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'I'm a bad mum' Pregnant Presenteeism and Poor Health at Work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date02/2011
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Journal number4
Volume72
Number of pages8
Pages478-485
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

This paper contributes to research on women’s health by challenging the ‘common belief’ that pregnant employees are prone to take sick leave. Conversely, it shows how some pregnant employees are so determined to appear ‘well’ that they remain at work when they are ill. The paper coins the phrase ‘pregnant presenteeism’ to describe pregnant employees who resist taking sick leave. The paper first acknowledges previous studies which show how employers associate pregnancy with incompetence and sickness absence. It then examines why (in contrast to employers’ assumptions), some pregnant employees remain at work when they are ill. It does this through a qualitative study of 15 employed mothers in the UK, each of whom was working in a managerial/professional role at the time of her interview. Of these 15 women, three remained at work during pregnancy despite serious health problems. In order to understand the experiences of these ‘pregnant presentees’, the paper draws upon Annandale and Clark’s (1996) concept of a ‘binary opposition’ which articulates the tendency within medicine to polarize women’s and men’s health as if at opposite ends of a scale, with women’s health classified as ‘poor’ and men’s health as ‘good’. The paper argues that the conceptual principles of ‘binary opposition’ spill over into workplace contexts especially in relation to pregnancy. It then proposes that some employed pregnant women deny their own ill health due to fear of being identified with the female, ‘poor health’ end of the binary opposition scale. It articulates such denial as a potentially serious health issue for pregnant workers. The paper develops new and more explicit links between ‘socio-cultural’ feminist studies on the employed maternal body, and health research.