There are many questions that will arise when an expectant mother brings you the news of her pregnancy, such as maternity leave eligibility, general rights, and of course insurance cover.
But beyond the basics, how far should an employer go in supporting expectant employees? Here I am referring specifically to the health guidance given. Because it is such a challenge for many expectant mothers to have clarity on what they should and should not do during pregnancy. Should an employer get more involved in this respect?
Before getting into what companies can do in the way of providing support in this regard, let's take a look at some of the challenges that your pregnant employees face.
Pharmaceuticals and tests: What is safe?
A 2015 University of California study claimed that doctors could be over-prescribing medications to pregnant women, with a number of these drugs clearly being unsuitable and even dangerous for the expectant mother and/or baby.
Worryingly, the research found that 42 per cent were prescribed something that could potentially pose a risk to a developing foetus, including painkillers such as ibuprofen, hydrocortisone for skin conditions and itching, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole.
A number of the expectant mothers were also prescribed medications that have the potential to cause general problems during pregnancy, such as hormonal contraceptives, cholesterol-lowering drugs, temazepam for insomnia, and the blood thinner warfarin.
Beyond prescriptions, our pregnant employees have to try and make sense of the raft of medical procedures and tests being offered. These may include:
- Blood tests to check for anaemia.
- A pap smear to check for cervical cancer (if the patient has not had one recently).
- Diabetes risk assessment.
- Rhesus (Rh) factor (as rhesus-positive blood can cause complications in pregnancy).
- Checks for serious infections such as hepatitis and the HIV virus.
- Immunity to rubella and chickenpox, as these can also cause complications.
Addressing the last item on the list, this is often one of the points of confusion among expectant mothers who often wonder just how many are needed, and whether such a procedure carries any risk.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) says two are standard in low-risk, complication-free pregnancies. The first ultrasound should be done somewhere between eight and 14 weeks (the dating scan, which calculates the estimated date of delivery and is based on the baby's measurements); and the second between 18 and 21 weeks (to check for abnormalities).
What we are seeing, however, is that many women are undergoing more than the recommended two. If we look to the United States, a 2014 investigation by non-profit insurance claims watchdog FAIR Health found that the average number of ultrasounds per delivery in the US was in fact 5.2.
While ultrasound is generally considered safe, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that ultrasound could both heat and produce small bubbles in the tissue, the long-term effects of which are unknown.
Two other relatively common yet higher risk tests that may be recommended (depending on the mother’s age, medical history ,and family history of inherited genetic conditions) are amniocentesis and chronic villus sampling (CVS). CVS checks for abnormal levels of haemoglobin and enzyme deficiency, while amniocentesis tests for Down’s syndrome, foetal abnormalities such as spina bifida, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease.
So how can I, as an employer, help?
Communication is the best first step in supporting your employee through this medical minefield. As soon as you are informed of the good news, explain how your organisation can offer support and guidance. Go through your checklist, clearly outlining the maternity package available, including paid leave, medical cover, advice phone lines and any other benefits they are eligible for.
You should also have handy a list of pregnancy healthcare physicians and medical facilities, and inform them of the general maternity laws of the country (for example, statutory maternity leave in the UAE is 45 days).
As for getting involved on the information and support front, you'll have to consider carefully what level of guidance you want to offer. Many organisations are turning to their insurance companies to provide extra maternity benefits within their healthcare plans, or simply organising pregnancy wellness initiatives of their own.
On the more formal company level, your organisation can review its maternity policies in general, extending paid-leave time or offering a number of other clearly defined formal benefits and programmes. This is something that is in fact becoming more and more common around the world as corporations look to "outdo" the basic benefits provided by the law in each country.
Above and beyond
Ultimately, an employer’s duty of care to a pregnant employee is not simply to ensure she is covered for insurance purposes. How far your company is willing to go is up to you, but to demonstrate that you have a foundation in place that provides enough support to answer all basic questions and get expectant mothers started on the right path is a core essential.
From there you should, however, consider going above and beyond. While many expectant mothers will be quick to get their house in order, for many that is not the case at all. And for those who do need more support, knowing that they can get it from the very place they spend the majority of their waking hours (that is, the workplace) provides a great sense of security indeed.
By Carole Khalife
Carole Khalife is head of Human Capital and Benefits at Al Futtaim Willis.
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