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Maternal and reproductive health in the workplace: A call for holistic support from employers

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October 3, 2023
By Todd Humber

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a multi-part series tackling women’s health issues in the workplace and what employers, HR and leaders can do to make a difference. It’s based on a special roundtable conversation held by Talent Canada, in partnership with Sun Life, that took a deep dive into the issue. View the special section.

Amid growing discussions about the need for more inclusive and supportive workplaces, experts and advocates shed light on the unique challenges and needs related to maternal and reproductive health at a recent panel discussion.

The focus of the discussion, held by Talent Canada in partnership with Sun Life, was on the full spectrum of women’s reproductive journey — from fertility to pregnancy, childbirth, and beyond — and how employers can better support their employees.

“Reproductive age really stretches from puberty right to pre-menopause. During this stage, there are unique physiological challenges that often revolve around menstruation, related disorders, uterine or ovarian diseases, and infertility,” said Krista Hogan, director, product solutions and group benefits at Sun Life.


She pointed out that as many as one in four people experience a miscarriage in Canada, and the rates of fertility challenges have doubled since the 1980s, affecting about one in six people.

Beyond the physical challenges, Hogan emphasized the mental toll that reproductive issues can have.

“For many women, their identity is wrapped around their ability to bear children,” she said. “The physical symptoms of miscarriages and infertility are often accompanied by real heavy mental symptoms, particularly grief.”

In light of these challenges, the panel suggested that employers consider offering benefits like support for fertility drugs and procedures.

“There’s a lot of stigma around miscarriages and infertility, and for this reason, many people will not share what they’re going through at work,” said Hogan.

In addition to fertility, the panel talked about the challenges faced by people looking to build their families through surrogacy and adoption, which can cost upwards of $100,000 in Canada.

“A nice, new inclusive family building program does support employees who are using fertility procedures, surrogacy, adoption, whichever method they’re using to grow their family,” Hogan said.

The conversation also touched on pregnancy and postpartum challenges.

“It’s the greatest risk of depression that a woman will face in her lifetime. It’s during postpartum. This is when we see the most significant drop in hormones,” Hogan warned. She pointed out that only about 30% of women actually receive treatment for postpartum depression and about 50% go undiagnosed.

The panel emphasized the role that employers can play, such as ensuring sufficient coverage for paramedical practitioners like chiropractors and physiotherapists, who provide vital support during pregnancy and postpartum periods. “Coverage for virtual visits or online programs can be particularly helpful for mental health practitioners during this time for women who really need easy access to care,” said an anonymous panelist.

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Tiana Field-Ridley, senior program manager at the Mental Health Commission of Canada, provided a different perspective by focusing on the systemic issues facing working parents.

“Was the working world really designed for two parents to be working as much as we are?” she asked. “We need to look at this from a bigger picture. How can we improve societal views of women and parents and the fertility journey in itself?”

Carmen Klein, vice-president of HR and change management at Cadillac Fairview, said it’s about developing managers on how to have those empathetic conversations.

“Sometimes it’s educating our managers, and how to have those unique conversations in the workplace and how to react to those as well,” she said.

These discussions often start with the employee’s direct manager, making it even more critical for supervisors to be trained on how to handle these delicate topics sensitively and effectively.

Klein elaborated on the necessity for trust, saying, “it’s moving in on that open and honest conversation, value or behavior and building that trust between you and the employee.”

Janet Ko, president and co-founder of the Menopause Foundation of Canada, who has children in their twenties, praised the progress workplaces have made over the years regarding parental leave and the evolving roles of parents in the workforce.

“Roles are really changing and shifting, and I just love the reality that our workplaces are considering the need for fertility support,” she said.

Field-Ridley pointed out that it isn’t just women who need support in these life changes. She raised concerns about men who are actively participating in parenting responsibilities and urged workplaces to consider how they can support them as well.

Stuart Rudner, an employment lawyer and mediator and founder of Rudner Law, warned about the risks employers face when they don’t adhere to the law.

“One of the topics that’s come up a few times is pregnancy and parental leave, which, as you know, applies to men and women,” he said, noting that there are still misunderstandings and misconceptions about the law.

He pointed to the explicit, or implicit, discouragement to take full leave entitlements.

“There are still workplaces where the comment is quote unquote jokingly made that ‘if you’re going to work here, don’t get pregnant.’ Or when someone goes off on pregnancy leave and they make arrangements to come back, ‘Well, we hope you’re not going to get pregnant again.’”

Or there’s the expectation that even when someone is off on a pregnancy or parental leave, they’re still checking in and doing a bit of work, he said.

He also still sees employers, when its time for the worker on leave to return, refuse to bring them back because they look the person who was temporarily filling in better — a breach of the Employment Standards Act in Ontario.

“But a lot of people don’t know that,” he said, on both the employer and employee side. A lot of the onus falls on HR to make sure people are aware of how the law works and what their rights are, he said.

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