Working through pregnancy can present many challenges for some women. With the substantial changes in a woman’s body throughout pregnancy, it is no wonder that some women can struggle with their daily routines, which includes working. For some women, pregnancy may bring crippling morning sickness, whilst for others it may mean emotional ups and downs. There are many physical changes associated with pregnancy which result in women having difficulty or being unable to perform their normal working roles. Particularly early in pregnancy, if a woman does not wish to disclose their pregnancy, this can be particularly challenging. Additionally, for many women, their professional role has been a principle source of identity and purpose for some time, and pregnancy can challenge these thoughts and bring a profound sense of re-evaluation as they prepare for that transition.
The following information sets out some of the common issues that come up for women working through their pregnancy, including understanding your rights and responsibilities, managing your pregnancy at work and making the best possible transition into leave physically, emotionally and professionally.
Once you know you are pregnant, it’s good to let your employer know as soon as possible and advise them of the expected date of birth. Legally, you must give your employer at least 10 weeks notice prior to taking maternity leave, whether paid or unpaid. However, the earlier you share this information, the more your employer can do to support you through your pregnancy and make any necessary adjustments.
Many women during their first trimester advise their immediate manager or a close friend only. By the second trimester, you may want to share the news more broadly. When people at work understand that you are going through a significant transition, they are likely to help you manage any challenges that arise more effectively, which increases your sense of support at work.
In sharing the news of your pregnancy, you have a chance to start talking with your employer about your needs during your pregnancy. Whilst pregnancy is not an illness, you are entitled to use your normal sick leave entitlements if you experience any pregnancy-related illness or injury. Some employers may also have specific leave entitlements to help you attend any pre-natal appointments or other entitlements, which may help you during this time. You may need to discuss some alterations to your work schedule, such as agreeing to a later starting time if mornings are difficult, specific dietary requirements or changes in break times or the timing of any significant travel requirements.
You can also start to think about how long you intend to work during your pregnancy, and if special arrangements are relevant, such as working from home, minimising travel or seeking flexible hours. A discussion with your employer will help to clarify your entitlements, as individual workplaces may have specific arrangements in place. If you plan to work beyond 34 weeks into your pregnancy, your employer may request a medical certificate that confirms you are safe to continue working.
Pregnancy discrimination is illegal in all Australian workplaces. This means you should not be treated differently because of your pregnancy in relation to your employment rights. However, if your usual job may expose you, or your unborn child, to any potential risks, such as radiation, heavy lifting or particular chemical exposures, you are entitled to seek a safe working alternative or lighter duties during your pregnancy. If this is not available, you may need to take No Safe Job Leave. For further information or assistance, the Fair Work Ombudsman can assist.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) review of the experiences of pregnant women and men and women returning to work following parental leave was released in 2014. Their survey found that almost half (49%) of mothers reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work. In addition, more than a quarter (27%) of fathers and partners reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace related to parental leave and return to work, ranging from negative attitudes and comments to loss of opportunities, reductions in conditions or even redundancy and job loss. Pregnancy discrimination can have a negative impact on your mental and physical health, earning capacity and living standards, as well as workplace impacts and your decision whether to return to work. This treatment is illegal and you can take action if you experience it. For more information or to make a complaint, you can contact the AHRC through their website.
Planning your parental leave is of great importance.
“One factor that has been identified in several studies as influencing whether or not women return to work after having a child is planning during pregnancy”
(Coulson, et al, 2012, p. 34)
Your thoughts may also be turning to your plans for moving through parental leave and returning to work, if that is part of your plans. Starting these conversations early with your employer will help to set expectations for both parties, but don’t feel that you need to have exact plans in place, as you may find that your experiences of becoming a parent change your expectations of work.
As you get closer to commencing parental leave, there are practical questions around what work you will complete and what tasks you may need to hand over to someone else. Another person may be recruited to fill your position whilst you are on leave, or your role may be divided amongst other staff in your organisation. Either way, providing a list of contacts, projects or expected future milestones will help both of you, by easing your transition out of these tasks and assisting them to step into these activities smoothly.
In addition, make sure you make any changes to contact details, including providing your address and email details whilst on leave, and the most appropriate phone contacts. If you have had access to work equipment, such as a mobile phone, laptop or tablet or a work vehicle, you may need to make arrangements in relation to whether you are able to retain these, or whether you need to arrange for replacements. Further information is available about managing this transition from the Centre for Parental Leave Leadership.
Overall, preparing yourself, your work and your clients and colleagues for your time away from the role will help everyone, including yourself, to have the best possible start to your parental leave. Your professionalism at this point is likely to pay dividends later, in making for a smooth handover.