Returning to work after a stillbirth

Going back to work after losing a baby can be a welcome return to routine for some, and a terrifying prospect for others. Take time to work out what’s best for you.

A mother is entitled to take her maternity leave in full after a stillbirth. This is 52 weeks or one year. Some of this may be paid and some may not be, depending on whether you are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay and whether the organisation you work for increases the amount of pay to cover the full year. Fathers are entitled to two weeks’ leave.

There is advice here for managers and colleagues of mothers who have had a stillbirth.

As mothers’ leave is much longer and the situation can be more complex, the information on this page is mainly aimed at mothers.

When to return to work after a stillbirth?

After the birth you will need time to recover physically from the birth and the trauma of the funeral, possible post-mortem and so on. Grief also causes physical 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 early, the due date might be as much as 16 weeks away and it is likely to cause more emotional pain when that date arrives, so keep this in mind too.

It is your decision whether you choose to take all the leave, or just some of it. For some, the decision to return early may be dictated by practicalities or financial pressures, for others it may be a welcome return to routin.

It’s important to take some time 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 at 38 weeks  (Read Sarah's story here)

‘After Christmas I decided it was time for me to return to work. I’d been off for three months but it just didn’t seem right for me to be on maternity leave with no baby.’ Shelley, who lost her son Joseph at 37 weeks

Phased return to work

Even if you have made the decision to return earlier yourself, it may be a terrifying prospect when the day actually arrives. For many parents, it can be a good idea to organise a gradual return to work if that is possible, starting with shorter days or weeks. Or perhaps some days working from home, if that’s possible.

Employers are legally required to consider requests for part-time, 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 at 36 weeks

'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, who lost her daughter Chloe at 40 weeks (Read Heather’s story here)

Visiting your workplace and communicating before you go back

Once you have agreed a date to return to work, you might want to organise a visit to your workplace. You could get together with some trusted colleagues over coffee informally. It will allow you to see them and talk to them in a neutral environment where you are not surrounded by others, which can be harder.

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.

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 discussing it via email, in advance, might take some of the pressure off you and help colleagues understand your feelings. Click here for a page for colleagues that might be helpful to share.

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.

'At first being back was scary as I had been in my house and mostly in my room for two and a half months...I didn’t have to look presentable or worry that my eyes were swollen from crying all day long. But now I was back at work and had to keep it together...as weeks went by it got better and I got more comfortable with what happened without breaking down' Reproduced with permission from ‘Life After Stillbirth’ by Sarah Smith

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 at 37 weeks

There are likely to be triggers too. A colleague might visit during their maternity leave, or there may be pregnancy announcements. Be gentle on yourself - it’s natural to feel a mix of emotions at these times.

'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, who lost her daughter Chloe at 40 weeks (Read Heather’s story here)

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, who lost her daughter Chloe at 40 weeks (Read Heather’s story here)

If you are struggling to cope with other people’s reactions, have a look at our page ‘Dealing with other people.’

'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 at 38 weeks  (Read Sarah's story here)

Choosing not to return

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.

'I took my years maternity and resigned when that finished. I didn’t feel strong enough to go back to work, or mentally ready. I did start going for interviews after my son’s birthday but again didn’t feel ready. I’ve now been offered a job and I’m really excited by it which is the first time I’ve felt like this in a very long time' Reproduced with permission from ‘Life After Stillbirth’ by Sarah Smith

Read more about stillbirth

Last reviewed on September 8th, 2017. Next review date September 8th, 2020.

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