This article was originally published at 9 Virtues Blog, the official blog of The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential by Karl Haden and Rob Jenkins--the latter being my dad, who asked me to write about my experience with miscarriage from a professional standpoint. I'll admit to being slightly biased, but this book is truly and honestly THE best thing I've read on developing real leadership skills (and I read quite a few in the years I worked), and it's available for purchase or download on Amazon.
I've had 3 miscarriages. Each one was a different experience, not just because of what I went through personally, but also because of how each miscarriage was handled in the workplace. What I learned was that when it comes to miscarriage, people rarely know how to react, including bosses and coworkers, but sometimes even the woman herself. Is it a health problem? Is it a death? Should it be talked about, or kept private? Should people offer formal condolences with cards and flowers? How much time off should a woman have to recover and grieve?
Not many companies have policies on what to do when a woman has a miscarriage, and most bosses probably don't even think about how to handle it until it happens to one of their employees. Most bosses certainly want to do the right thing, but they might not know what that is. With so many valuable women in the workplace, it's time to set some guidelines. As a boss, what should you do when one of your employees has a miscarriage?
First, it's important to understand some of what a woman goes through when she miscarries. If you've never been through one yourself, you might not realize how physically painful and emotional traumatic it can be. Many woman who miscarry are prescribed pain medications, and the process of miscarrying can take days, even weeks. Heavy bleeding will likely leave her feeling drained for several days afterward. And if she experiences any complications, she might require hospitalization, a blood transfusion or surgery.
Many women also grieve a miscarriage as they would the loss of a child or family member. Have you ever been an excited, expectant parent? The sadness of losing a baby, even early in pregnancy, is at least equal to the excitement of expecting one. A woman may not know how to cope, because what she goes through physically is similar to the birth of a child, but emotionally, it's like losing a loved one. And that makes it difficult for other people to know how to respond, too.
As a leader, you have the opportunity to help make a negative experience into a positive one. When your employee learns that she's having a miscarriage, she probably won't know how much time off she'll need. She might not even tell you until it becomes impossible for her to work or until her surgery (D and C, or dilation and curettage) is scheduled. When she does come to you, she might not be herself; she might even be in shock. You can respond to her loss with compassion and help set expectations for the days and weeks to follow.
Here are four basic guidelines to follow when your employee miscarries:
1. First, say "I'm sorry." Showing sincere sympathy is first and foremost in this situation, and it will help her know that you support her at this difficult time. It's very common for a woman who miscarries to feel that she's somehow failed her baby and her family, and she might worry that she's letting her work family down, too. If she apologizes for missing work or handing over her responsibilities, you can reassure her that you and the team will do whatever you can to help her. Sending a card or flowers might be appropriate if that's your company's custom when a team member loses a loved one.
2. Be generous and flexible. Think of the allowances we make in the workplace when a woman delivers a baby or again, when a team member loses a loved one. Remember, a miscarriage is similar to both. Getting back to work in a day or two is probably not realistic, so be as generous as you can in giving her time off. First, give her a day or two to get back to you, and then you can go from there. Assure her that you can be flexible, and then make good on that promise if she has unexpected complications and needs more time. When I had my third miscarriage, I experienced some complications that took a few weeks to resolve and involved regular hospital visits. Obviously, I didn't plan for that, but I didn't feel comfortable asking for additional time off either. My work was affected, and everyone ended up frustrated, especially me. This could've been solved by taking half-days in the office or working from home. Remaining flexible with her time off and work responsibilities is key when an employee miscarries, especially when it takes longer than expected.
3. Show respect for her privacy. Ask her if she'd like you to share her difficult news with the rest of the team on her behalf. If she'd prefer to keep it private for now, simply tell others that she's not feeling well, and then handle delegating her work as if she were sick at home with the flu. Unless you have her permission to tell the team about her miscarriage, avoid saying things like, "She's had some unexpected health concerns," or "She's in the hospital, but she's going to be okay." This only will only make everyone feel uncertain, and they might try to contact her to see what's going on. Let her decide how and when to share what she's going through. If she doesn't want anyone to know at all, you can thoughtfully suggest telling one other person she works with closely, so that she can ask for extra support if she needs.
4. Avoid making demands. Right away, you'll want to ask, "When will you be back to work?" or "What about such-and-such project?" Don't. Instead say, "Let me know in a day or two how you're feeling, and we'll figure out your time off." If you don't already know, ask her who she thinks would be the best person to take over her responsibilities or certain projects until she's back at work. Better yet, if it's not urgent, just say, "Don't worry about work here. We'll take care of it." Also, avoid demanding that everyone know about her miscarriage, or that no one know and it be kept just between you and her. (See above on respecting her privacy.) The first time I miscarried, I came to the office the next day and tried to work normally. When my boss found out, she insisted I go home; I was surprised but extremely grateful. The only demand to make when your employee miscarries is that she take the time she needs to recover.
As a boss, you can show compassion and support for her, take the lead without making demands, and be generous and flexible with her schedule. It's not only in her interest, but in yours and the team's, as well. With time to recover, she'll be able to return to work more quickly. And when you and the team pull together to help her through this difficult time, it will boost everyone's morale in spite of the sadness of her loss. Above all, you can help set a positive precedent for how miscarriages are handled in your workplace, and ultimately how all women at work should be treated.