Working during Pregnancy: A Different Type of Labor

By Joanne Stone, Keith Eddleman, Mary Duenwald

Over the last half-century, the number of women who work outside the home has steadily increased. More than 75 percent of pregnant women work during the third trimester, and more than half work up to a few weeks of delivery.

Many women find that working until the end of pregnancy keeps them happy and occupied and helps them not to focus on the discomforts. In addition, many women don’t have a choice — they may be the main income providers for their families and their careers are top priority. Although most of the time working throughout pregnancy doesn’t cause any problems for the baby, there can be some exceptions.

Stress in pregnancy, whether related to work or to home situations, isn’t well-studied. Some doctors believe that very high levels of stress may increase the risk of developing preeclampsia or preterm labor, although no study has confirmed this risk.

Unusual stress may increase your risk of post-partum depression. Too much stress obviously isn’t good for anyone. Do whatever you can to decrease the stress in your life and talk with your practitioner if you find you’re becoming persistently blue or anxious.

Considering occupational hazards

Maybe your job requires minimal standing or walking, allows you to work regular hours, and never stresses you out. But if you’re like most folks, read on.

Occupations that are physically demanding can be problematic. Most jobs fall somewhere in between sedentary and demanding, but even then the amount of stress varies according to the individual. If your pregnancy proceeds without complications, you probably can continue to work right up until delivery.

However, some complications that may arise during pregnancy may make reducing your workload or stopping work altogether advisable. For example, if you develop preterm labor, your practitioner will most likely advise you to stop working. Other conditions that may warrant a reduction in physical activity are hypertension or problems with the baby’s growth.

If you work at a computer terminal, you may wonder whether you’re being exposed to anything harmful. But you have no need to worry — no evidence suggests that the electromagnetic fields that computer terminals emit are a problem.

Some studies suggest that women who have jobs associated with physically demanding responsibilities, such as heavy lifting, manual labor, or significant physical exertion, may be at a slightly higher risk of preterm birth, high blood pressure, preeclampsia, or small-for-gestational-age babies.

On the other hand, long working hours haven’t been found to increase the chances for premature delivery. Other studies have also shown that jobs in which prolonged standing is required (more than eight hours a day) were associated with a greater chance for back and foot pain, circulatory problems, and a slightly increased risk of preterm birth.

The good news: The use of support hose, although not particularly attractive, is helpful in decreasing varicose veins.

Remember that your health and your baby’s health are the highest priority. Don’t feel you’re a wimp because you have to attend to your pregnancy. Some women believe that if they complain about certain symptoms or take time out from a busy schedule to eat or go to the restroom, they will garner the disapproval of their superiors at work.

Don’t let yourself feel guilty about your special needs during this time, and don’t let work cause you to ignore any unusual symptoms. If you need time off to deal with complications, take it, and don’t feel bad about it. People who have never been pregnant don’t completely understand the physical strains you’re dealing with.

Understanding pregnancy and the law

Take the time to understand your rights as they pertain to pregnancy. In the United States, an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, called The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, requires pregnant women to be treated in a manner equal to all employees or applicants.

According to this act, employers can’t refuse to hire a woman because of her pregnancy-related condition, as long as she’s capable of performing the job’s major functions. If an employee is temporarily unable to carry out her job due to the pregnancy, the employer must treat her the same as any other temporarily disabled employee, taking such actions as providing alternative tasks, disability leave, or leave without pay.

A disability may arise due to the pregnancy itself, such as significant nausea and vomiting. A disability may also occur due to complications of pregnancy, such as bleeding, preterm labor, or high blood pressure, or may occur due to hazardous job exposures. If your healthcare provider decides that your pregnancy is disabling, you can ask that she send a letter to your employer, verifying your disability.

In the U.S., most maternity leaves are from 6–8 weeks, although you are entitled to a 12-week leave in a one-year period under the Family and Medical Leave Act, although this may not be a paid leave.

Health insurance provided by an employer should cover expenses for pregnancy-related conditions in a way that’s similar to its coverage of other medical conditions, as long as obstetric services are covered. Health insurers are prohibited by law from considering pregnancy a preexisting condition, which means you cannot be denied coverage when you go from one job to another and switch health plans.