Being pregnant often feels like a job in itself. Adding a full-time job on top of pregnancy can be exhausting, but it is very doable for most healthy women and comes with many benefits. Unless your job conditions are unsafe or your obstetrician tells you otherwise, there is no reason why you shouldn’t continue working during pregnancy.
According to one study, “prenatal employment does not independently contribute to preterm births or low birth weight after accounting for characteristics of women with different employment statuses” (Women’s Health Issues, 2013). The authors of the study noted that future research looking at the causes of adverse birth outcomes should focus on the specific characteristics of pregnant women (employed or not) that render them vulnerable.
Although working while pregnant will probably not affect the health of your baby, it can have an impact on your health and well being. Here are tips to help you stay healthy and productive on the job and manage common pregnancy discomforts at the same time.
How to Stay Safe While Working During Pregnancy
Most workplace hazards can easily be avoided. Many jobs do not pose major risks to the health of your unborn child. The first step in preventing harm is to do a little research before becoming pregnant in order to find out what potential risks your job poses. Obvious things to avoid on the job are:
Physically strenuous work
Heavy lifting is not recommended during pregnancy. If your job requires prolonged standing or walking, you may want to reduce the number of hours you spend on your feet after the 28th week of pregnancy. Of course, how much work a woman can handle varies significantly from one woman to the next, and every woman responds differently to pregnancy. However, it would be wise to cut back your workload if pregnancy discomforts such as backache worsen, or if new symptoms develop.
Standing for too long
Spending too much time standing can cause problems with your feet and back. If your job requires you to stand for long periods, ask your employer whether it is possible to accommodate your need to rest your feet, and ask your doctor how long it is medically safe for you to continue working in that job.
Sitting for too long
Spending too much time sitting at a desk in front of a computer is unhealthy for anyone, whether they are pregnant or not. The problems that can result from excessive sitting range from muscle atrophy to spinal problems. If your job requires you to sit at a desk all day, try to get up from your desk occasionally and walk around, and check with your doctor to see whether he or she thinks you should continue working during pregnancy, and for how long.
For a detailed list of reproductive hazards, you can visit the Occupational Safety & Health Administration web site at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/reproductivehazards/index.html. In general, women in certain occupations—such as chemists, dry cleaners, and agricultural and horticultural workers—may be exposed to a variety of hazardous chemicals at work. Examples of common occupations and associated toxins to avoid include:
- Hair stylists: hair colorants
- Artists: lead (found in paint/battery/glass making, ceramics, pottery glazing)
- Healthcare workers: ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, chemotherapy drugs, and ionizing radiation. This is a particular concern for radiographic technicians
As your body changes during pregnancy and you retain more fluids, you become more prone to overuse injuries. Carpal tunnel syndrome from computer use is one such injury that is common during pregnancy. Excess fluid causes swelling of tissues, which can put pressure on your joints and nerves. This results in pain, tingling, and numbness in the hands. Fortunately, carpal tunnel syndrome is fairly easy to manage by making ergonomic changes and wearing a wrist brace.
Emotionally stressful work
Excessive stress can lower your productivity and impair your ability to function normally. It can make you more prone to injury and decrease your immunity, putting you at risk for infection. If leaving a stressful job is not feasible for financial or other reasons, your best option may be to learn how to deal with it. Exercise, fun activities, meditation are all good stress-reducers (and don’t forget intercourse, which is safe during pregnancy). Seeing a counselor may also help.
Exposure to ill persons
Avoiding ill persons is virtually impossible for healthcare workers, teachers, and social workers who work with young children. If you work where infection is a risk, take extra precautions beyond frequent hand washing to prevent becoming ill. Consider wearing protective gloves or a mask. If you work next to an ill person in an office, consider changing seats temporarily. And make sure your immunizations are up to date.
It is not known for certain whether prolonged repeated exposure to loud noise can increase either the chances of having a baby with hearing impairment or the risk of premature delivery, but it is best to err on the side of caution and reduce your exposure to excessive loud noise after 27 to 30 weeks of pregnancy. At that point, your baby’s ear is mature enough to respond to sound.
If you’re not sure whether your job may affect the health of your baby, discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider. Making simple modifications to your work duties may be all that is necessary to get you through your pregnancy without complications.
How to Be Comfortable While Working During Pregnancy
While work may help take your mind off some of your pregnancy discomfort, it is impossible to be completely comfortable at work while pregnant—it is work after all. However, you can do many things to alleviate pregnancy discomforts. Here are a few common pregnancy symptoms and tips on how to manage them at work:
Managing fatigue at work starts with paying attention to your workload at home. Getting enough sleep and having a healthy fitness routine that includes light aerobic activity such as walking can reduce fatigue. However, you may still have to cut back on activities so you can get more rest. At work, it is important that you:
- Don’t work overtime
- Get up and walk around whenever possible
- Eat high-iron, high-protein snacks for an energy boost
Nausea and vomiting
As you may already know, morning sickness can occur at any time of the day and may be more pronounced at work. Getting enough rest helps prevent many pregnancy symptoms, including nausea and fatigue. To ease nausea at work, you can:
- Drink plenty of water and fluids, such as ginger ale, peppermint tea, and lemon in water
- Eat frequent small, plain meals, such as crackers, Jell-O, flavored popsicles, and pretzels
- Wear a sea band
- Take vitamin B6 (50 mg per day) with your healthcare provider’s approval
- Avoid nausea triggers
Aches and pains
As your pregnancy continues, your usual activities may cause some aching, particularly around your lower abdomen and in your back, legs, and feet. Here are a few tips to ease the pain:
- Dress for comfort, and avoid restrictive clothing
- Make sure you are not too hot or too cold
- Put up your feet
- Adjust your chair or add a pillow for back support
- Take frequent breaks to stretch your legs and arms
- Avoid unnecessary lifting
- Don’t forget to empty your bladder
Although emotional ups and downs are common as pregnancy hormones surge, your random mood swings will probably not be well tolerated by your coworkers—or your partner. To keep your emotions in check:
- Avoid long stretches in between meals
- Limit sugar and caffeine intake
- Stay active
- Go outside and get some sunlight
- Learn to relax, and eliminate or modify sources of stress
When to Tell the Boss While Working During Pregnancy
Much of the discomfort you feel while working during pregnancy may be brought on by the thought of having to tell your boss that you are pregnant. When to break the news is your decision. Every woman’s work situation is different. If you work in an environment that is not family friendly, or if you fear that your boss will not respond well to your announcement, your stress level may rise, which can aggravate any pregnancy symptoms you may have.
Regardless of your work situation, it is important that every working pregnant woman know her rights according to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, and state and local laws regarding maternity leave. Asking for advice from women in your office who have already been through the process is a great place to start, and may put your mind at ease.