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October 15, 2019

Employer support for stillbirth and miscarriage- from best practice to next practice

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Today is International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, held every year to remember those little lives lost to miscarriage and stillbirth. Two years ago, the Stillbirth Foundation Australia launched a campaign to ensure that access to employer funded paid parental leave (PPL) in the case of stillbirth becomes a norm across corporate Australia. I am pleased to say that we are well on the way to achieving this goal.

The “ask” of companies by this campaign is simple: A commitment to review company parental leave policies to ensure that employer funded paid parental leave is available in the circumstance of stillbirth.

Since last year’s update on the campaign, even more companies have updated their employer funded PPL to cater for stillbirth and have publicly signalled their support by joining the corporate register hosted by the Stillbirth Foundation Australia.

The strategy behind this campaign was crafted in three parts: raise awareness, influence change and measure results. To achieve the latter, we secured agreement from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) to update their annual survey of Australian businesses to capture data on whether a company’s employer funded parental leave covers stillbirth. These data are currently being collected as part of the WGEA 2018-2019 survey and will prove a valuable resource to measure the outcomes of this campaign. Furthermore, the very presence of this question in the WGEA survey will help raise awareness of the issue of stillbirth, particularly amongst diversity and inclusion specialists.

When formulating this campaign, we deliberately followed the path of advocating for a norms-based approach rather than a legislative one – after all, it is better that companies change their policies because it is right thing to do rather than because they need to comply with legislation.

Nonetheless, and despite the success thus far of this campaign, legislative change is still required. As it currently stands, section 77A of the Fair Work Act 2009 gives employers the right to cancel maternity leave in the case of stillbirth. And, sad to say, some unscrupulous employers have done just that.

The need to fix this deeply unjust section of the Fair Work Act was raised in my testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education and it was subsequently adopted as a recommendation in the Committee’s final report published last December. All recommendations of this report have been adopted in principle by the Government and Stillbirth Foundation Australia is working with Government to get this change implemented.

Thanks to the help of organisations like WORK180, explicit support for parents facing the tragedy of stillbirth is rapidly becoming best practice among leading employers. Since launching the partnership, WORK180 employers have joined the Stillbirth Foundation Australia corporate register. These are employers who have updated their paid parental leave policies to include parents of stillborn. WORK180 employers on the list are BAE Systems, Buildkite, Deloitte, GreenSync, HSBC, John Holland, KPMG, Microsoft, Nova Systems, Optus, Programmed, PwC, Roads and Maritime Services NSW Government and Xero.

What, then, is next practice for helping parents through pregnancy loss?

Support for women experiencing miscarriage, especially for that which occurs between 12 and 20 weeks gestation, is an area which I believe deserves more attention.

The distinction between miscarriage and stillbirth is in many ways a definitional one and indeed varies across countries (the UK, for example, defines stillbirth to be from 24 weeks’ gestation, whereas in Australia it is 20 weeks’ gestation) which makes it even moredifficult for those who lose their baby around the 20-week point. Consequently, parents who lose a baby at, say 19 weeks, do not get the legal recognition their child, such as a birth certificate, and parental leave provisions.

Not only is miscarriage emotionally draining but it is very physically debilitating for the mother, so the standard 10-day sick leave entitlement seems hardly adequate. In the words of an article published earlier this year, miscarriage should certainly not be the ‘Voldemort’ of pregnancy and progressive employers should consider initiatives – such as a specific paid leave entitlement for miscarriage – that support women through this traumatic experience. The Pink Elephants network is one organisation advocating for this to be implemented and the also offer a range of support resources to those who have either experienced early pregnancy loss or know someone who has.

In the next 12 months, we aim to foster a discussion around this as we believe it is time for employers to recognise the need for support in these situations. There are employers already leading in the space offering paid leave to those who suffer from a miscarriage. Examples include Tabcorp and Minter Ellison. I am looking forward to bringing this conversation to the forefront along with the Stillbirth Foundation and leading employers in the WORK180 network.

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About the Author
WORK180 promotes organizational standards that raise the bar for women in the workplace. We only endorse employers that are committed to making real progress so that all women can expect better.

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