Several women continue to work during their pregnancy. It might be due to the rise of nuclear families, empowerment ideals, social pressures arising out of empowerment notions and economic pressure. For all these obvious reasons, pregnant women, who choose to work during their pregnancy, stay at the workplace for most of the working hours and there is a high possibility for them to experience tremendous stress and anxiety during their work hours, which may manifest during their final phase of pregnancy or post pregnancy. Although firms have initiated remote work options for pregnant women, they may not avail of these flexible options as they experience pregnancy discrimination at the workplace, such as reduced/denied opportunities, and they are often perceived as weaker or less competent candidates.
To date, the Indian government has institutionalised several maternity benefits for pregnant women, considering the significance of women's employment in upscaling the Indian economy. On the one hand, maternity leave policies are being amended from time to time to ensure that women are eligible to take sufficient rest before and after delivery and to take care of the newborn baby without compromising their job. Paid maternity leave has been increased to 26 weeks and prenatal leave to eight weeks. Further, to promote gender equality at work as well as at home, fathers are also given paternity leave so that the responsibilities are shared between the newly-born parents. However, on the other hand, WHO reports that 1 in 3 to 1 in 5 pregnant women experience mental health issues, especially in India.
Of course, there is no doubt that the government administers policies and wellness programmes to ensure the well-being of women. For instance, apart from the medical leave that has hugely benefited pregnant working women, initiatives from the Indian government such as Janani Suraksha Yojana have ensured greater accessibility to facility points for pregnant women in general. Even organisations have come up with several schemes, including Flexi maternity leave, gender-neutral maternity leave, sabbaticals, maternal counselling and flexible work arrangements. Long before the pandemic struck the world, the ICICI had launched Iwork@home to encourage women to work from home during their critical life phases, one of them being a mother.
The Milady application launched by Mindtree helps pregnant employees to stay engaged with the organisation during their maternity leave. In addition, maternity-related topics were discussed in the application to help them manage the transition and return to work without much hassle. However, these wellness programmes are not universally introduced by all organisations. Either the benefits stay dispersed and fragmented or they remain only as voluntary initiatives introduced by a few organisations, which provide specific benefits to cater to the needs of pregnant women during a particular pregnancy period. Considering the benefits of these initiatives and the constant need to also look at the entirety of the pregnancy period rather than a particular time during the pregnancy, national policy for pregnancy-friendly workplaces can be a game changer for improving the mental health of pregnant women and also the retention of women in the workforce post-pregnancy.
Leisure time at the workplace
One of the most strongly suggested measures to improve the mental health of pregnant women is leisure intervention. Say, Indian classical ragas are found to improve foetal development and nourish the mother’s mental as well as physical health. Sufi or Kalyani, music holds strong religious and spiritual values apart from the entertaining quotient it affords to the listeners. Organisations can introduce music therapy in the workplace for pregnant women so that it not only helps them reach a peaceful mental state but also provides sufficient psychological separation from the work hassles.
The workplace is the real second home
While studying the relationship between leisure interventions of pregnant women and their prenatal attachment, I, along with my co-researcher, found that leisure activities, especially leisure reading, greatly help pregnant women bond with the baby. Pregnant women in their second and third trimesters were surveyed and the results showed that these women experienced joy, flow, and transcendence whenever they indulged in leisure reading. These positive leisure experiences enhanced their subjective vitality and further, encouraged them to psychologically bond with the baby. Several studies and mythological tales claim that babies psychologically interact with their mother when she reads constructive materials.
The babies in the womb can even pick up languages through sounds. The findings also suggest that positive cues are easily picked up by the babies when their mothers indulge in reading mindful books. While the crèche facilities have been made compulsory to take care of the babies when women work, it is also equally important to take care of the baby and the mother before delivery. Therefore, the current benefits of the Maternity Act will be greatly effective, if the government also considers introducing leisure time during work hours so that pregnant women can enjoy their pregnancy and the workplace will be their real second home. Workspace design and space investments can be made keeping in mind the pregnant woman and the baby’s psychological bonding.
Employees are the storytellers
She may consider the workplace her second home because of the workplace leisure and relaxation therapies. However, her home would be empty without family members. To provide her with an extended family, organisations can introduce leisure reading sessions and make her colleagues great storytellers. Organisational hierarchies may hold different roles for different positions, but exciting stories can come from any level of hierarchy. For instance, a housekeeper may have a great pregnancy-related story to share with the crowd, which may encourage the mother to indulge herself in a world that is more personally and emotionally connected. Inclusiveness and workplace bonding will be two other positive consequences of these practices.
From customised cubicles to pregnancy-specific nutrient kiosks, there is a multitude of arenas to look out for. The design and implementation of such pregnancy-friendly workplaces can help women to enjoy their life transition along with their colleagues and this journey can be an enabler to connect all the employees across hierarchies with meaningful relationships. These simple initiatives can be accessible to all working women and will be more effective when they are formulated as government policies along with the existing policies for pregnant women.
Photo credits: NY times