Pregnancy loss: is the tide turning on paid leave?
Keeley Lengthorn has endured three pregnancy losses over the past three years. Most recently, she had a late miscarriage in March 2022, losing George after 22 weeks of gestation.
Lengthorn’s employer, Taylor Rose, where she’s a partner specialising in family law, was “brilliant” throughout each ordeal, allowing her all the time off she needed. But these experiences opened her eyes to the lack of statutory protection for the thousands of other people who suffer pregnancy losses in the UK each year.
“Until it happens to you, you don’t give it much thought,” Lengthorn says. “The law as it stands states that, when I left George at the mortuary on Thursday night, I should have returned to work at 9am on the Friday. How can that be right?”
In the UK, employees (and their partners) who lose a baby before the end of the 24th week of pregnancy have no statutory right to take leave. From the 25th week onwards – the point from which the NHS classifies a foetal death as a stillbirth – they’d be entitled to all the benefits of maternity and paternity leave, but any time off before that watershed is granted at the employer’s discretion.
As a result, only a quarter of employees who suffer a pregnancy loss are offered paid leave, according to the Miscarriage Association. The other three-quarters have the choice of going straight back to work in physical and emotional pain, asking for unpaid compassionate leave or claiming sick leave, the first three days of which don’t come with statutory sick pay.
But campaigners are seeing encouraging signs that change is finally afoot, as high-profile companies take the initiative without any statutory obligation. Over the past two years, firms such as Monzo, Virgin Media O2 and Diageo have committed to introducing paid miscarriage leave.
But legislation may not be too far away in any case. In the House of Commons, a private members’ bill proposing a legal right to three days’ leave after a pregnancy loss is due for a second reading in March.
So, is the UK at a tipping point when it comes to supporting employees recovering from miscarriages?
Why pregnancy loss leave is a ‘win-win’
“It felt to us like the right thing to do,” says Tara Ryan, people experience director at Monzo, of the bank’s 2021 decision to offer two weeks’ paid leave to any employee suffering a pregnancy loss (whether they were pregnant themselves or the partner to someone who was).
She adds: “While that seems like a simplistic answer, the fact is that, when it comes to our people policies, we’re always trying to anticipate the different needs our people will have. We also introduced support for time away for fertility treatments, so this seemed like a natural thing to bring in.”
As well as being the right thing to do, providing such policies can also aid recruitment and retention, argues Nisha Marwaha, director of people relations and diversity, equality and inclusion at Virgin Media O2. The company introduced a similar two-week leave entitlement in October 2022.
“Simply showing up for your employees demonstrates what your company truly stands for – to your employees, the customers, the communities you serve and other stakeholders, such as the government,” she says. “It can be a win-win for everyone.”
The Miscarriage Association’s deputy director, Vicki Robinson, welcomes such initiatives. But she stresses that the issue is too important to leave to the discretion of individual employers.
“We’re seeing many more firms doing really good things, establishing policies that recognise the impact of pregnancy loss,” she says. “But this still isn’t the norm, unfortunately. We spoke to about 700 people when we were compiling our workplace resources. About half of them said that they hadn’t felt able to take off the time they needed.”
That’s why the charity is backing the private members’ bill, which was brought to Parliament by the SNP’s Angela Crawley in July 2022. It proposes that the UK should emulate regulations that New Zealand enacted in March 2021. These entitle both the person who has suffered a pregnancy loss and their partner to three days’ paid leave.
“I understand the difficulties of getting this bill passed, but I’m hopeful that ministers will see its importance and the positive impact it could have on so many,” Robinson says.
How to shatter the pregnancy stigma
Whether such leave is provided by law or at an employer’s discretion, it’s vital that it’s accompanied by broader efforts to address the stigma that pregnant employees suffer. So says Katie Wood, senior legal officer at Maternity Action UK.
According to 2015 research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 54,000 women are pushed out of their jobs each year in the UK because of pregnancy- and maternity-related discrimination. Many women will therefore feel unable to tell their employer that they were pregnant in order to access leave, she argues.
“We have to tackle pregnancy discrimination first and provide robust protection before women would ever feel confident to take up this type of leave,” Wood says.
Employers can do their bit here, she suggests, accompanying policies on miscarriage leave with staff training on pregnancy discrimination, plus robust rules covering privacy and confidentiality. That’s why the pregnancy loss framework introduced by drinks giant Diageo in September 2022 included not only two weeks’ paid leave but also educational resources.
“We issued our pregnancy loss guidelines to improve awareness and knowledge of an area that’s poorly understood, with silence and stigma often surrounding it,” says the company’s chief HR officer, Louise Prashad.
The bottom line, Lengthorn argues, is that employers shouldn’t wait for the law to force their hand. Any tardiness on their part presents a reputational risk, because “no employer can claim to support equality and diversity if it doesn’t have a baby loss policy in place”.