Workplace accommodation: what about before birth?
When an employee is going to have a child, an employer needs to prepare for the worker’s eventual leave of absence, particularly if the employee is the mother, but increasingly for fathers, too. How long is the employee planning to be away from work? Who will perform the absent employee’s work? Do you need to hire someone new or train a current employee? Can the absent employee’s duties be divided among other workers? How will you communicate with the employee during the leave? Will you continue to offer benefits?
But important changes happen to expecting employees long before their baby is born, and employers should understand this and consider how these changes will affect the workplace. I should know: my wife and I are approaching the big day!
Throughout pregnancy, a woman usually needs additional support from people all around her. I found early on that I was spending most of my free time cooking dinners, cleaning the house, doing laundry, driving here and there, running errands and doing anything else that my wife needed. I did all these things before, but now they seem to be all I do!
You might not see how this would affect my work, but from my perspective, it’s impossible to imagine it not affecting my work. I might have to run out at any time of the day to get something or drive to an appointment. I might have to prepare food at a moment’s notice—breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. I might have to help my wife carry gear or supplies, or even spend the day assisting her (she’s a photographer).
I already work mainly from home on a semi-regular schedule, but this pregnancy has turned my days upside-down. I can’t imagine how it is for a) pregnant women who work regular day jobs, and b) fathers-to-be who have little or no flexibility in their work. Stress might increase, along with anxieties and worries. Sleep and eating patterns might change. There are mood swings and fatigue. Concentration and focus can become evasive. And I’m just talking from my own experience. I can only try to empathize with the biological changes that pregnant women might experience: nausea, heartburn, varicose veins, hernias, hemorrhoids, and on and on. And any or all of these things can happen at any time during the nine months leading to birth.
It’s important for employers to protect their employees’ health at all times. The law makes this duty explicit, but maintaining employee health isn’t just about complying with the law. It’s about keeping your organization working. That means making sure employees who are expecting have the support they need in the workplace. Employers needn’t be responsible for what happens outside of work, but by offering accommodations they can make things a lot easier for themselves and their employees: extended breaks, alternative or flexible schedules, telecommuting, carpooling, reduced or adjusted duties, moving workspaces to avoid stairs or long walks, mental and physical health support services, and so on. Some employers might ask employees who already have children to offer support to mothers- and fathers-to-be. All employers should assure pregnant employees that their jobs will be safe upon their return from leave.
Affected employees might not openly complain if you don’t offer accommodations, but they will surely appreciate it if you do. (And those complaints will just as surely come out somewhere.)
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor