What to expect (at work) when you're expecting

Posted on 10 Feb 2019

By Kerryn Burgess, editor, Our Community Matters


Pregnant women have the right to nap at work when they need to, under a new pregnancy and parenting policy implemented at Our Community last month. We spoke to executive director Kathy Richardson about how the new policy was developed, and how it might be adopted by other workplaces.

Our Community Matters: What are the main features of Our Community's pregnancy and parenting policy?

Kathy Richardson: Our new policy explicitly states that Our Community wants to do its bit to ensure that the entry to the world of any new "OC babies" is as healthy, positive and stress-free for their parents as possible. But the path to parenthood isn't always straightforward, and our policy recognises that, covering people who foster or adopt children, those who experience pregnancy loss, and those undertaking fertility treatment.

Our pregnancy policy explicitly names some of the difficulties some women experience when they're pregnant (excessive tiredness, nausea, hunger, discomfort, swollen legs) and states our intention to help where possible by providing workplace accommodations. These include permission to nap as required, flexibility in the work schedule to allow pregnant women (and their partners) to attend medical appointments, and additional paid sick leave if required.

Our Community provides paid parental leave in excess of the statutory minimums (for birthing and non-birthing parents, including adoptive and foster parents) and these provisions are outlined in our policy as well.

We have also developed a returning-to-work policy which recognises that the post-pregnancy period presents additional joys and challenges. The policy states that new parents can have as much or as little communication with the workplace as they like while they are on leave, and outlines how team members can participate in "keeping in touch" days if they choose to do so, how we will support breastfeeding parents, and our willingness, wherever possible, to accommodate temporary or permanent requests for altered work hours, including trial periods to allow new parents to figure out what's going to work for their family.

The policy is a work in progress. Following a discussion at the pub after work last week, I'm now thinking about how to ensure we've properly considered the needs of dads and other non-birthing parents in our policies. And a discussion on a not-for-profit online Facebook forum recently has prompted me to incorporate more pointed provisions for women who experience pregnancy loss, including miscarriage and stillbirth.

Why didn't you just adopt a standard policy?

We're obliged to think carefully about the impact of our workplace on employees. We take that responsibility seriously.

It's also in our DNA to make sure we're providing equal opportunities for women (indeed, our Manifesto states, "We believe women have equal rights to leadership roles"). Many of the issues that prevent women from prospering in workplaces are structural in nature, and we wanted to shift some of those barriers. This policy is one way to do that.

We started by inviting every woman in the office who we knew had been pregnant to tell us what their workplaces (current and past) had done to make their life easier or harder during those periods. We noted the commonalities and thought about how we could make provisions for those, but we also noted that everyone's experience was different. Some women sailed through pregnancy feeling healthy and energised; others really struggled, either for short periods of time or throughout. We spelled out some of the things the organisation could do to help with the most common complaints, but we provide some flexibility in the policy as well.

Our parental leave policy was informed by the government's new rules but we also took into account the experiences of people in our office who have become parents in standard and non-standard ways (including our group managing director, who is a foster carer). Research demonstrates that the first years of a child's life are crucial, and suggests that dads who spend time with a newborn as a primary carer are more involved parents as time goes on. With this in mind we decided to provide more leave than the minimum for both birthing and non-birthing parents.

Our return-to-work policy, too, was informed by our staff's experiences of being on parental leave and returning to work after a pregnancy - the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of the stories we heard were terrible! We set out to emphasise the good and minimise the bad and the ugly.

The new policy refers to Our Community making "attitudinal and structural accommodations" for the new carer responsibilities that parents bring with them when they return to work after parental leave. The reference to attitudinal change is unusual in a workplace policy. Can you flesh that out for us?

We wanted to make it clear not just to staff but to managers as well that you can't expect people to have a baby then come back to work a few months later as if nothing has changed. We've seen that happen in other workplaces: women being expected to get back to work without any ruffles after what truly is a life-changing event. (My mother - a midwife and the mother of seven babies - describes it as a "life crisis".) They're expected to front up to the office at 9 o'clock on the dot, having been up all night with a screaming baby, with leaking breasts, anxious about what's happening when they're not with their child, and just get on with it. That's crazy-making.

Not everyone experiences parenthood this way, and you can't make hard and fast rules about how to accommodate all the situations that might arise, but we wanted to say to new parents, "We see you", and we wanted to say to managers, "You are required to make accommodations if needed and the organisation will support you in that".

When it comes to workplace revolution, what's more important: policy change or cultural change?

You need both. If you have a policy that people don't support or understand, it's doomed to failure. People will just ignore it. If you have a great culture without policies to enshrine the rules that provide practical expression of that culture, you risk slippage, especially as the organisation grows in size.

Our Community is about to launch Our Community House (OC House), a new co-working space for social sector organisations. The OC House website says the new workplace is "gender-lens designed". What does that mean?

OC House is designed primarily for the not-for-profit sector, in which women predominate, so we knew we were going to need to cater to the particular needs of women in this building. In fact, we think all buildings should do this, but it was going to be particularly important for us.

We engaged an all-female design architecture firm, and we made sure there was a woman (me!) on the steering committee at our end. Throughout the design process we tried to think about how the building might cater to the particular needs of women. We did some research as well and came up with a wish-list.

Women are different from men physically (they menstruate, can be pregnant or breastfeeding, experience menopause, and on average are smaller and have a lower metabolic rate), and they experience the world differently (they are more likely to juggle work with a caring role, more likely to feel unsafe, especially after dark, more likely to have been marginalised professionally, more likely to be judged on their appearance).

We didn't get everything we wanted but we did get a lot of it, including female-friendly bathrooms and toilets (lots of them; sinks in some cubicles; free tissues, tampons and pads in every toilet; full-length mirrors; ledges or hooks for handbags); a private, comfortable room for people who want to breastfeed or express, or who are experiencing period pain or pregnancy-related fatigue; and desktop fans to help relieve the symptoms of menopause.

We're also working on a plan to help working parents negotiate the curly issues that arise during the school holiday juggle, perhaps by hosting a school holiday program on-site or nearby.

Our Community has made its policy available for other workplaces to adopt and adapt. What's your advice to organisations that believe they don't have the physical space or the financial resources to implement similar policies?

Much of what we do is attitudinal. If you just do what you can do within your own budget and context, you'll get a lot of the way there.

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