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Your management role when an employee is pregnant.

Your management role when an employee is pregnant

Lab managers have a professional, legal, and personal responsibility to understand health hazards during pregnancy, their facilities' maternity leave policies, and related concerns.

Statistics show that nearly 80 per cent of all working women in the United States will become pregnant during their careers. Over half will return to work before the child is one year old.[1] Add to this equation the simple observation that most lab workers are women, and it's clear that all lab managers--not only those who might become pregnant themselves--must understand precisely how childbearing will fit into the work schedule.

The ways in which each organization and its pregnant workers' immediate supervisors treat pregnant employees reveal a great deal about the institution and the individuals involved. Furthermore, such policies and behavior affect the peace of mind not only of currently pregnant workers but also of all female workers considering pregnancy in the immediate or distant future.

Managers in short-staffed labs must take special pains to maintain work continuity without jeopardizing the pregnant worker's right to return. When an institution proclaims that employees are its most valued asset, take a good look at its maternity leave policy.

Maternity leave is the time during and immediately after delivery when a woman leaves work to have a baby. Parental leave, which can extend beyond the immediate postpartum period, is not reserved for the mother alone but permits either parent to care for the child at home. An acute shortage of high-quality child care, particularly infant care,[2] makes parental leave a pressing issue to which the business world is slowly beginning to respond. * Current law. The United States and South Africa are the only developed Western countries that have no national parental leave policy.[3] Few states have statutes or regulations involving maternity leave.[4]

Two Federal acts deal specifically with pregnancy. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act states that as long as an employee is physically capable, she must be allowed to work until her physician states otherwise. The length of leave after delivery is also determined by the employee's doctor.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 requires employers to treat pregnancy as a disability--a term many consider unfortunate. Compliance with this law is considered a minimum standard of organizational support for pregnancy.[1] Congress is considering legislation, entitled the Family and Medical Leave Act, that would increase employee benefits for families with "new children," including newborns and adopted children of any age. * Lab's role. Because the Federal and state governments provide only limited protection for most employees regarding maternity leave, it is especially important for supervisors and managers to make sure their pregnant employees receive the maximum benefits allowed by the organization.

Employers who help their staff members balance the responsibilities of home and work gain increased loyalty, better interpersonal relationships, greater job satisfaction, and improved work continuity. Supportive strategies for pregnant employees are not only humanistic but also fiscally sound. During the years 1981 through 1984, for example, 71 per cent of women who received maternity benefits returned to work within six months of a first child's birth, while only 43 per cent of those who did not receive such benefits chose to return.[5]

Every request for maternity leave presents a challenge to the immediate supervisor of the employee making that request. Taking the eight key steps that follow will benefit both the employee and your department.

1. Present a positive attitude toward the pregnancy. Don't respond to her joyful announcement with a remark about how much inconvenience her absence will cause. Instead, congratulate her warmly and assure her that she can count on your support.

2. Make certain the employee is familiar with your facility's maternity policy and available options. Review applicable benefits and find out what she must do to take advantage of them, such as submitting a physician's statement of her ability to return to work after the child is born.

3. Discuss her immediate plans. Start by asking how she feels right now. If she is experiencing severe morning sickness, she may want time off or a change in her work hours until that symptom disappears.

Many employees feel that the granted leave is too brief. In planning their maternity leaves, most women incorporate vacation time, accumulated sick days, and negotiated unpaid leave.[4] Ideally, the duration should be tailored to her postpartum physical and emotional status, the time necessary for parent-child bonding, and the availability of child care.

Review current work projects, including those planned and those already in operation: Will they be continued, suspended, or delegated? Failure to take this step may result in having extra work dumped on an unprepared person--possibly you.

4. Discuss the employee's plans for the latter phase of pregnancy. How long does she want to continue working? Would she like to change from a full-time to a part-time position, or set up a job-sharing arrangement?

5. Check for potential health hazards and take any necessary action. The goal of health protection in this case is to insure the immediate and long-term well-being of the pregnant woman and her child on an individual basis. (For information on health hazards and other material in this paper, I am indebted to Pat Myers, laboratory safety coordinator at St. Joseph Hospital and Health Care Center in Lancaster, Pa.)

Since mutagenic agents affect nonpregnant women (and men) as well as pregnant women, protective strategies must be in effect at all times. Special precautions include avoidance of formaldehyde, benzene, chloroform, trichlorethylene (a laundering agent), chemotherapeutic agents, and viral infections.[6]

Postpartum recovery may take longer than expected if there are medical complications or stress at home or the employee has low recuperative powers. In such circumstances, the lab manager may have to speak with the employee's physician and rearrange her work hours and assignments according to the doctor's opinion.

6. Ask about postpartum plans. Does the employee wish to return? How soon? Does she want the same job, part time or full time? Would she prefer a change in work hours or shift? What child-care arrangements will she make? Offering the worker a chance to work part time or share a job may be the clincher in retaining a valuable employee.

7. Plan for work coverage. Discuss how her position will be filled during her absence. Will her responsibilities be divided up among several staff members, or will a substitute be appointed? What will happen to that substitute when she returns?

Ask the employee to update the duty segment of her position description and to underline key responsibilities as well as work that can await her return. Ideally, she'll prioritize these responsibilities and indicate the approximate time required for each major duty.

You may prefer to have the employee prepare a written plan that embodies all this information. Such a document can include detailed instructions for carrying out complex assignments as well as the names and phone numbers of various contacts.

Assign the best-qualified employee to perform some or all of her activities in her absence. Go over this plan with everyone involved well before the pregnant worker's anticipated last day on the job. A problem pregnancy or some other exigency could require early activation of the plan.

8. Keep in touch after the baby is born. Satisfy yourself that the employee still plans to come back. When her return is imminent, assure her of your support.

On her first day back at the laboratory, greet her enthusiastically. Provide a thorough reorientation session to bring her up to date on changes that have occurred since she left. Help her to rehone technical or professional skills.

During the reintroduction phase, observe her carefully for signs of stress. New mothers differ in their physical and psychological adaptation to work. In some situations, it is best to modify work hours or to reassign duties at a slower rate.

Devising and following a highly structured procedure for contending with the changes necessitated by employee pregnancy improves the work ambience and fosters interpersonal relationships. Knowing a policy is in place relieves employee anxiety, encourages mothers to return to the workplace, and provides effective continuity of workflow.

Keep in mind throughout the process that parenthood, especially the first time around, is an overwhelming experience for which few are truly prepared. Your employee may change her mind (or have it changed for her by medical or family events) about her date of departure, when she'll return, or whether she will return at all, forcing you to revise your well-made plans. If possible, make the revision with a smile. Even if she doesn't come back immediately, maintaining her high opinion of the laboratory field may prompt her eventual return.

[1]Handling employee pregnancy (editorial). Pract. Supervision 87: 7-8, July 1989. [2]Kamerman, S.; Kahn, A.; and Kingston, P. "Maternal Policies and Working Women." New York, Columbia University Press, 1983. [3]Heyburn, M.K. Maternity leave and job security: A prescription for improved quality of life in the U.S.A. J. Ky. Med. Assoc. 87: 25, January 1987. [4]McGovern, P.M. Maternity and parental leave policy. AAOHN Journal 37: 18-33, January 1989. [5]Women returning to work. Newsweek. 114: 4, Aug. 21, 1989. [6]Kooker, B.A. Four million hospital workers face reproductive health hazards. Occup. Health Saf. 56: 61-64, April 1987.
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Article Details
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Author:Umiker, William O.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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