In June 2021, Co-op, the UK’s largest consumer co-operative employing nearly 60,000 people, launched a dedicated policy to support employees who have been affected by pregnancy and baby loss including through miscarriage, stillbirth, ectopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy, neonatal loss, embryo transfer loss and termination of pregnancy.

As part of their drive to create a truly inclusive workplace, the policy applies to both parents who have been affected – whether it happens directly to them, their partner or their baby’s surrogate – regardless of the nature of their loss, stage of the pregnancy and whatever their length of service or contracted hours.

Acknowledging that individuals experience loss differently, the policy incorporates a range of flexible support, including:

• Flexible paid leave, to support individual circumstances 
• Access to emergency leave for colleagues if a member of their family suffers a 
pregnancy loss (for example, grandparents)
• Reasonable adjustments and wellbeing action plans to support return to work
• Time off to attend medical appointments or support a partner
• Access to support and counselling for bereavement and grief through Lifeworks (a wellbeing app for Co-op colleagues) 
• Access to GP support, available to colleagues and their families 24 hours a day through Co-op’s Smart Health virtual service, providing psychologist-led mental health support, complex case support, second medical opinions and proactive health guidance
• Signposting to external organisations who support specific types of pregnancy loss.

Process

The need for better support for employees affected by pregnancy loss was identified when Co-op, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, undertook a review into their bereavement provision in 2021. While the review was focused on bereavement in general, the issue of pregnancy loss kept coming up in employee conversations, including the lack of explicit advice on where to turn for support.

Kerry Allison (People Policy Manager at the Co-op) says, "We realised we needed to do more in this area. It was clear that colleagues felt pregnancy loss didn’t fit under sickness. It’s more about loss and bereavement. We were also inspired by the bereavement leave legislation in New Zealand and the work that other organisations, such as Channel 4, had started to do in this area."

The Policy Design Group initiated a review of their existing bereavement policies (for example on parental bereavement and compassionate leave), looked at what other organisations were doing in this area, and consulted with their legal team. Kerry recalls, "We had a lot of discussions about where was the actual gap? Whether we could cover this through our existing compassionate leave policy or whether we needed a separate policy. We decided it needed to be standalone, so that people would be clear about the support we offered if they experienced a loss and also because we felt managers might need additional support and guidance to handle such sensitive experiences."

Drafting the new pregnancy loss policy, the Co-op team quickly realised they needed expert help to ensure the language used was appropriate, compassionate and inclusive. They approached the Miscarriage Association for advice and, with their valuable support, drafted a policy that was shared with the unions and colleague networks to review. Kerry says, "We got some really good feedback from our networks that we were then able to incorporate into our policy. Things that were missing that we hadn’t thought about – for example, would it cover loss of an implanted embryo? Could grandparents have time off to support a family member experiencing pregnancy loss?"

It was clear that the support people wanted and needed varied considerably according to their circumstances. Some people found returning to work helpful, while others needed more time off to recover physically or mentally. The organisation was also aware that returning to work in some parts of the business, for example Co-op Funeralcare, might be particularly difficult for someone who’d experienced a loss. Co-op wanted their policy to be flexible to accommodate individual needs, requiring managers’ discretion, confidence and competence. 
Alongside the pregnancy loss policy, they developed a managers’ guide (again with the help of the Miscarriage Association). The guide emphasises the value of thoughtful support for those experiencing loss and provides practical advice and suggestions on what to say and what not to say to acknowledge loss, encourage conversations and offer comfort and practical support, including reasonable adjustments and signposting to specialist charities and organisations. Managers can also seek help from their HR team or the Employee Relations Services team.

The policy was launched through an email to all employees, written by the chief financial officer, who had direct experience of pregnancy loss and knew first-hand the importance of employer support. She shared her own experience and received many responses from colleagues saying how much the email was appreciated and that it helped others feel they are not alone.

Co-op also began external campaigns to raise awareness and encourage other employers to adopt similar policies and support, breaking the taboo of pregnancy loss by encouraging conversations. This included making their policy and managers’ guide freely available online, promoting the issue in the national and trade press, speaking at events, and campaigning with charities that work in this area.

Co-op continued to invite feedback on their policy from the unions and their usual employee channels following its launch. As a consequence of these communications they have developed a separate policy for people having IVF and fertility treatment to ensure a comprehensive package of support.

Outcomes and next steps

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, both internally and externally, as people see Co-op’s brand values in action. Kerry says, "It’s opened up a lot of conversations, which perhaps isn’t surprising given how common this issue is. We’ve had particularly positive feedback from partners and family members who previously may not have been sure if they could access leave or support because the loss wasn’t physically happening to them. Moving forward, we want to be able to monitor and review the amount of colleagues who use the policy, therefore we have built a new code into our system to do this. We also want to evaluate its impact in terms of real-life experiences – when, how and who is using it and whether there are any barriers we need to address so we can continue to evolve the policy."

The team are taking steps to ensure the policy is well signposted, easily accessible and embedded in their whole wellbeing offering and culture, so people are comfortable and confident in having the conversations they need, while having the right access to support. They have introduced a new platform so that employees can access all wellbeing support from one place and are planning further activities, communications and training for Baby Loss Awareness Week in October. Kerry says, "We want to keep the conversations going and continually remind colleagues and managers that this is part of our package of support, and commitment to colleague wellbeing."

Recommendations

  • You don’t have to do it on your own. Seek support from an organisation that is an expert in this area. 
  • Involve colleagues as much as possible and build in time and flexibility to incorporate their feedback. 
  • Put a trigger warning on communications as the topic can be a very sensitive one.

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