12/13/2012 06:14 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2012

Pregnancy Leave: Study Suggests Flexible Schedules Could Be Better For Bottom Line

Pregnant women face numerous challenges at work -- discrimination in hiring and the absence of federally mandated maternity leave, to name two. However, one of the issues they deal with gets much less press than the others: pregnancy-related sick leave. A recent study suggests that flexible schedules might reduce the amount of time pregnant women take off due to pregnancy-related illness.

The research, conducted by the Division of Psychiatry at Norway's Stavanger University Hospital and published in the November 2012 issue of BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and examined the relationship between the number of sick days pregnant women take and their work schedules. The findings, summarized in a press release, indicated that women working for employers who granted them greater flexibility took fewer sick days. The results seemed to support the idea that flexible schedules make pregnant workers more, not less, productive while enabling them to better attend to their prenatal health.

The researchers tracked 2,918 pregnant working women via questionnaires distributed at weeks 17 and 32 in the women's pregnancies. They found that 75 percent went on sick leave at some point in their pregnancy and that the duration of work missed ranged from one week to 40 weeks with an average of eight weeks. Most notably, the researchers found that the 60 percent of women who cited flexible working environments took on average seven fewer sick days.

Thirty-five percent of women cited fatigue and problems with sleep as their main reason for taking time off, followed 32 percent with pelvic girdle pain -- pain centered in the lower abdomen and back -- and 23 percent with nausea or vomiting.

Granted, this study was conducted in Scandinavia, a region famous for its ample parental leave, where companies are also required to provide generous compensation for sick days. (The U.S. Federal Government, in comparison, does not force companies to provide any paid sick leave to employees.) However, John Thorp, BJOG Deputy-Editor-in-Chief, argued in a press release that "the factors that affect pregnant women are universal" and that the study "shows a clear link between working conditions and the duration of sick leave, which highlights the potential benefits for employers to have a support system in place."

Dr. Signe Dorheim, who co-authored the study with Bjorn Bjortvatn and Malin Eberhard-Gran, noted that flexible work schedules make sense for most women with health conditions. While nausea and pelvic girdle pain are pretty inextricably linked to pregnancy, participants' fatigue could also have been tied to excessive stress at work. A flexible schedule would give women more opportunities to manage that fatigue, making them more productive in the long run. “Women who suffer from work-related fatigue, such as insomnia, are likely to require more time off" in a traditionally structured work week, Dr. Dorheim told Yahoo Lifestyle UK.

The findings appear to contradict the idea that accommodating the needs of pregnant women is bad for business and could provide an incentive for employers to offer more flexible schedules to pregnant employees.