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  • 29 November 2016

Can supporting pregnant women at work have a negative effect?

The more help women receive at work while pregnant, the more they want to quit their jobs nine months after their babies are born, according to surprising new research in which 120 working pregnant women completed weekly surveys for a portion of their pregnancy. The women were then surveyed again nine months after the birth of their babies to explore how the help they received at work while pregnant influenced their post-partum career attitudes and aspirations.

The resulting report, written by Judy Clair, Ph.D, Dr Kristen Jones, Dr Eden King and Beth K. Humberd, found that despite women being aware of the potential for discrimination in the workplace while pregnant, such as being denied opportunities, not promoted, forced to take leave or even fired, the seemingly straightforward solution – providing them with greater support – can in fact have the opposite effect.

According to the report, women who received more help at work developed greater negative self-views about their potential to be good workers and working mothers, as compared to women who said they received less help at work while pregnant. One psychological explanation, the authors say, is that help may be particularly damaging to individuals who are struggling to show that they are fully capable of performing as normal. In other words, when a person is already worried about being able to perform, receiving help confirms these fears and insinuates they are indeed underperforming. Women want to maintain their professionalism during pregnancy, and many try to avoid signalling that they are less capable or independent than in the past.

The research found that women were appreciative of physical and practical help, such as being allowed to leave early for a doctor’s appointment, but they were less enthusiastic about other kinds of help, such as when they felt that co-workers were trying to protect them or when they believed that they were being denied challenging work.

The authors believe that these findings might explain why some women choose to opt out from work altogether after having a child. However, they state, this does not mean managers and employees shouldn’t try to help pregnant workers, but rather try to ensure the way they support pregnant women increases, rather than decreases, their confidence in their abilities to manage the demands of work. They claim that help will be most welcome when it is offered in response to a direct request, is negotiated, and encourages autonomy instead of dependency.

Speaking in response to this research, Suzanne McMinn, Head of HR at International Workplace, says:

“The findings within the report completely astound me. Having had two pregnancies and worked during each pregnancy, with varying levels of support and help from my employers and returning to work after each child was born, I find it difficult to understand that there is any meaningful correlation between the level of support provided by a well-meaning employer and the mother’s choice to return to work.

“Employers are bound by a duty of care to all employees and this extends further for those who are pregnant. Employers are required to provide risk assessments for pregnant workers to ensure their safety whilst at work. This should be conducted in a supportive and collaborative way so that both parties are happy with any changes.”