Going back to work after a neonatal death

Going back to work after you’ve lost a baby can be a helpful return to routine or something to dread. Take time to work out what’s best for you.

A mother is entitled to full maternity leave after a neonatal death. This is 52 weeks or one year. Some of this may be paid and some may not. This depends on whether you are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay and whether the company you work for increases the amount of pay to cover the full year. Fathers are entitled to two weeks’ leave.

As the mothers’ leave is much longer and the mother has to recover physically from the birth, the information on this page is mainly aimed at mothers.

Read more about rights and benefits after losing a baby.

When to go back to work

After the birth you will need time to recover physically from the birth and the trauma of the funeral and a  post-mortem if one is needed. Grief can also cause disturbed sleep and deep exhaustion, which means that you are unlikely to feel able for work for a number of weeks at the very least.

If you had your baby prematurely, the due date might also be in the future. This is likely to cause more emotional pain when that date arrives.

It is your decision whether you choose to take the full year of leave or just some of it. For some, money pressure might mean that you feel the need to return earlier. For others going back to work may be a welcome return to routine and a distraction from the grief and pain.

Take the time you need to work out what’s best for you. Talk it over with your loved ones or get some advice from your GP.

If you are thinking of returning sooner than the time allocated, find out from your workplace what the process is for cutting it short. You may need to give them a couple of months notice.

‘I decided very soon that I needed to be away from my empty home and distracted from my thoughts. I discovered that I needed to give two months notice to return to work early but thankfully they accommodated me.’ Sarah, who lost her son Tristan

Going back slowly

Even if you are looking forward to going back to work, it may be scary when the day actually arrives. If it is possible you might want to ask for a gradual return to work to start off, with shorter days or weeks for the first couple of weeks. Or perhaps you could ask for some days working from home if that’s possible.

Employers are legally required to consider requests for part-time work, although they aren’t obliged to agree.

‘I ended up taking 8 months off instead of the full year that I had planned. I didn’t rush into the decision but just took a day at a time and slowly started to feel that I might be able to cope with it. My employers were incredibly supportive and allowed me to do a very gradual phased return which made a big difference.’ Kathryn, who lost her son Arthur

“I had days in the first few weeks that I was back that I simply could not get through the entire day.  There needs to be a great deal of flexibility to work through this adjustment.  I went home at lunch time every day the first week I was back.  Sometimes I would just leave an hour early.  Other times I would leave after being there for 45 minutes. I was appointed one contact in HR to liaise with and check in with daily, and this was a huge help.  She was supportive, kind, understanding and reassuring.”

Heather

Visiting your workplace 

Once you have a date to return to work, you might want to take a day to visit your workplace. You could get together with some trusted colleagues over coffee. It will allow you to see them and talk to them in a place where you are not surrounded by others, which can make talking about your loss harder.

Many of your colleagues will not know whether to talk to you about your loss. Before the visit, or before your first day back, you could email your colleagues, your manager or HR manager about whether you’re comfortable or not with talking about your baby. You could write about your baby, explain to them what happened and ask them to share this information with your colleagues.

Communicating in advance

You may want to tell them whether you’re happy or not talking about the baby at work. It is completely up to you how you want to manage this but telling your manager in advance might take some of the pressure off you when you return, and it might help colleagues understand your feelings.

There is a page here for friends, family and colleagues that might be helpful for you to share with your manager or HR manager so they can send it around to your colleagues before you come back to work.

Your colleagues’ reactions

It is difficult to understand the grief of losing a baby unless you’ve been through it yourself. You might discover some people know what to say and how to support you, while others are uncomfortable or deal with it by behaving as if nothing has happened.

“I had mixed reactions from colleagues. Some hugged me, told me how sorry they were and extended the offer of help any time I needed it. Some either ignored or avoided me, or spoke to me as though nothing had happened. One colleague came up to me with a big smile and said ‘welcome back!’ as though I had been off on my holidays.” Heather

“I have had a few new managers and colleagues and I find it works best to explain what happened or ask a manager to explain on my behalf so that the awful questions don't get asked, which catch me off guard.” Sarah, who lost her son Tristan

Be kind to yourself

You have been through a huge amount, don’t be surprised if you feel exhausted or struggle to concentrate at work. This is normal. Take it slowly. You may feel more sensitive than usual, or be less patient.

You also might notice that grief hits you in waves. You might be fine one day, and then another the feelings of loss and sadness overwhelm you. Don’t be afraid to take time out in these situations. Go for a walk or talk to your manager about leaving early.

“It was the simple things at work that helped. If I was having a bad day, my colleagues would take me somewhere quiet or offer to cover me so I could go home.” Shelley, who lost her son Joseph

There are likely to be triggers for your grief – these are things that happen that reminds you what has happened and makes you feel desperately sad. A colleague might visit during their maternity leave with their baby, or there may be pregnancy announcements. Be gentle on yourself - it’s natural to feel a mix of emotions at these times. Avoid these situations if you need to.

“The hard thing to explain to people is that you don't know what a trigger for your grief will be, until it happens.  I had no idea that going for a hot chocolate on my morning break would make me break down in tears, because I used to go for that break every day when I was pregnant and so seeing the barista at the coffee shop was terrifying - how do you explain to a stranger you saw every day that you lost your baby? Yet when a colleague spoke about their one-year-old daughter, I wasn't upset at all.”

Heather

Choosing not to go back to work

You may choose not to return to work at all. Take time to think carefully about this - it is hard to make any decisions about your future while you are going through a bereavement. There is no need to decide until your leave comes to an end, and it’s difficult to know how you will be feeling at that point.

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Last reviewed on October 4th, 2018. Next review date October 4th, 2021.

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