New company policies offering paid leave following a miscarriage are welcome and, frankly, long overdue. But the decision to also include abortion feels like a particularly radical statement.
Monzo Bank has joined Channel 4 in announcing a policy of paid leave for any employees affected by pregnancy loss – including miscarriage, stillbirth and abortion.
According to the bank, either partner will be entitled to 10 days paid leave following pregnancy loss, regardless of when, or how, that loss occurs. Channel 4’s policy, announced in April, is very similar and includes flexible working and paid leave for medical appointments.
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These policies will be incredibly welcome news for the huge number of employees affected by pregnancy loss, and will hopefully set a precedent for other companies to follow suit. More than one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage, and as many as one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. This means a significant proportion of the workforce will be affected by one or the other, either directly or as a partner.
Despite this, I have to confess that my initial reaction to abortion being included was: “Who’s going to want to disclose their abortion to their employer?” Abortion – a safe, legal medical procedure that a third of women undergo – remains so shrouded in stigma and taboo that, even as a proudly pro-choice woman, the thought of anyone requesting two weeks of “abortion leave” seemed unthinkable.
But it’s for exactly this reason that its inclusion feels so radical. Not only is it an important statement supporting our right to reproductive choice, but it also helps to normalise and validate abortion as a common but complex life experience.
For too long almost all experiences of pregnancy loss have been hidden away behind closed doors, with women, pregnant people and their partners largely left to deal with the end of their pregnancy in isolation. It has been a private grief, enforced by the pervasive and secretive 12-week rule of not announcing your pregnancy too early in case the worst happens.
In the UK, currently only the most visible of pregnancy losses – stillbirths after 24 weeks of gestation, which affect around one in 225 pregnancies – entitle couples and individuals to statutory leave. Employers may grant discretionary compassionate leave for losses suffered any earlier but, without specific policies in place, employees aren’t automatically entitled to this.
This, combined with the broader stigma, has largely kept conversations about early miscarriages out of workplaces. Fortunately though, a growing number of public conversations about miscarriage are beginning to banish those taboos, and it’s great to see employers recognising the effects on their staff.
But even in conversations about pregnancy, fertility and reproductive health there remains a dichotomy in how miscarriage and abortion are treated. While the former is seen as a loss and a tragedy, the latter is still often positioned as a choice rather than anything worthy of compassion.
In many ways, this has been borne of necessity. When reproductive rights are threatened by proposed legislative changes, pro-choice campaigners have often responded by highlighting that, for most people who have an abortion, terminating their pregnancy is a positive choice – a relief, or else a medical necessity.
Ninety five per cent of women don’t regret their abortion, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have both a physical and an emotional impact on them and their partners. Monzo and Channel 4’s policies recognise that nuance, and allow for employees to take whatever time they may need.
For some this might mean taking a day or two off for an early medical abortion – to bleed out an unwanted pregnancy in the comfort and privacy of their own home – before feeling relieved and wanting to get back to normal as quickly as possible.
For others, it might mean taking the full 10 days to recover both physically and emotionally from the much more agonising decision to surgically terminate a later, very much wanted, pregnancy on medical grounds. For many more it will mean something in between.
Genuinely inclusive policies – which take into account the impact of all pregnancy losses, on all of those involved – are a vital step towards a more open culture around reproductive health in the workplace, and a recognition that employees have lives and emotional needs outside of their jobs.
They’re also, I hope, part of a broader post-pandemic shift towards a more family-friendly future of work. The world of work has long been overdue a rethink, not only on pregnancy loss but also parental leave, flexible working for parents of any gender, and similar adjustments for employees with other caring responsibilities and health needs.
If there can be one silver lining to the cloud of Covid-19, it’s that employers have been forced to acknowledge that flexibility and home working are not just an excuse for staff to slack off. Not only can they work effectively for businesses in many sectors, they also have tangible benefits for employees’ work-life balances, their families and (excepting the social isolation of lockdown) even their mental health.
It would be a real shame if workplaces simply returned to business as usual after the pandemic. Let’s hope instead that policies like these are a sign of things to come.