Acknowledgement: This section was written by Ann-Maree Imrie, Stillbirth Foundation Ambassador and creator of the Baby Loss Project training program for workplaces. We thank her for her contribution and if you would like to find out more about the Baby Loss Project, please click here.
Your employee is pregnant (or their partner is) and they are close to taking parental leave. There is excitement, anticipation, and planning for their upcoming time off. And then the unthinkable happens. Their baby dies.
What is stillbirth?
Stillbirth is defined as the birth of a baby showing no signs of life after 20 weeks’ gestation or weighing more than 400 grams (where gestation is unknown).
Six Australian babies are stillborn each day – a statistic that has remained largely unchanged for over 20 years.
As recorded by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the major causes of stillbirth in Australia are congenital anomaly, premature birth, perinatal conditions and maternal conditions. There is still a lot unknown about the causes of stillbirth and about 20% of stillbirths remain unexplained.
What do you do now?
As their employer, what do you do now? What do you say? Are you prepared to step in and hold this delicate space for your employee and surrounding staff? You might feel uncomfortable, which is a valid response (and understandable). Our society is not well versed in grief. Even less so in ‘disenfranchised grief’ – which is where baby loss sits, due to the stigma and lack of public awareness.
Please don’t let this be a reason to avoid the situation. With some simple steps, you can have meaningful and productive interactions with your bereaved employee. You might be thinking, I’m no counsellor; or the workplace is not a therapist’s office. Just remember, it’s not your job to ‘fix it’. But if you are in the orbit of a baby loss parent, you might as well contribute to their emotional wellbeing, rather than take from it. Or worse, ignore it. Handling this well could go a long way towards retaining good staff.
The first important step is a proactive measure. Best practice would be to review your HR Parental Leave Policy. Does it include clear guidelines for employees in the event of early pregnancy loss, stillbirth and neonatal death? At a time of significant grief and trauma, you do not want a parent having to advocate for themselves to receive support from your organisation.
In order to be on the front-foot and provide immediate support, it is important to reduce time spent making ‘case-by-case decisions’ and have a clear policy in place – ready to action if/when needed.
But then what? How should you respond to your employee on a personal level when their baby has died? Unfortunately, there is no script. Every experience is unique, and the individual reaction is deeply personal.
Generally speaking, though, these suggestions may help you provide a simple yet meaningful response.
- Do some research on your employee’s experience. There are different categories of baby loss including miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death. When discussing with your employee or their partner, it is important to understand this and use the correct language.
- No matter the category or timing of loss, it is important to recognise that this is not just the dissipation of a pregnancy. A much-loved family member has died. It is the loss of someone’s baby.
- Read our What to say or not to say article or watch the video below on helpful and unhelpful things to say.
- Should you wish to show your support in other ways, you may encourage your workplace to make a donation to fund much-needed research into stillbirth on behalf of your employee’s baby, or set up workplace giving for your staff, should they wish to contribute their pre-tax dollars on an ongoing basis.
Returning to work
In terms of negotiating your employee’s leave and return to work, it is essential to plan and find the right timing for this conversation.
Bear in mind for the first week or two, the parent may be physically recovering or caring for their partner and planning their baby’s funeral.
When you do get a chance to talk or meet, some important points to cover are:
- How does your employee want to communicate (if at all) to other staff, about their baby being stillborn? For example, by email or staff meeting? Do they want communication to come from the workplace or from themselves directly?
- How much leave is your employee comfortable with and how can this be negotiated collaboratively? They may like to come back sooner than you might expect or they may need extended time off.
- How can you support your employee to successfully re-engage in the workplace? Can you negotiate a phased return by starting with part-time and build up to their usual hours? Can you have regular ‘check-ins’ to gauge their wellbeing and progress over time?
- What structures can be put in place for difficult or ‘grief-heavy’ days? How can this be communicated by your employee in a simple way?
Maintaining open lines of communication with your employee, can support them in a successful return to work.
Just remember, this difficult time can be well managed if you keep your interactions simple, yet meaningful.