The loss of a baby before 24 weeks gestation is classified as a miscarriage. The loss of a baby after 24 weeks gestation is classified as a stillbirth.
Currently, that categorisation can determine how much support an individual receives in the devastating situation of loss. Any amount of loss to a parent is unimaginable, so why do current government-set statutory and mandatory employer policies only offer a selection of parents the support they need?
The Equality Act 2010 sets out the legal protection in England, Scotland and Wales. Pregnancy and maternity is a protected characteristic and prohibits discrimination on these grounds, and Section 17 of the Act makes clear that discrimination can occur in cases of miscarriage, still birth and neonatal death – but only if more than 24 weeks of the pregnancy has elapsed.
Miscarriage is the most common type of pregnancy loss, affecting 1 in 4 pregnancies and a quarter of a million people in the United Kingdom each year, yet when you explore many employers’ parental bereavement and maternity policies, these specifically dictate that they only offer support after 24 weeks. Effectively, support by many employers exists solely for stillbirths, rather than encompassing miscarriages as well. And policies that make clear support or adjustments on offer to students can be just as problematic.
Whilst it would be unfair not to acknowledge that many universities (and SUs) offer compassionate and emergency leave when the unimaginable happens, I cannot fathom how it would feel for an individual to be unsure of whether their loss, in the eyes of their employer or higher education provider, would constitute a compassionate or emergency leave situation. This is why more needs to be done. Members of university communities need to know that they will be supported, both staff and students need to know they will be financially stable, and their mental health needs to be prioritised while they grieve the loss of a child.
The youngest premature baby to be born and survive came into the world at 21 weeks. Premature babies are often little fighters and this proves that, to a parent, knowing that at such a young age they could still grow up to be healthy and happy, the loss is devastating.
Parents are told at 12 weeks’ gestation that they can tell family and friends that they are expecting – it is the point they can start to look to the future and to think of being a family. Imagine having to tell family and friends, after celebrations and revelations, that the little one didn’t make it, that nobody will ever be able to meet their little bundle of joy. The physical, emotional and mental health impact of experiencing such loss, irrespective of gestational point, cannot be underestimated.
Making appropriate adjustments may be difficult – these events rarely fit the neat categories or timelines offered by traditional academic years.But that’s why it’s so important to discuss, scenario plan and settle ambitious standards of support ahead of it happening – so that students and staff experiencing the loss aren’t put into a position of negotiating support at the worst possible time.
It is important within institutions that those who have experienced such loss are provided with incremental support. Support is often suggested for those individuals who have been personally impacted, but the partners who have shared in the journey can all but be forgotten about. Ensuring that a support network is there for the individuals who have suffered such bereavement is imperative, hence the importance of offering support for partners of individuals who have miscarried. Partners should not need to use sick leave to offer support through this.
In my corner of the higher education world, the University of Surrey Students’ Union (USSU) has introduced and codified support for employees should they experience a miscarriage, either directly or as a partner. Pregnant USSU employees who experience a miscarriage are eligible for 6 weeks fully paid sick leave (once the baby is past 12 weeks’ gestation). USSU employees whose pregnant partners experience a miscarriage are eligible for 3 weeks fully paid sick leave (once the baby is past 12 weeks’ gestation). None of this support will be included in yearly sick pay leave allowance to ensure future circumstances aren’t impacted.
Could other employers/institutions support those who have experienced miscarriage in the same way that the University of Surrey Students’ Union has – and for both staff and students too? Supporting others through any life changing events should always be a priority and enshrined in policies – this is that type of support.
If you have been impacted by any of the topics, there are many charities who continue to support families and individuals who have suffered loss. Examples of such charities are below: