet for sharing their worries.
According to the charity Tommy’s, 60% of professional women will leave their organisation within a year of returning to the workplace after maternity leave. There are therefore clear benefits to undertaking the above steps, which will increase the wellbeing of pregnant employees; encourage new mothers to return to work following maternity leave; and increase the likelihood of a gender diverse workforce.
If you are an employer wanting advice or an individual wanting more information about your rights in respect of this area call 0808 252 5231 to speak to one of our Employment Law specialists to find out how we can help.