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How to help pregnant workers

Conversations abound regarding the policies and practices that provide support to working mothers (like paid leave for mothers and their partners, affordable childcare options, and supportive organizational cultures). While the support that new mothers’ experience upon returning to work is undoubtedly critical in influencing their longer term career intentions, my colleagues and I set out to understand how the experiences that women have at work during their pregnancies can also influence their longer term career intentions.

Our recently published paper focused on the relational context that pregnant workers encounter at work – specifically how the help that women receive at work during pregnancy can shape their postpartum career intentions. Through a weekly diary study of 105 pregnant employees, we found that when help is perceived as interfering with (versus enabling) their ability to perform their work, women expressed lower self-efficacy.

For example, a pregnant worker may be proactively encouraged by her coworkers to leave work early so she can relax before the baby comes – an offer of help that she may perceive as signaling cues about others’ beliefs regarding her work (in)abilities. When women received more of this work-interfering help on average over the course of pregnancy, they were more likely to express intentions to leave the workforce.

On the other hand, a coworker that offers to update a pregnant colleague on the details of a meeting she will miss due to a doctor’s appointment may be the type of work-enabling help that supports her self-efficacy.

As leaders and colleagues, we need to ensure the support we offer pregnant workers is not inadvertently signaling that they are not capable of doing their jobs. Rather, we certainly should not stop offering help to our pregnant colleagues all together. So what can we do?

We know from research on compassion at work that perspective-taking and empathetic concern can play a key role in enabling high quality relating at work. Perhaps simply reminding ourselves to take her perspective – focus on how our actions may make the other feel, displaying genuine compassion and other-oriented feelings – can assist us in offering each worker the type of help that will both enable her work performance and signal our beliefs in her work capabilities BOTH in the present and in the future.

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