Work-site programs to ensure healthy pregnancies and healthy babies for employees are a growing phenomenon, according to a new report, "Promoting Prenatal Health in the Workplace," developed for the Washington Business Group on Health by Irene McKirgan, director of business health programs for the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.
According to the report, the continuing increase in the number of women working for wages and a trend toward working throughout pregnancy are responsible for the growth in company prenatal health promotion. For the company, there is self-interest in preventing illness in mother or child or birth defects that present staggering costs in medical benefits, time lost from work and the expense of replacing mothers who do not come back to work.
There are 34 million working women of childbearing age, and 80% of them will become pregnant during their working years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, the National Center for Health Statistics reports that more women than before work into their ninth month of pregnancy. Almost half of pregnant women in white-collar jobs continue working in their ninth month. (The American Medical Assn. says that in most cases pregnant employees should be able to work until the onset of labor.)
Also, fewer women are dropping out of the work force upon becoming mothers. The rate of going back to work after childbirth has doubled in less than two decades, from 24% in 1970 to almost 50% in 1985.
Yet another trend that motivates companies to institute programs that will keep mothers on the job by helping them to be healthy and have healthy babies is the increasing age at which women give birth. The second-highest birth rate is for the 30-to-34 age group, a rate that has substantially increased since the early 1980s, and births to women 35 and over have increased 45% since 1975. These women, who put off having children until they completed their educations and became established in their careers--and have key managerial jobs in increasing numbers--are valuable to their companies and expensive to replace.
A representative company prenatal program cited in the report is that of Franklin Life Insurance Co., which has about 1,200 female employees in its home office in Springfield, Ill. The company determined that about 50 of them, or 4%, were pregnant at any given time, and that the 4% of employees represented 30% of the company's disability recipients. Employees were required to go on unpaid leave two months before delivery.
The company changed that policy, allowing women to work until delivery, if their doctors permitted, and paid leave is now given.
In looking into its maternity policies, the company also discovered that many pregnant employees were ill-informed about normal symptoms of pregnancy. An education program was initiated covering nutrition, development of the fetus, the physical and psychological changes that occur in the mother, substance abuse, the delivery process, community resources for new mothers and company benefits. Each pregnant employee also receives blood pressure and weight checks and the opportunity to discuss any questions she might have with the company nurse.
The company said the program noticeably improved morale and cut the absence rate, which it attributed to "healthier mothers producing healthier children, thus requiring less time off."
Other typical company programs include classes on birth defects and health hazards to the unborn at Olin Corp. in Stamford, Conn. At PPG Industries in Torrance, the report said, lunchtime prenatal information seminars were instituted in 1985, and prospective fathers are among those who have attended.
The program at Olin, called "Birth Defects: A Review of Nongenetic Causes" and conducted by the March of Dimes, was so popular with employees that additional sessions were added on genetic counseling and congenital defects. The sessions attracted not only many non-pregnant women of childbearing age, but also prospective fathers and prospective grandparents. The company also offers a gynecological clinic four times a year.
Some companies offer special stop-smoking classes for employees who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant. Some offer information on how to find and evaluate child care. Some even offer work-site education to parents of preteen and teen-age children to help prevent teen pregnancy--a problem that has a substantial impact on an employer's health benefit costs when the pregnant teen is the dependent of a covered employee.
According to the March of Dimes, birth defects are the nation's No. 1 child health problem, afflicting 250,000 infants each year--or one in 14 babies. Informational programs at work about healthy pregnancy can reduce the risk of preventable birth defects and low birth weight. Among the preventable dangers to the unborn are drugs including some prescription drugs, alcohol and smoking.