The Reality Of Being Pregnant In The WFH Era

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I feel the vibration next to my pillow before I register the sound of the alarm. The clock on my phone reads 12.50pm. This leaves me with enough time to drag myself out of bed, splash my face with cold water, take a Rennie to soothe my indigestion and make a cup of tea before a client calls at 1pm.
You might think that waking up 10 minutes before a call is cutting it fine but at the moment I need every last second of rest. You see, I am 10 weeks pregnant with my first child — and completely and utterly exhausted. 
In many ways, the fact that I am both self-employed and work predominantly from home has been a blessing while pregnant. I have all the flexibility you could want when it comes to when and how I get my work done, I am able to take as many breaks as I need and do not have to force myself onto a packed commuter train while in the throes of morning sickness, or hide my pregnancy symptoms from anyone in my vicinity. 
When I vomit or cry, as I do most days — about how grim I feel, or purely because of the hormones surging through my body — I don’t have to stifle my sobs in a sad, grey toilet cubicle or worry about the telltale mascara smudges on my face and how people might interpret their meaning. I am, in other words, able to be completely free and relaxed in my experience of the peaks and troughs of the first trimester, without any pressure to perform or hide myself. These are freedoms I know I would not have if I were still in office-based, salaried employment.  
Especially in those early days, I lost count of the number of times I said to friends: "Wow, how do people whose jobs require them to be in a certain place for eight hours a day manage this?!" At times, getting out of bed felt impossible; I couldn't tell you how many emails I sent that went something like: "Sorry I can’t make this time now, please could we reschedule?" The only blessing in all of this was that the only 'manager' I had to answer to was myself.
Over the course of the past two years many other people have joined me in the working from home revolution — mostly by necessity but sometimes by choice. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, the ensuing lockdown forced the hand of employers — particularly those whose operations were predominantly office-based — prompting them to send all of their staff home for their own safety and that of the rest of the country. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 25.9% of the working population (or 8.4 million people) were completing duties from where they live at some point in the week they were spoken to in 2020, compared with 12.4% in the previous year. This number rose to 35.3% in London. Although more recent data aren’t yet available, it would be fair to estimate — given how 2021 went in terms of lockdowns — that the figures may be similar. 
This new acceptance of working from home looks set to continue: another ONS survey from April 2021 showed that 24% of businesses that did not close during the pandemic stated that they intend to use increased homeworking going forward. This is good news in particular for people with young families or chronic illnesses who have long fought against a culture of presenteeism at work to enable more flexibility in their roles. But what about those who are pregnant? What are the benefits of being able to stay at home during pregnancy? And are there any hidden costs?
For 31-year-old communications manager Jessica from Essex, who gave birth once in February 2021 and once in January 2019 (in pre-COVID times), the benefits of working from home during her pregnancy far outweighed any downsides. "It was SO MUCH BETTER at home," she tells me over Twitter. She goes on to say that the positive impact on her mental health from not having to force herself into the office every day was immense. "Being at home meant I could vomit, lie down, cry without an audience, cook the foods I wanted and drink Irn Bru at 9am on the worst days," she continues.

Research has found that pregnant people are at a high disadvantage at work and often their value within the organisation comes into question.

Thirty-four-year-old Victoria from Manchester works in recruitment and agrees emphatically with Jessica. "I had hyperemesis gravidarum [a condition whereby the sufferer has very severe morning sickness that can last throughout the pregnancy and sometimes requires hospital treatment] so could work from bed or the bathroom floor," she says. "This meant less time signed off sick, which my employer really appreciated as I’m the only person who does what I do in our office."
Both also say that they benefited financially from working from home. "I didn’t have to buy maternity clothes for the office [...] and was able to save before maternity leave," says Victoria. "Being able to save money from not commuting and food out was amazing," Jessica tells me. 
In general, freedom seems to have been the greatest advantage for both women. "I was due in September so I was heavily pregnant with my second [child] during summer," Victoria explains. "I was often working in a bra and knickers versus sweating in corporate clothes in the office." She also goes on to say that managing the needs of her other child was much easier. "It was much easier doing the drop-off/pick-up from nursery and I got to spend a bit of extra time with him." 
Avoiding an exhausting commute was also an obvious benefit for both. "Having to stop for a wee twice on my commute each way was so annoying," says Jessica, "and the Tube heavily pregnant (or even just with sickness) was awful." Victoria agrees — she went as far as changing her working hours in her first pregnancy (prior to the pandemic) to avoid rush hour.  
Flexibility to attend medical appointments without judgement was another positive, especially for Victoria. "I had two high-risk pregnancies so had to attend more appointments, clinics and scans," she explains. "When I was in the office, these would take up most of the day as the hospital is a good 30-minute drive from work. Even though our company policy is lenient on medical appointments, I could tell these started to annoy people." 
Business psychologist Jess Baker says it makes sense that greater flexibility at work would be valued by staff, regardless of their circumstances. "The more flexible the organisation can be," she explains, "the more comfortable and valued the employee will feel — and the more satisfied and productive the employee would be. Everyone wins." This is exactly how Victoria feels. "Overall I was able to carry on working comfortably, with much less disruption for me and my colleagues and clients."
So far it all sounds good, right? But in my case there have been a few unforeseen downsides, too, especially given that I am freelance: a dramatic loss of earnings linked to my inability to work consistently throughout the first trimester. This is obviously less of an issue for most salaried employees (depending on whether or not they are entitled to sick pay) but at times I have also found it hard to cope with the isolation of being home alone with a changing body and mind. 
For 39-year-old Jen from London, who works on a podcast and gave birth to her first child in 2020, the experience of being pregnant alone at home was very isolating. "We went into our first COVID lockdown as I hit the third trimester of my first pregnancy — I wasn't in a relationship with the father of my child and I lived alone," she explains. "I missed seeing people and the support I would have had," she continues. "My colleagues and I held daily lunchtime Skype sessions as much as we could during that first lockdown, to try and jolly each other through it, and they were enormously helpful, but you can't beat face-to-face contact and the subtle nuances it brings to conversation."
38-year-old Holly works in the charity sector and gave birth in September last year. For her, a lack of visibility of her pregnant state made the whole experience feel a bit odd. "Many colleagues didn’t know I was pregnant until my mat cover advert went live as [they] had only seen me shoulders up!" she tells me, adding that she felt awkward shoehorning it into conversations. By the same token, not being visibly pregnant was a plus for Jessica. "I never, ever wanted to seem 'not as capable' when pregnant at work," she explains, and working from home gave her more control over this.

Throughout the pregnancy women's needs may change. Women tend not to express their own needs at the best of times.

Baker says that it boils down to individual needs, which can differ from person to person, given that everyone’s experience of pregnancy is different. "It’s a sensitive balance. You might want to be recognised as someone in the pregnant condition," she explains, in terms of being granted more leniency, "but not to be seen as less able." The solution, she says, from the employer's side is to ensure that communication with any pregnant people working from home is consistent and, crucially, evolving. "Throughout the pregnancy women’s needs may change," she says, which certainly rings true for me. She goes on to remind me that "women tend not to express their own needs at the best of times".
Creating a space, Baker adds, where pregnant people feel comfortable to discuss any of their needs is therefore really important, while giving them the autonomy to opt in to any adjustments rather than forcing them to change their work patterns or schedules. 
This is particularly important to remember for employers who are asking their staff to return to the office now that the government's advice has changed. From an HR perspective, occupational therapist Jenny Okolo emphasises that employers have a responsibility to ensure their pregnant staff are well supported — even if that means staying at home. "Pregnant people (depending on stage of pregnancy) are usually classed as vulnerable [from a COVID perspective]," she says. "Working from home might be safer and they should be supported by employers on the choices they make." 
Ultimately, Okolo says that the responsibility lies with the employer. "Research has found that pregnant people are at a high disadvantage at work and often their value within the organisation comes into question," she explains. "It is especially important to support pregnant people working from home to ensure that they are still able to do their job to their best capacity. This will benefit the company by boosting staff morale and ensuring that they feel protected by their workplace and work towards work-life harmony. The risks with not doing this can lead to poor retention, feeling undervalued within the company and unfair treatment. Pregnant people are also then entitled to utilise their health and safety rights to speak up and ensure their voices are heard." 
Before we all rush to ask Zoom to create 'Baby on Board' badges, it’s important to remember that the first and most important factor in ensuring that working from home is a successful experience for pregnant people is good, judgement-free communication with their employer. Flexibility is crucial and for many pregnant people it can make the difference between dragging themselves with gritted teeth through 10 months of gestation and having a much easier time. 
Like it or not, our entire work culture has changed during the coronavirus pandemic. Companies that are able to recognise how this has benefited their staff and are confident enough to retain this elasticity once they’re no longer legally bound to do so will have healthier, happier and more loyal employees. And when it comes to pregnant people, they will have parents who are much more excited and willing to return to work a year down the line, which can only be a good thing.  
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