Although there are laws against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, discrimination still occurs frequently. In fact, statistics show that there have been almost 15,000 pregnancy discrimination claims filed in the United States in the past five years. While we know that discrimination can have real consequences for a pregnant employee’s career outcomes, including reduced salary, promotions, and social capital, an outstanding question is whether there are health consequences for pregnant employees or their babies.
To answer this question, we conducted two studies examining the workplace experiences and health outcomes of new mothers and their babies. We found that experiences of pregnancy discrimination linked to an uptick in moms’ stress, which raised their risk for postpartum depression. This stress also led to lower birth weights, lower gestational ages, and an increased number of doctors’ visits for the babies a few weeks after birth. While it may seem obvious that pregnancy discrimination negatively impacts pregnant employees, we were surprised to find that it indirectly impacted the babies they were carrying while they were experiencing the discrimination. This shows the far-reaching implications of workplace discrimination and highlights the importance of addressing it.
We recently followed up with the same employees and found that within a few years after birth, the babies had caught up: They suffered no continued ill effects from their mothers’ experienced discrimination and stress during pregnancy. But the mothers continued to suffer from poorer health, depressive symptoms, and parental stress. Our findings, therefore, suggest that pregnancy discrimination can have long-term consequences on a mother’s health.
It’s critical for employers to take concrete action to prevent pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. They can promote a more positive organizational environment and offer support by engaging in the following five evidence-based practices.
Helping Negotiate Parental Benefits for Their Employees
Managers are in a unique position to provide the kind of work support pregnant employees need to reduce stress throughout pregnancy. Pregnant employees tend to disclose their pregnancy after the first trimester, and the manager is likely to be one of the first people they disclose to. As such, a manager’s initial reaction can shape perceptions of future treatment and therefore impact stress. While it is important to have a supportive tone at the time of disclosure, having an awareness of the company’s parental benefits in advance can be especially helpful. Without federally mandated parental leave, the benefits offered vary drastically from one organization to the next, and managers are uniquely positioned to help employees utilize all the organizational resources available to support them.
Further, it’s important for managers to maintain an open dialogue with their employees about what types of support they need throughout their pregnancy. Well-intentioned supervisors sometimes make the incorrect assumption that a reduced workload is beneficial when that is not always the case. Not only can a reduced workload have the unintended consequence of financial stress, but a pregnant employee may also experience it as demeaning or even discriminatory. An open dialogue allows the employee to communicate their needs and enables the manager to be the champion for their use of any benefits.
Offering Flexible Work Options
Managers can help pregnant employees by offering flexible work arrangements, such as remote work and flextime. Such options are a win-win, as they allow employees to better meet their work and non-work responsibilities, thereby enhancing performance while also reducing stress. For instance, remote work may enable employees to meet their work demands when they’re experiencing pregnancy-related illness.
However, pregnant employees may hesitate to utilize flexible work arrangements if they feel it may cause others to perceive them as not committed to their job or if they fear other career detriments. As such, managers are key to normalizing the mindset that flexible work arrangements are rights, not special privileges. Additionally, when managers model healthy work-life behaviors by using company resources to meet their own personal and work needs, it signals to employees these resources are available and encouraged for employee use.
Accommodating Time Off for Doctors’ Appointments
Prenatal care requires attending regular and increasingly frequent doctor’s appointments. Appointments with prenatal healthcare providers typically occur at least once every month until the 28th week of pregnancy, at which time they increase to every two weeks until week 36. During the last four weeks of pregnancy, from 36 to 40 weeks, pregnant people usually visit their provider weekly. For people with additional considerations, such as health issues, higher age, or multiple babies, the visits can be even more frequent.
In addition to visiting prenatal healthcare providers on a regular basis, pregnant employees often need to visit several other providers, as pregnancy affects all health systems. For example, dental, nutritional, and sleep needs evolve over the course of pregnancy. Allowing pregnant employees to leave early, arrive late, and/or work remotely when they have appointments is critically important for the health of the baby and employee.
Facilitating Interactions with Coworkers
In another study some of us published recently, findings suggest there are actionable strategies employers can adopt to reduce detrimental health and well-being outcomes for pregnant employees. Specifically, the data suggests that supportive coworkers and supervisors act as stress-reducing resources for them.
As part of that research, we asked pregnant employees to report on daily experiences of both stress and social support during pregnancy. The findings showed that employees who felt supported by both coworkers and supervisors benefitted from the largest reductions in prenatal stress. Furthermore, this reduction in stress was associated with long-term reductions in postpartum depression and quicker physical recovery following the birth of their child.
Because pregnant employees experience superior mental health when they receive social support, facilitating supportive interactions with coworkers before and after birth is critical. Managers should ask pregnant employees how they can assist in creating social opportunities among employees during work hours or before/after work hours, whether it’s by setting up coffee breaks, mentoring relationships, or an employee resource group. Pregnant employees may also want to maintain some form of connection with coworkers and supervisors after they take leave from work, perhaps via an email list or Zoom meetings. Importantly, managers should always defer to the pregnant employee’s preferences — some people may find social interactions exhausting, while others may find them essential. Offering pregnant employees several different socialization options will demonstrate attentiveness to their needs and flexibility in meeting them. Moreover, all employees benefit from having strong social connections at work.
Intentionally Creating an Inclusive Organizational Climate
Inclusive behaviors signal that all employees are welcomed and valued, no matter their gender, health, parental status, or other dimension of difference. This makes it more possible for employees of all identities to thrive. Research shows that inclusive leadership can promote psychological safety and help teams effectively manage differences. According to a recent study by Catalyst.org, employees’ experiences of inclusion are directly linked to managers’ inclusive leadership behaviors.
Managers can create an inclusive organizational climate by intentionally asking questions about their pregnant employees’ experiences at work and actively listening to what pregnant employees have to say. Managers should focus on empathizing with pregnant employees’ experiences and identifying and changing any practices that may be exclusionary. For example, they can actively disrupt behaviors that reinforce biased behavior and model inclusive behaviors for others to follow. Creating an inclusive organizational climate is important for developing and sustaining psychological safety for pregnant employees.
Despite being illegal, pregnancy discrimination still takes place in the workplace, and our research suggests it can have serious implications for pregnant employees and their babies. Given that approximately 85% of working women will be pregnant at some point during their careers, we recommend that managers take steps to address this discrimination head-on. Above all, we recommend that managers strive to maintain an open dialogue with pregnant employees about what types of support they need.
Editor’s note: Pamela L. Perrewé, Ashley Mandeville, Asia Eaton, Lilia M. Cortina, and Yingge Li contributed to this article.