The way we treat pregnancy at work isn’t just wrong—it could be dangerous

Women die from pregnancy-related complications at a higher rate in the United States than in any other developed country.
Women die from pregnancy-related complications at a higher rate in the United States than in any other developed country.
Image: REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
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The day I learned my work promotion had finally been approved was the same day I told my boss I was seven months pregnant. My boss, the VP of the company and a father of three, congratulated me on hiding my pregnancy. I remember feeling accomplished.

Up until that point, I had only told my direct manager. I would have hid being pregnant from her, too, but I was extremely nauseous and the thought of more hiding while being sick was compounding my exhaustion. This was my first child. I was able to get away with hiding the disproportionate weight gain with new maternity clothes. My doctor and husband teased me; if I didn’t tell work, they would.

I had been hired in a new role on a new team, averaging 70-hour work weeks that blurred into weekends. Now that the secret was out, something had to change. Despite my flagging issues early on, my boss continued selling business based on services I worried we weren’t staffed to deliver.

Shortly after I received my promotion and told my boss about my pregnancy, I brought up concerns that we were understaffed to my manager, boss, and HR. Still, the work kept piling up with no end in sight.

I was asked to hide my pregnancy during client trips. During one trip, I presented to clients and shared multiple meals where I had to dodge questions such as, “Why aren’t you drinking?” and “When do you want to start a family?” It was only when I found myself bar-bathroom hopping in an attempt to keep up with our agency’s SXSW activities that I’d had enough. At my next scheduled care visit, I asked my doctor to write a note. It requested I keep work to 40 hours weekly.

Nothing changed. Nine weeks later, after another 70-hour work week and in between meetings, I realized I hadn’t felt fetal movement. I’d go on to induce labor and deliver our son’s heartbeat-less body. I was in shock. Stunned. Cause of death? Inconclusive.

The next day I got a call from work, asking when I’d return.

A maternal health epidemic

Since we’ve said goodbye to our son, I’ve learned there is an American maternal health epidemic impacting more than 60,000 families a year. Women die from pregnancy-related complications at a higher rate in the United States than in any other developed country. Infants also die at a higher rate than in comparable countries, and pregnancy complications are the fourth-most common cause of infant death.

The data on these devastating deaths and traumas is incomplete, however. The US government hasn’t published an official maternal mortality rate in more than a decade (the figures cited above are from a World Health Organization report). The only mandatory data that is collected statewide is death-certificate data, which often contains errors and inaccuracies.

I hate that I have to wonder if a toxic work environment impacted our son’s life. There’s just no good data about how this type of stress impacts the health of expectant mothers and their babies.

The link between maternal, infant health, and overwork is just beginning to be explored. One study last year that looked at 34 pregnant women, for instance, examined the link between mothers who experience prolonged stress and hormones that impact the growth of an unborn child. Insufficient data is an obstacle for looking at correlations between work, maternal health, and infant deaths.

It’s not illogical to question whether work has an impact on the health of expectant mothers and babies. After all, research has shown that employees in negligent work environments have higher rates of suicide, headaches, chest pains, and mental-health crises. There’s a clear link between work stress and health. One study suggested that working anything over 39 hours a week is a risk to our wellbeing. In some countries, overwork is considered a life-threatening problem.

In the US today, there is no maximum length for a work week. Americans spend more hours working than people living almost anywhere else.

In many work environments, overworking or being a “workaholic” is celebrated, encouraged, and worn as a badge of hard-earned honor. Studies have shown that in sexist workplaces, women often overcompensate, leading to overwork during pregnancies. They continue, like I did, to prioritize professional workaholic routines and baby preparation over self-care.

The unknown risks of overwork

I don’t need data to tell you that there is a serious problem with the way we treat pregnancy in many workplaces.

When I shared my doctor’s note with my employer, the managers seemed baffled at backfilling my planned, short-term leave. I was told to flex my management muscles and think outside the box for a solution. Knowing what I know now, I wish someone–anyone–over the course of nine months had said, “I’m so sorry you work in an environment where you have to hide being pregnant, where being pregnant is seen as a liability, not a liberty.”

I wish my manager, a mother whom I told I was pregnant at six weeks, had not pushed overnight deadlines that prioritized client requests over doctor’s orders and had understood my concerns as real warnings. I wish that one of my colleagues, pregnant at the time with her fourth child, had told me that pregnancy is sacred—to soak up the time because you never get it back. I wish that when I returned to work, someone had been interested in admitting there was a problem with how the company handled my pregnancy.

While I can wish all I want, it doesn’t bring our son back from the dead. Parental bereavement is a permanent condition. I am happy to say today I no longer work in a toxic environment. Thanks to an incredible partner and support from friends and family, when we got pregnant again I had already transitioned to working for myself.

But I remain concerned for others who are still in toxic work environments that may be harmful in ways we don’t yet have the research to fully understand.

Linsey McNew runs an independent, networked communications consultancy.