managing an employee with “pregnancy brain”

A reader writes:

Thanks so much for the site! It’s been invaluable to me as I’ve started in a managerial role. I’ve had a situation come up recently that I’ve seen alluded to in some older comment threads, as well as in your advice to a letter-writer wondering if she should mention “mommy brain” in interviews, but I wonder if you have any specific guidance or scripts here.

My lead administrative assistant, who is normally fantastic, is pregnant. In the past few weeks, she has made some very significant errors, two of which in particular have ended up causing a good bit of drama, increasing workload for others in my department, and also costing our organization a not-insignificant chunk of money. She has been profusely apologetic about these errors, and blamed them on her “pregnancy brain.”

I know this is a real physiological thing! But I also need her to be more careful about detail work. I’ve talked with her about slowing down and taking time to double-check the projects she’s working on, but things are still slipping through the cracks.

I obviously need to have another talk with her, but I’m concerned about how to frame that conversation. That is, while she’s blaming her issues on “pregnancy brain,” I am deeply uncomfortable doing so myself (and in fact suspect it might be actively discriminatory!). Especially as a female supervisor, I have no wish to attribute performance issues to something that is still, unfortunately, used to discriminate against women in the workforce, or to pathologize pregnancy. By the same token, I feel like it might be important to mentor her around using such language to explain performance issues, but I’m not sure if that’s even appropriate for me to do, especially when there really is a physiological issue here. Do you have any advice for 1) being supportive but firm in talking with her about these things; 2) staying on the right side of discrimination issues when I do?

I’d look at this the same way you would if she were making errors due to, say, being really tired because of a new medication or life changes. The fatigue would be a legitimate thing, you’d be sympathetic to the cause, you’d know that it was temporary — and you’d still need her to slow down and double check her work.

So that could mean saying something like this: “I know you’ve got a lot going on right now and you’ve been open about how you think the pregnancy may be affecting your work. I’m very sympathetic to that and I want you to feel supported here. At the same time, though, things are still slipping through the cracks since we talked. I want to reiterate that if you feel less than 100%, it’s really important that you slow down and double-check your work. That might mean that you’re working at a slower pace than your normal one for a while — and that’s okay if it’s what you need right now to avoid mistakes. Do you think slowing down and being very deliberate about checking your work will help? And are there other things that you think would help right now?”

Don’t be afraid to talk specifics, like particular deadlines that you might need to move or other nitty-gritty details of how to make this work during this temporary period. (Sometimes managers hesitate to do that because it feels too hand-holdy, but sometimes it’s exactly what you should be doing when a good employee is having a problem like this.)

Also, note that this language doesn’t opine on pregnancy brain or even reference it. It just acknowledges that she’s said that her pregnancy feels like a factor in her ability to be 100% right now.

I don’t know that I’d suggest she not use “pregnancy brain” to describe what’s happening. Since it’s real, it feels weirdly silencing to tell her not to say it — almost like telling someone going through chemo not to acknowledge that they’re tired. We shouldn’t have to pretend those things aren’t real. But you’re certainly right about how this kind of thing has been used to discriminate against women, and she may be inadvertently undermining herself with people who aren’t clued in about it.

If she were talking about it in a way that sounded like an excuse — like absolving herself of any responsibility for the mistakes or acting as if there’s nothing she can do to control the mistakes going forward — that would worry me more. Or if it were coming up daily, that would make me more inclined to want to mention it to her — not in a “never say this again” way, but more like “hey, just FYI, I know that pregnancy brain is a real thing, but there are still people who use it to discount pregnant women so if you’re not already factoring that into your thinking about when you mention it, it might make sense to.” (Although it’s annoying that this is a thing and I feel gross writing it.)

But if it’s only coming up occasionally and in the context of sharing real information about what’s going on with her, I’d worry less about the wording and instead just keep your focus on what you and she can do to manage around it for the next however many months.

{ 272 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago*

    It seems like the simplest solution here would be to have someone QA her work for a while.

    1. The Senior Wrangler*

      Cam down here to say this! Just an “Any chance you could proofread this for me quickly when you have a sec?” might help.

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Makes perfect sense.

      I went through a bout of punishingly bad insomnia at my last job; when I sat down with my manager, the discussion moved in the direction that my speed had slowed to mud both because I was exhausted and trying to push thoughts through a haze, and because I knew I was trying to push through haze so I was double- and triple-checking my work (at that same painfully slow speed). It murdered my productivity.

      So we had someone else do QA for me on all cases (I was a payment dispute analyst) over a certain dollar threshold. I worked at my slow-but-steady pace and didn’t worry about QA, and the person QAing me was able to do so much faster than I was.

      1. Ashley*

        Yes to a QA system temporarily. I know days where I am not at full capacity it is so much easier if someone double checks me on anything important and head off problems.

        1. Mildred*

          And it’s such a relief to know that someone else has responsibility for doing the final QA. Otherwise, I would be stressed out by checking and checking and still not being sure I caught everything.

    3. Specialk9*

      More broadly, what helped me in my nightmare pregnancy was when I finally cried Uncle and found alternative ways of doing things. I’m usually such a driven high performer and it was really hard to admit that I couldn’t just work harder and get through it. I just couldn’t. I had to find ways to relieve the pressure at home and at work.

      Grocery delivery was magic, like utter magic. We worked with the landlord to get a washer/dryer on our floor rather than the basement. I worked from home more. I put a note in every meeting invite asking people not to bring coffee to the meeting due to morning sickness.

      It made for fewer nights bawling with utter exhaustion, and made just a little give in the day.

  2. Anonymous Poster*

    It’s simply a work related impact of a life circumstance. Like no one would expect a person to be working at 100% capacity if they lost a loved one, were recovering from major surgery, or in the middle of transitioning a parent into an assisted living facility. You want to be sympathetic, which you are doing, and that’s great. But it sounds like your employee expects it’s somehow a demotion or a problem that you’re offloading her while she’s working through her pregnancy. Make sure it’s clear to her that this isn’t the case – you want her to stay! You also want to help her through this life circumstance and make sure the business runs smoothly.

    I think that’s the real root of the problem, that the employee really wants to keep going at 100%, when that’s simply not possible. You’re trying to account for that with the business needs and balance that, and so if you think this may be in play, make sure to lay out your priorities: You want to retain her because she’s been a great employee, and you need to make sure the business needs are being met. You have no interest in demoting or permanently taking things away, if she needs offloading, nor are you trying to take away her responsibilities. You’re trying to make sure the work gets done while making sure to take into account her life changes. That’s all.

    Best of luck.

    1. Working Mama*

      Speaking as someone who’s currently pregnant with my second, and who worked literally until my water broke in the office with my first — there’s a really, really, REALLY strong pressure to keep working at 100% straight up until the moment you’re on leave, lest you basically be a disappointment for the entire trend of mothers being able to remain in the workplace. I had pretty strong shame around needing to take it easy when I was 38 weeks along and never sleeping and dealing with all of the physical and mental stressors that put on my body, and so I’m not surprised the employee is trying not to let it get in her way. There are a lot of people and places that basically *don’t* treat pregnancy as a legitimate challenge, or that don’t treat pregnant persons as legitimate people and employees, and I don’t blame the employee for on some level acting that way.

      That said in this case she’s lucky to have an understanding and non-hostile manager, so I hope after a good talk they can sort out a way for her to actually slow down and accept the temporary changes.

      1. Arya Parya*

        I’m currently 7 months pregnant and couldn’t agree more. I also really want to keep going at my normal speed, but finding it more difficult every day. Luckily my manager has been really understanding. Last week he sent me home at about 3 pm, because I had to start at 5:45 AM that morning. He said I’d done enough and should get some rest.
        So OP, please keep being as understanding as you have been so far. I’m finding it hard to admit to myself (let alone others) I can’t do everything at my usual level anymore and the same might go for your employee.

    2. Snark*

      This is the big problem my wife had when she was pregnant – she just kept trying to crank it as hard as she always did, and it just wasn’t working. It really sounds like the employee needs to slow it WAY down and build in some QA time, instead of trying to work at her usual pace.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        This makes sense–it’s not just being tired, but more distracted even when rested. And slowing down works better than trying to open negotiations with the fetus about being less demanding. (I learned to carefully check my grocery cart and be sure that I remembered selecting each of the things in it, so I didn’t wind up halfway across the store and THEN think “Why are there baby artichokes in here? And okra?”)

    3. Meg Murry*

      Offloading some of her duties can also be legitimately explained as trying to cross train others while she is still in the office so that they are able to handle those tasks/projects when the employee is out on leave.

      1. k.k*

        That’s a great way of framing it. It doesn’t sound like she’s being punished or demoted at all, and it legitimately serves a business purpose. It seems like many offices are under prepared when someone goes on maternity leave. Training others on the duties not will assure that no one feels the need to bother her while she’s out, and she doesn’t have to worry about returning to a big mess.

        1. Specialk9*

          Holy crap, we only had 8 months to make a plan for you being gone for a month and a half (US)/year (Canada)! What will we do?! Lol.

      2. BeezLouise*

        Yes! I recently had my second child, and I’m usually a pretty good performer, but I just couldn’t keep up the level of things I was supposed to be doing. I actually was hospitalized multiple times during the pregnancy for doing too much, and my work just kept piling more on me.

        I tried to offload some of my stuff to other people who would be handling it when I was out, and then got majorly penalized for it in my annual review (as it, legitimately got “does not meet expectations” including for an event that literally happened while I was on maternity leave that my boss says didn’t go well–even though my coworkers disagree–and for what my boss said were small mistakes on otherwise good work. She didn’t bring any of those mistakes up to me when they happened, so I can’t know for sure, but I know some of that was from pregnancy brain stuff and trying to keep doing 100% of things I was doing before.

        I quit that job a month after I came back from mat leave because of a lot of those issues, and now I’m rocking it somewhere else, even with an infant at home. I didn’t want special accommodations because I was pregnant, I just wanted to be treated like anyone else who was going through something and would be out for an extended period of time.

        1. Specialk9*

          That sounds like textbook gender discrimination. I’m so glad you found another place, and that you’re rocking it.

    4. Anon attorney*

      I think this is a good framing. I’ve never been pregnant, but I suffered (and still do sometimes) from widow brain, which causes similar lapses in memory and concentration. Someone’s performance can be affected by all sorts of issues outside of work – the point is not to eliminate that but to put in place appropriate QA and support systems and take a person centered management approach to each individual.

    5. What's with today, today?*

      Many jobs do pressure employees to work at 100% through pregnancy. I worked a 16-hour shift (news coverage, election night 2012) at 8 months pregnant, and my water broke the next day, 5 weeks early. My doctor told me my water breaking was directly related to the marathon shift the day before. I’m the lead personality, I was expected to be there the whole time(and I actually ended up leaving earlier than most of my team). It’s just reality for pregnant women.

  3. TaxAnon*

    Man, the employee really has my sympathy. I once sent out an entire batch of checks unsigned due to pregnancy.

    Anyway, I love Alison’s advice and I think it’s spot on.

    1. Future Homesteader*

      Currently triple-checking for some of my work for this exact reason. This question (and Alison’s advice) feels both unnerving and reassuring to me at the same time

    2. CanadianEngineerLibrarian*

      I ran an entire load of laundry without putting the clothes in the machine.

      1. chocoholic*

        Oh, man, I’ve totally done this and I could not even blame pregnancy brain. I did, however, while pregnant, did something with the setup of peoples’ disability deductions. The details elude me now, but I remember finding it and having to go to my boss. Luckily it did not affect peoples taxes, which it could have. Pshew! :o

      2. BeautifulVoid*

        I decided to wash our bedding one day, and only the top sheet and half the pillowcases made it into the washer. I’d left everything else on the bed/other pillows.

      3. Beatrice*

        In a recent bout of extreme sleep deprivation, I put my coat, hat, gloves, and boots on and put the harness and leash on my dog to take him for a quick walk, but neglected to actually hold the leash in my hand while I opened the door. My escape artist dog gleefully eluded capture (and delayed my much-needed nap) for an hour.

    3. Geillis D*

      My husband is most definitely not pregnant and still neatly put his iPad in the dishwasher. Luckily he caught it before starting the machine.

  4. Anonymeuse*

    LW: I know you’re worried that calling it “pregnancy brain” could be discriminatory, but if you have reason to think it’s linked to her pregnancy (i.e., she’s otherwise a good employee and this is a change in her work behaviour, plus she’s come out and said so), it’s also possibly discriminatory to not take that into account. Which doesn’t mean you can’t address the problem, but if you phrase it in a way that’s understanding and sensitive, it could actually be less discriminatory for you to partially attribute the problems to her pregnancy than to make it sound like her pregnancy is irrelevant to the discussion.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      This. Treat it like a temporary accommodation (don’t impose it without discussing it, though!), get her some short-term support (you’ll need it, anyway, when she’s in parental leave), and build in additional QA. It’s a support system, not a punishment or reflection on her competence.

      1. LouiseM*

        Exactly this. People have temporary health problems that affect their work all the time. This one just happens to be for a “happy” reason.

        1. Decima Dewey*

          This. I’m diabetic. When my blood sugars are out of whack, I cannot think straight. The answer is generally either to get some exercise if my sugars are high or take glucose tablets if they’re low. Once my sugars are at an acceptable level, I can go back to what I was doing.

          1. Specialk9*

            I didn’t know that exercise was a solution for high sugar. Learned something new.

    2. Ice and Indigo*

      Completely agree. Speaking as one who’s had ‘baby brain’, asking me to ‘be more careful’ during that time without acknowledging that that there was something biochemical going on would have felt a lot more discriminatory – it would feel like blaming me and refusing to acknowledge I was dealing with something.

      Something that, in my case, meant that I’d have conversations like this:

      Me: Hello, Office Ltd, who’s calling please?

      Caller: Person McPerson.

      Me: And who would you like to speak to?

      Caller: Employee Employeeson.

      Me: And … er … can you just tell me your name again?

      And if I was lucky, I’d have remembered to write down who they were calling so I wouldn’t have to ask that again too, but since they spoke faster than I could write, well, it was not a patient environment and I’m glad I was only temping. I got snarled at quite a bit, and it was not nice.

      It’s not calling women stupid to say that the massive biological disruption that is pregnancy can have an effect! People live in bodies. If anything, it’s a sign that women are impressive that we get as much done while pregnant as we do.

      As well as asking her to double check, I’d ask her to write everything down, and be prepared to talk more slowly when giving her instructions so she has time to take notes. It can be amazingly difficult to keep track when you’ve got pregnancy brain – I literally had trouble walking in a straight line – so support her set up a method of keeping a record of everything she can check in her own time.

  5. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    The best thing I can say is to talk with her about using the “pregnancy brain” excuse as a separate conversation from the actual coaching regarding her errors. You do want it to be really clear that you’re not disciplining her for pregnancy, or for using pregnancy as an explanation for the sudden drop in her work quality.

    One way I might present it, if it were you, is to give her a blanket category – “stuff my body is doing.” That encompasses pregnancy, the side effects of medications or med changes, pure drop-dead exhaustion, or anything else that is not really voluntary on her part and touches on the border of medical or disability issues. Things in that category aren’t reflective of her being a willingly bad worker, but they are things she will need to adjust her work habits around.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Yeah separating the two things could be a good plan for OP. Deal with the mistakes using Alison’s suggestions and maybe a QA-QC protocol; and then separately, if you hear the employee using language that’s making you flinch in some other context, like in the lunchroom or something, you might be able to drop a quiet word that would satisfy your consciousness not be connected with the mistakes.

  6. Friday*

    I mitigated most of my pregnancy brain issues at work by doing the following:

    1. Get as much sleep as humanly possible (although it’s hard when preg)
    2. LISTS. To-do lists all over the place, taking time to combine and rewrite lists, always keeping the list close by and referencing it frequently, etc. If I didn’t write it down, I would NOT remember to do it.
    3. Slow down – I like to work fast as well but I know that dumb mistakes slip by me when I’m not at my best and slowing myself down is the best way to stop most of those.
    4. Self-check system. I set a report aside and revisit it with fresh eyes before sending on to anyone else. I build math checks in my spreadsheets, as many as I can think of. And I write out procedures for tasks I do multiple times just to make sure I don’t miss a step.
    5. Eat all the carbs. Preggo brains like carbs.

    1. JBPL*

      Seconded! I’m most of the way through my second pregnancy, and I don’t know what I’d do without a paper calendar and lists everywhere. Normally, I can manage on Google Calendar and a few notes here and there, but I’ve found that the most effective way to keep things from slipping through the cracks is writing it down physically. Even processes and tasks that are a normal part of my work week are on the list. I have a trusted coworker that reads pretty much everything that comes out of my office before it’s final.

      Something else I’ve really come to appreciate is my mid-day walk. It’s cold outside right now, but I still make myself get up and move part of the way through the day. Getting away from my desk (even for 10 minutes) helps clear my head, and I come back ready to tackle the next list or fix the thing I realized I screwed up.

      Also, carbs.

      1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

        Thirded! Self-check strategies can mitigate some things, but so can self-care strategies, whether that’s building in regular breaks, or bringing in something carb-y that can help combat brain fog.

    2. KitKat*

      Reading these comments, I wonder the employee might benefit from some of the same resources and strategies that many people with ADHD and related disorders use to manage tasks, since it sounds like “pregnancy brain” may affect executive function in similar ways.

      For example, I’ve particularly liked this one: and there’s more and more out there on how to keep yourself on track!

      1. Future Homesteader*

        I was just thinking this! As someone with ADHD who is currently pregnant, Alison’s strategies sounded awfully familiar…I’m clearly just going to have to double-down.

      2. Quoth the Raven*

        Not pregnant but I do have ADHD and I’m trying to get my degree thesis written — thanks!

    3. Cols*

      I was actually the least dumb during my gestational diabetic pregnancy where I had to limit carbs! And I already had a couple of toddlers at home, so I should have been basically non-functional.

      (As a dyed-in-the-wool carb lover, I can assure you this was more shocking to me than you can imagine.)

    4. Emily*

      Agree with the lists – I didn’t have issues much during pregnancy, but “Baby Brain” hit me hard after my first was born (going back to work when she was 5 weeks probably didn’t help, either – I cringe in retrospect). I went from being someone who naturally remembered everything to not remembering ANYTHING. I had to write EVERYTHING down. The simplest solution for me was to keep a little notebook with me and make one huge list of everything I either needed to do or to remember. Then I would go through from the front and look at everything that wasn’t crossed off, multiple times per day.

      I remember having a phone conversion with my boss once. I got off the phone and knew I had an action item, but I literally could not remember ANY details about the conversation (and normally I could have repeated it back almost verbatim). Fortunately she was very understanding when I sheepishly called her right back!

      1. SpaceNovice*

        What Emily is talking about is basically a bullet list; they’re incredibly effective. There are examples online, but they basically boil down to making a bulleted list of todos and crossing them off when they’re done. OP’s employee has a lot more on her mind than usual, so even if she doesn’t have “pregnancy brain”, she has less mental bandwidth. (Suddenly you have to think about preparing the nursery, doctor appointments, getting baby items, doctor appointments, throwing a baby shower, doctor appointments, finances, and doctor appointments.)

        Additionally, I might suggest to the OP’s employee that she starts keeping track of dates outside of her brain if she doesn’t already. Offload as much memory work as possible onto paper so that she has less to juggle. Appointments should be added immediately and the list reviewed at the start of the week. Maybe add relevant appointments to the bullet lists as they become todo items.

        Lastly: congratulations and good luck to OP’s employee!

    5. Thlayli*

      This. I didn’t have “pregnancy brain” per se, but I’ve had plenty of “sleep deprivation brain”. Work slowly and methodically, make a million lists and use a system to help you keep track of them. The bullet journal system is perfect for this as it helps you move things around through a bunch of to-do lists – one for each project, each week etc, whatever way makes sense. I’m talking about the actual system here, not the fancy drawings etc that some people like to decorate their bullet journals with.
      Plus take loads of notes when talking to her boss about stuff that needs to be done- and it’s also good to email a quick 2-line summary back to boss after the meeting to ensure you are both on the same page.

      Basically, acknowledge the problem exists, regardless of cause, and come up with systems to help with it.

    6. Epsilon Delta*

      Are those the symptoms of pregnancy brain? God I think I’ve had that all my life!

  7. Snark*

    I am trying to phrase this very carefully, but something about blaming it on pregnancy brain is rubbing me the wrong way. Not in the sense that I think prengancy brain is bullshit or anything, because I’ve seen it happen and I know it’s a real thing! But in the sense that it feels a little like an excuse – or worse, a discussion-terminating cliche. Can’t help it, it’s pregnancy brain! But I’m not sure why I’m getting that sense from the OP’s letter.

    1. Lynca*

      I think because people throw it out so casually. They assume everyone understands what’s going on.

      I’m pregnant and I am very careful not to go straight to “herp derp baby brain.” I tend to try to articulate what I actually think caused the problem. I rushed and didn’t double check, didn’t make notes, etc. Even though I feel very herp derp at the moment.

      1. Naptime Enthusiast*

        The first time I heard it, I was a college student at a leadership conference and the (very visibly pregnant) speaker lost her train of thought for a second and laughed “oh hahaha, baby brain again!” It put me off and the phrase has rubbed me the wrong way since, even though I’ve now know that it is a real physiological issue.

        I think you have it right that while the ultimate root cause is pregnancy, what actually happened is something wasn’t checked thoroughly and that can happen to anyone.

        1. Specialk9*

          I don’t know, that basically sounds like blaming someone for having an actual quantifiable physiological condition.

          It’s especially crappy given that the male part of that fertilized egg (partner or donor) doesn’t have to do any of the body-destroying gestating and doesn’t have a career impact beyond sleeplessness (if living with the baby). It feels problematic.

    2. Lil Fidget*

      There’s something about offering an external excuse and not focusing on the problem, whatever the excuse is. I have never made a mistake that I didn’t blame on some external factor at first, whether that was a database being out of date, a missed email, too much workload, or whatever. But then I had to stop, realize that I was part of the problem, and figure out how I was going to address my part of it. It sounds like this employee isn’t quite there yet.

      1. Rat in the Sugar*

        Yeah, I think a lot of us are getting that impression because OP doesn’t go into detail about what the employee is doing to address the issue, which makes it seem like she (employee) is offering it as an excuse and not focusing on solutions.

        I think that could be the case, or it could just be that OP didn’t go into much detail and the employee is actually very focused on solving the problem but isn’t successful.

        1. Thlayli*

          Yes the letter makes it sound like the employee isn’t doing anything at all to try to solve it. “Oops, cost the company a lot of money. Oh well pregnancy brain lol.”

          That may not be the reality – or it might be (in which case the issue is more the “oh well” attitude than the actual pregnancy brain).

    3. hbc*

      Yeah, it depends on whether it’s offered as a reason or an excuse. “Oh, shoot, that never would have happened without pregnancy brain, let me put into place some stuff to make sure that doesn’t happen again” versus “Welp, pregnancy brain, that’ll happen.”

        1. SarahJ*

          Per Allison:
          “If she were talking about it in a way that sounded like an excuse — like absolving herself of any responsibility for the mistakes or acting as if there’s nothing she can do to control the mistakes going forward — that would worry me more. ”
          I agree with Allison that this seems like it’s not the case here, so we can move on from this speculation.

          1. Bette*

            I think people can continue to ruminate on a topic until Alison tells them not to. It’s not your site so it seems pretty authoritarian to tell people to “move on.”

      1. OP*

        OP here: I think she’s currently hovering somewhere between these two responses, so in my followup convo (using Alison’s awesome script!) I’ll make sure that I’m nudging her toward the former.

    4. LSP*

      I think is the employee wasn’t apologetic in the way OP describes, I might agree that it could easily be used as an excuse. However, since OP has indicated that her employee is trying to improve, but is just not quite getting there, I think we’re better off taking her at her word that this is a stellar employee who is dealing with a difficult medical issue right now.

        1. LouiseM*

          Dude…this is absurdly rude. It’s really out of line to tell someone not to post or not to agree with another commenter. You need to calm down a bit.

          1. Snark*

            I meant it more in the sense that I sincerely wish you’d posted something like what LSP did, instead of the needlessly rude tone you habitually take with me.

    5. LouiseM*

      Can we take the OP at her word, please? She says this is a fantastic employee who apologized profusely for the mistakes and gave “pregnancy brain” as the reason. If she’s normally fantastic then that probably is the reason. If OP isn’t uncomfortable with the pregnancy brain excuse, why should you be?

      1. Yolo*

        Yes thank you! This letter is not a transcript of every conversation between OP and the individual. Let’s not go reading tone and/or motivation into the individual’s behaviors. “Apologize profusely” to me sounds like the employee didn’t exactly brush it off.

      2. Jesmlet*

        Okay but even if that is the reason, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed. If I knew I’d be more prone to forgetting things and making mistakes for 9 months, I wouldn’t just apologize and change nothing about my process.

        1. LouiseM*

          Where do you see that the employee is changing nothing? The OP is trying to talk to her about strategies to improve (which is her job as a manager). People are really reading a lot of bad faith into this pregnant employee…

          1. Jesmlet*

            Here: “I’ve talked with her about slowing down and taking time to double-check the projects she’s working on, but things are still slipping through the cracks.

            1. Delphine*

              That suggests she *has* changed things in her process, but it hasn’t been enough yet…

              1. Jesmlet*

                Eh, it more suggests that it’s been discussed. It doesn’t indicate any kind of progress. I’ll concede that there’s nothing concrete in either direction though

                1. Nita*

                  OP – is there a specific type of task she’s flubbing? For me, the problem seems to be lists. If there’s a list of five things to bring to a meeting, I have to triple-check I haven’t left one of them on my desk. If there’s a list of several people to invite to a conference call, I have to check I haven’t left one of them out. If she can identify a category of things that are tripping her up, she may know what to guard against.

                  Also, as much paper/electronic trail as possible may help… if she’s forgetting that an important client called, or writing down the message but forgetting to inform the right person, having a procedure for entering all calls into a log and forwarding the log to someone might help.

                2. OP*

                  Primarily data entry stuff–massive spreadsheets with a lot of variability in each category. So, I think it’s less about list-making (she’s great at that, and, thanks to her lists, at remembering things like followup emails that slip my mind) and more about getting someone to double-check her numbers before finalizing things. This is something that I’m not able to take on on top of other responsibilities, but the idea of cross-training one of the other admins to do that has come up and I think that will be an effective strategy.

        2. Annie Moose*

          There’s no indication that the employee isn’t trying to change her process, though. In fact, the letter says that they’ve already discussed slowing down and double-check her work. It’s just that this is evidently not enough, so now they need to revisit the situation and come up with a different strategy.

      3. Snark*

        You know, I’m aware of, and entirely at peace with, the fact that you have a particular bone to pick with me. And I’m even getting used to your habitually aggressive tone, though I like it no more than ever.

        But you seem to be selectively applying the commenting rule about taking OPs at their word, which also specifies that we take other commenters at their word, as well – and, for whatever it’s worth, to be kind to one another. When I said “I’m not sure why I’m getting that sense from OP’s letter,” that was an important part of my thought. I was, and am, mulling over, and inviting others to mull over with me, why I get that sense. I am not stridently accusing the employee of fobbing off excuses or second-guessing the OP, and I’ll thank you to respond to the post I actually made.

        And even if it’s not applicable directly to OP’s letter, all of us who manage have to, at some point, ponder over whether a report is offering reasons or excuses, so it’s not a discussion with no merit.

        1. LouiseM*

          Snark…what? You clearly have something personal against me, but take a look at whose tone is aggressive in this thread (hint: it’s not mine). I’m making the same point that several others have in this thread, and not in rude way.

          You’ve said many times that you’re no fan of my comments here! In this case it seems like your emotions are clouding your judgment. Maybe you should take a step back from the comments until you can read them without lashing out.

          1. Snark*

            Your lack of self-awareness is breathtaking, but you’re correct that there’s nothing to be gained from futher interaction between us.

            1. LBK*

              I’m sure you won’t put much stock in my opinion since you’ve also called me out on seeming to have a vendetta against you, but I really didn’t note anything especially aggressive about Louise’s comment. She certainly said nothing as rude as “your lack of self-awareness is breathtaking,” which is just an outright personal attack.

              Your comments on this letter in general are especially abrasive, even for you – if you’re having a bad day or something, maybe cool off and come back tomorrow.

                1. Snark*

                  I don’t know why we put so much truck in usernames when in reality anyone can use them,

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Snark, you’re actually coming across as the more aggressive/heated one here, for what that’s worth. I agree that leaving this here is the way to go.

            Everyone: If you’re not happy with a fellow commenter, please just choose not to interact with them.

            1. Snark*

              I apologize; I am not at my best when at bottom of an unexpected and (to me) unearned dogpile.

    6. Jesmlet*

      Same, didn’t want to say it because I’ve never been pregnant. I have on the other hand felt detrimental effects of new medication or physical illnesses that would probably mimic the same symptoms of pregnancy brain. When that happens, I know to slow down and be more careful. That’s the real issue here. This shouldn’t be a “pregnancy brain, nothing I can do” *shrug*. This needs to be a discussion about what can be done to mitigate the effects and prevent future occurrences which is exactly what OP is looking to do.

      1. sunny-dee*

        I’m guessing it’s a workload problem, especially if this is a normally stellar employee. In previous roles I have (literally) done the work of five other writers. I was good and fast and I knew the technical side of what I was doing very well. However, when I hit a medical issue, I just could not carry that workload. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying or that I didn’t want to — I physically and mentally just could not do the same amount at the same pace.

        It’s nice and all to say “slow down and be more careful,” but if the workload is the same (and that workload was higher because of her ability), then she doesn’t have the leeway to slow down and be more careful, because the workload requires working at a certain pace to get it done.

        1. LBK*

          Yeah, and I also think just telling her to slow down and double check her work are ineffective solutions to a problem like this where the person is naturally careful and is basically experiencing a neurological issues that causes holes in their attention to detail that wouldn’t normally exist. I know it didn’t help me at all when I was having problems like this, because if I missed something the first time I pretty much always missed it on the double check, too. It wasn’t carelessness so much as it was just having a momentary blind spot.

          It’s like cutting two consecutive slices from the same block of Swiss cheese: the holes are pretty much going to be in the same places on the second slice as the first. You need her work to be QC’d by someone who’s cutting from the other end of the block.

          1. Lil Fidget*

            Yeah, I think this is good feedback for OP – it seems like “slow down and be more careful” was the initial suggestion, but it doesn’t seem to have solved the problem – so now you need to be more specific, as Alison says, and perhaps either reduce workload, create a QC protocol, or some other solution TBD. As others have noted, if you’re going to hire a temp during family leave, maybe this person starts a little sooner to take the pressure off, or the crosstraining starts today.

    7. Ramblin' Ma'am*

      I feel this way too, especially since these were apparently very significant, costly errors–not typos or minor lapses. From the company’s perspective, does it really matter that these were due to pregnancy rather than, say, sleep deprivation, a divorce, or any number of personal issues that might affect one’s work? I’m not suggesting a formal written reprimand or anything, but rather a discussion that seriously and plainly states, “This can’t happen again, so let’s talk about what processes we need to put in place.” And then implement the QA/double-checking mentioned above.

      Also–I’ve never been pregnant, but is this “pregnancy brain” common to ALL women, or just some? Because if I were a coworker who’d been pregnant or was planning to be, I might be resentful of someone blaming major mistakes on pregnancy.

      1. LouiseM*

        It’s extremely common for medical issues to affect different people different ways. I knew a guy who smoked a pack a day for 10 years and quit cold turkey (with the help of nicotine gum and patches, of course). Nobody at the office knew he quit because the transition was so seamless and didn’t affect his mood at all. But when another coworker quit smoking and had issues with being tired and easily distracted? The first guy was very sympathetic to her. Everybody is different.

      2. sunny-dee*

        “Pregnancy brain” is the result of a lot of things — an insane hormone surge (up to 40x the normal amount of estrogen and progesterone), insomnia and interrupted sleep, and (for a lot of women) mild depression and anxiety. It’s sort of like saying that you don’t believe morning sickness is a thing because of this one chick you knew who never got sick. All pregnancies are different (even for the same woman), but there is a combination of factors that makes “pregnancy brain” a common thing.

        1. Ramblin' Ma'am*

          I didn’t say I didn’t believe it was a thing. (PMS is a thing, but I’d be annoyed by a coworker who treated everyone rudely and blamed it on PMS.) I was asking, is this something every woman goes through? I’ve never been pregnant and while a lot of my coworkers have been, that doesn’t include anyone in my department. Most of my friends don’t have kids. Etc…

          1. JessicaC*

            I’ve been pregnant once so far, and I don’t think I experienced “pregnancy brain.” I was more emotional than usual (sort of always on PMS-levels) but I can’t think of any mistakes I made in my intellectual/work capacity that were outside of my norm.

            1. ket*

              I don’t think I was intellectually less capable, either, and I’m a mathematician. The math went fine. What was hard was all the stupid details that I don’t care about and yet are important: like the day I nearly lost it because I realized I needed to figure out what a “travel system” was and how to select one (this is a combo of car seat, stroller base, other stroller thingy, etc), and learn about the LATCH system in cars, and think about whether I could open a stroller base one-handed, and all this crap that I never knew about before and don’t in fact want to think about even though I have a child now. All this stuff matters, though — it’s the equipment that you will interact with every day for at least a year! And the hospital won’t let you leave without a car seat :)

              So pregnancy brain? Not per se. Overwhelmed by logistical details of mystery parent secret knowledge initiation? Yes!

          2. Double A*

            No, not every pregnant woman goes through it. I’m pregnant and I can’t say I feel like my mental state is affected beyond what being rather tired normally does to me. I have other symptoms that need some accommodation at work, like having to pee all the time, or nausea which means I need more breaks. Both of these are difficult accommodations for a teacher.

            So while not all women will experience pregnancy brain, almost all women will experience some symptoms that will require some accommodation or at least kindness from her coworkers.

      3. atalanta0jess*

        I’ll tell you what, I didn’t really believe in pregnancy brain, but when I was pregnant, it hit me HARD. Like, I went to my boss and was like, “hey, I am so dumb right now! Please let me know if you see errors.”

        I don’t think it’s fair to say she shouldn’t attribute it to it’s actual cause because other pregnant women may not experience the same thing. She shouldn’t say OTHER pregnant women are forgetful because they are pregnant. But saying that she is, when that’s what is actually happening? That’s ok, and important.

        And I totally don’t get commenter’s assumption that its a way of brushing off the issue. You can name the cause for something and still take responsibility for fixing it. In fact, how can you fix it without identifying the cause?

        1. Lil Fidget*

          I suppose we’re just reacting to the fact that the problems apparently still continue, so the responsibility for fixing it is still floating out there.

          1. atalanta0jess*

            Sure. It’s not an easy problem to solve though, you know? Especially when your brain is not working. Problem solving gets harder!

        2. BeautifulVoid*

          I’ll admit to being one of those people who thought pregnancy brain was a myth, or at least an exaggeration…until I was pregnant. As far as I know, I never screwed up anything at work really badly, but man, I did some dumb things at times. And I’m usually a super-organized perfectionist Type A personality who is on top of things at all times, and even my husband was like, “What’s going on with you?”

      4. Nita*

        I don’t think it happens to everyone, just like not everyone reacts the same way to a new medication or too much coffee. I bet many lucky women don’t notice any absent-mindedness while pregnant, though everyone I know seems to get at least a few unpleasant symptoms.

    8. McWhadden*

      The OP says she was very very apologetic. So, it’s made explicit in the actual letter that this isn’t being used as a discussion terminating “cliche” (and how is an actual physiological problem a cliche?)

      This just sounds like saying “I know this is real but I think it’s BS anyway.”

      1. Lil Fidget*

        I guess I would only say that, when one of my employees makes a big mistake, I’m not really looking for them to be very, very apologetic* so much as looking for actionable steps that will prevent something similar from happening again. Like, “I will double check my notes before sending from now on,” or “can we ask Chris to read over my proofs before they go to the printer” or whatever. That’s where I’m not sure OP is hearing what they need to hear from this employee.

        *obviously if they’re not at all apologetic, that’s not a good sign. But I’m not looking for self-flagellation either.

        1. McWhadden*

          But she’s clearly not just throwing out “pregnancy brain” and shrugging her shoulders as if that’s the end of it.

            1. Thursday Next*

              I think it’s OP’s responsibility to work with the employee to come up with more effective strategies for managing the issue. Telling someone to slow down and double-check their work when they’re already making mistakes (due to physiological changes, at that) shouldn’t be the end of the list of strategies. It’s like Kyle shouting, “Dance better, damnit!” If it were that simple, the employee/Cartman would already be doing it.

          1. Yorick*

            I don’t think that’s clear from the letter, although OP commented to say some steps had been taken. But OP wouldn’t have written in if they were totally sure that the employee was taking it seriously and fixing the problem.

        2. LBK*

          I think this is a case where the manager needs to step in with the action plan, though – I’ve never been pregnant, but as I mentioned below I have had some mental health issues that affected my work and I really felt at a loss for how to fix it because the root of the problem was that my brain wasn’t cooperating. It wasn’t something I could figure out how to resolve internally – I needed external controls to help me out, because even slowing down and double checking my own work was just relying on my broken brain to catch itself.

          This shouldn’t be treated as a performance issue, it should be treated as continuity planning, especially where this is someone who’s generally a good employee. You want to support them in solving this problem, not blame them for not solving it themselves.

          1. Lil Fidget*

            It’s true, I think it would be great if OP came to this employee with some of the suggestions people are offering here in the comments and talked it through.

      2. SarahJ*

        Agreed, and Snark’s hedging comments about his tone don’t reduce how offensive his perspective is given the facts in the letter.
        The idea that real medical issues are just “excuses” is damaging and pernicious.

        1. Another Jill*

          I never heard the phrase pregnancy brain until a few years ago when a student would use it to explain mistakes on assignments. However, I had had this particular student in classes before and they were making the same types of mistakes as before due to an overall lack of attention to detail.

          So everyone’s experiences with medical issues are different, as are everyone’s experiences with others’ descriptions of medical issues. I don’t see anything particularly offensive in the question that Snark raised.

      3. LBK*

        Agreed. Given that she was producing good, consistent work before, you have precedent that she’s not a careless person in general. Why suddenly start being suspicious of a good employee?

        I went through a period of being error-prone when I was really in the throes of depression and my ADHD was also running amok. It was arguably even more frustrating for me than it was for my boss because I felt like my brain just wasn’t cooperating, and it sucked out a lot of my self-confidence because I didn’t feel like myself. Please don’t start treating her as though she’s just slacking and making excuses for laziness if that isn’t a characteristic she’s exhibited in the past – it will destroy her morale when she’s already probably not feeling great about her work.

        Of course, you don’t have to just pretend it’s not happening – you can work collaboratively with her to come up with solutions like having someone QC her more sensitive work or even temporarily offloading some of it altogether until she’s feeling back on track. But I wouldn’t mistake her not being openly wracked with anxiety about it as a sign that she’s not taking it seriously – most likely she’s downplaying it because she doesn’t want to raise questions about her suitability to stay on the job while she’s pregnant.

        1. Snark*

          This is a great point, and I think it better expresses what I’m trying to get at here – I absolutely don’t mean “excuse” in the sense of being a lazy slacker, I mean it more in the sense of, is this kicking off a process of revisiting processes, expectations, and goals to work around the problem? Or is it where the discussion basically ends? “I have pregnancy brain, I’m so sorry, I’ll work extra hard to make sure I don’t make any more mistakes” is not where this issue should be left.

          1. LBK*

            It sounds like where we disagree is whether it’s the manager or the employee who should be continuing that discussion.

      4. Snark*

        Wow, amazing how that whole “give other posters the benefit of the doubt” thing flies right out the window sometimes.

        Here’s the thing. I’ve had a coworker once who, for other reasons, screwed up massively, and repetitively – he quit smoking cold turkey and was super distracted and irritable. He was apologetic and remorseful, genuinely so, but it kept happening, with variations and iterations. And he kept saying stuff like, “man, I’m just not on my game when I’m trying to quit!” And he’d address one specific issue, but the distraction and impatience would just lead him to another error, like wack-a-mole. He wasn’t taking actionable steps, as lil fidget mentions, to address the bigger pattern. That’s what I had in mind when I was posting this.

        And no, I don’t think it’s BS anyway. But thanks!

        1. Snark*

          And, given that things are still, per OP, “slipping through the cracks,” I respectfully submit that my observation may have some merit.

        2. LBK*

          I guess I don’t understand why it’s completely on the employee to fix this problem. Where’s the manager’s role here?

        3. McWhadden*

          So, you are basing this on an experience with someone not suffering this condition, at all? How is that remotely constructive to the conversation?

          And things slip through the cracks sometimes for all of us. You can’t just snap your fingers and no longer be in a fog. It doesn’t remotely suggest she’s not trying.

          1. LouiseM*

            I’m glad that you take such a needlessly hostile and hysterical tone with commenters in general and not just me!

          2. Snark*

            Snark aside, let me clarify: my point here, refined with LBK’s insight, is “given that this employee has an issue that is affecting their mood, focus, and ability to accurately complete work, is that the beginning of a process where OP and Employee figure out what processes can catch or avoid errors, and adjust expectations of output and productivity to account for those process changes, or is it where the discussion ends, with lots of apologies and promises to do better? And that question applies regardless of the issue, and doesn’t question its validity.

        4. McWhadden*

          Let me ask sincerely if it was another medical condition or she was going through chemo would you still be like “well, I knew this guy who was quitting smoking once…”

        5. Delphine*

          Hmm, I guess I’m not sure how your coworker’s symptoms were an “excuse” or “a discussion-terminating cliche” either. Like the LW’s employee, he had a legitimate reason to be struggling at work. Seems like he could have used someone like LW to help him create a plan of action when it became clear that his own attempts at addressing the issues weren’t working out so well.

        6. Jessie the First (or second)*

          So in defense of Snark here, I don’t see AT ALL that he is doubting the reality of “pregnancy brain,” and he’s not doubting that the employee is actually, honestly sorry. Just seems that he is trying to articulate and pinpoint the kind of conversation the OP needs to have with the employee- is the employee sorry and trying hard but without putting systems in place (so,a new “sorry” for each new mistake) or has the employee been trying to put systems in place but just needs more help/guidance figuring out what systems will work?

          Because those are actually different conversations for the manager – for the first, it means the manager needs a discussion that “hey, I appreciate the sorry but we have to do more here” plus then problem-solving. For the second, it may simply be brainstorming with the employee to find things that reduce mistakes, because the employee already totally recognizes that “sorry, welp, that’s all I can do!” isn’t enough, but hasn’t found what works yet.

          (And yes, I see from OP’s other comments that this is more like situation #2)

        7. Courageous cat*

          For what it’s worth, I am a little baffled by these responses to you and I think you’re being reasonably civil in face of them. I also think your point is valid. I dunno, I’m perplexed by the responses overall.

    9. Elise*

      Same here, and I’ve been there before. There were times where I definitely felt weirdly unable to keep up with typical work tasks. However, I would caution pregnant women against saying it too much, only because once the baby is born, you may not have physiological reasons for difficulty keeping up with everything but you’ll have a human to keep alive. Everything that goes along with being a working parent adds another level of information you have to keep organized in your mind. It’s a good idea to find coping mechanisms now for the inevitable times when you don’t know which way is up, you can’t remember which day is pajama day at school and you have a work project deadline looming.

      I recently sat through an organization-wide meeting led by a pregnant woman who laughed about pregnancy brain about 10 times during the meeting, which included several department heads. I try to be sympathetic as a fellow working mom, but even I was wanting her to reign it in some. I think it’s not off base for OP to mention if she thinks it is going to harm her reputation at work.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Eek yeah not great. Even if it doesn’t hurt that woman, because she’s high up and respected, it’s going to contribute to the idea that women who are pregnant or may become pregnant soon are likely to be bad at their jobs, and that’s not really a stereotype I’m eager to spread.

        1. Naptime Enthusiast*

          I commented upthread about a similar experience to Elise’s, and I think you articulated what bother me better than I could. When an individual harps on their baby brain in front of a large audience, or frequently references it as an explanation for issues, I feel like it brings up sexist stereotypes that women can’t have a family AND a career.

    10. Formerly Arlington*

      Me as well. I don’t like blaming less than 100% job performance on things related to my gender. Even if it’s true. I think about how far we have come–or at least I think we have–with it once being OK to say women were the weaker sex, that PMS made us unreliable, etc. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to call attention to those biological reasons why we might not be at our best. And honestly, pregnancy brain is NOTHING compared to being 12 weeks post partum and operating on no sleep and hormones and trying to get your job done…and I hear hot flashes aren’t fun, either. I really don’t like pregnancy brain as an explanation of why someone messes up. The wrong audience could mean a major misinterpretation of what our gender is/isn’t capable of.

      1. LBK*

        Hmm, I’m not sure I agree with this approach – the solution shouldn’t be that women just hide any issue specific to their gender, it should be that those issues can be dealt with matter-of-factly and without penalizing the women they affect. The fact that it’s only physiologically possible for it to happen to a woman doesn’t change that it’s a genuine medical issue. That doesn’t make women weak, it just makes them different.

        1. Delphine*


          Exactly, when we become less afraid of treating these things like legitimate issues, that’s when we’ll know we’ve come far. These are real things real people struggle with, and the answer shouldn’t be to ignore it just because it’s not something 100% of the population experiences.

      2. atalanta0jess*

        Not for everyone – I was way dumber, and more tired during my pregnancy that I ever was afterwards. And my baby was waking at least 6 times a night for NINE MONTHS. Post partum was still easier than pregnancy.

        It is hard stuff to talk about though. I am definitely a terrible worker when pregnant. I try my best, and I keep things afloat, but I’m not a winner. Some people totally are, of course. All in all, it’s hard to know how to deal with that in conversations about workplace equality and such.

      3. Leslie knope*

        Yikes. Women shouldn’t have to hide physiological issues because of sexism. This is not the right approach .

    11. Genny*

      I had the same initial icky reaction to it. It reminds me way to much of the “joke” that a woman can’t be president because every month she’ll start a nuclear war, because har, har, har, women on their periods are even more irrational than they usually are, har, har, har. The phrase just feels like it feeds the stigma that women are delicate little flowers who need all sorts of accommodations and don’t work as hard/aren’t held to the same standards as men. It’s not fair that such a stigma exists, and it’s not fair that a normal side-effect of pregnancy gets lumped into it, but that’s unfortunately what I think of when I hear the phrase “pregnancy brain” or “baby brain”. Maybe there’s a better way to phrase a legit medical issue that doesn’t sound so trite and grating?

      1. Lil Fidget*

        I think that’s why I prefer to focus on the sleep aspects – as insomnia is not gendered in the same way. What would you say to an employee who began making mistakes and explained that they were having trouble sleeping and it was affecting their concentration?

        1. Turquoisecow*

          Honestly, simple insomnia, while not gendered, might not be a great excuse, either. If an adult can’t figure out how to consistently get enough sleep to be functional at work, then maybe the job they’re doing isn’t right for them.

          Whether that insomnia is due to pregnancy, newborn, illness, or just inability to organize their lives is kind of irrelevant – if it’s an occasional issue, nbd, but if it keeps happening, I’d expect the person to make adjustments in their work or even personal lives to be able to do the job. I wouldn’t think highly of a person who came to work overtired and fell asleep or made mistakes due to not sleeping, and some people might immediately jump to the conclusion that it was due to lifestyle choices (too much partying or staying up late) rather than some kind of medical issue.

          1. Parenthetically*

            “If an adult can’t figure out how to consistently get enough sleep to be functional at work, then maybe the job they’re doing isn’t right for them.”

            This whole comment seems really judgmental. My father-in-law dealt with crippling insomnia for years and it had absolutely nothing to do with his ability to “figure out how to consistently get enough sleep.” He went to multiple specialists, had multiple sleep studies done, tried multiple techniques, methods, drugs, supplements, and on and on. He never did figure out what was wrong — it just went away after years of him getting 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night most nights.

            1. SarahTheEntwife*

              Agree. There also could be shorter-term acute insomnia very similar to what the employee here is going through due to some outside factor like a family crisis, reaction to a new medication, or any number of other life changes. Taking a few months to either get past the problem or figure out a way to cope with it does not mean a person is in the wrong job.

            2. Annoyed*

              This describes me to a T.

              I’ve done it all. I do all of the “dark room, no lights of any kind including from things being plugged in, heavy curtains, not too warm/cold, wind down, no tv/radio/computer in the bedroom…” and on and on.

              In addition to sleep studies, c-pap, meds that *will* knock me out but leave me unable to function for three days after.

              I spend more time reading/learning about how to get just *one* night of decent sleep without a weeklong hangover than anyone -not- working as a sleep study professional should.

              To say that an adult doesn’t know how to make themselves sleep be cause they aren’t really trying is massively insulting.

          2. Jessie the First (or second)*

            Yeah, it’s not that I couldn’t figure out how to get enough sleep – I mean, I’m not actually stupid, I know how to sleep, and I know how much sleep I need. But having a baby sometimes makes some things physically not possible.

            Because a person might suffer from insomnia temporarily, are you saying they then have to change careers if sleep deprivation is going to be more than occasional — even if it that insomnia is going to be temporary? It’s *such* a strange way of looking at things, I think (and of course, there would be ADA issues here for some insomnia problems). Insomnia is often related to medical issues and is complicated, and we generally, if we are decent people, want to accommodate where we can and work with people going through medical issues, right?

            I’d just never jump to “out partying all night!! Poor life choices! Incapabe of working here!” if I saw someone struggling with sleep problems.

        2. Genny*

          Good question, Lil Fidget. At the point where the issue (insomnia in your example) is being discussed like the serious medical issue it is, I’m fine with the employer/employee making whatever sort of arrangement works best for them. For a normally-productive employee like LW’s, that might mean accepting a lower, temporary state of productivity, giving them extra breaks throughout the day, adjusting their hours so they have more flexibility around when to work, etc. For a normally-minimally productive employee, it might mean devising an action plan and then holding them accountable for poor work like you would anyone else.

          It’s not the accommodations that bother me, it’s the cutesy name given to a legitimate medical issue that then, unfairly, trivializes women in the workplace and negatively contributes to the stereotypes all women have to fight against.

      2. The OG Anonsie*

        It feels sort of along those lines and also somehow weirdly dismissive of what they’re going through at the same time. It’s like it both falls into the realm of those tee-hee-women-be-hormonal jokes that overblow stuff everyone just lives with like regular folks, while also trivializing a very difficult experience for which it’s entirely reasonable to give someone some leeway and accommodation. It’s like it’s screwing you in both directions at once.

        1. Lil Fidget*

          I think, like most things, the trick is not to generalize to all people of a certain gender. Do some people find this happens to them, and need some extra support to get through it? Yes, we certainly shouldn’t assume they’re making it up or lazy or whatever. But we also should be careful not to imply that all pregnant women become suddenly bad at their jobs, because it’s not universal.

        2. Code Monkey, the SQL*

          Yeah, it’s a sticky wicket in that regard. Pregnancy should not be a reason for an employer to shrug and assume women are only decent employees for as long as they aren’t gestating, but at the same time, it is a big, time-consuming, altered medical state that really can do a number on the pregnant person’s day-to-day function.

        3. Amey*

          I think for me it’s the term ‘pregnancy brain’ that I struggle with – it sounds too flippant for the kind of intense experience I went through when pregnant. I suffered a high constant level of anxiety throughout both of my pregnancies and I had SPD so was in constant pain and discomfort. But I’d also absorbed a lot of stuff about not treating pregnancy like an illness and was worried about asking for accommodations at work when plenty of other pregnant women seemed to just breeze through. I was much more sensible about this in my second pregnancy than in my first and got a lot more professional help (and took the time off for it) but I think it’s a really difficult situation. I think women’s experiences of pregnancy are so different that these blanket terms aren’t very helpful – one person hears it and thinks ‘oh they’re a bit distracted by the prospect of the new baby’ when it can just as easily mean ‘I’ve got constant sciatic pain and I’ve been up all night worrying that I hadn’t felt the baby kick.’ I think it would be more helpful if pregnant women felt comfortable articulating the issues they’re experiencing more specifically (e.g. I told my understanding manager in my second pregnancy that I found pregnancy very difficult for physical and mental health reasons though he also had the evidence that I’d come back from maternity leave on zero sleep and performed well) but I think there’s not only a stigma not only around pregnancy but around not ENJOYING pregnancy that makes it very difficult to discuss. For me it was an intensely personal and individual experience but so many people have been through it that I think it’s sometimes unhelpfully universalised.

          1. Julia*

            I’ve never been pregnant, but you describe something I have experienced with regards to my period. I suffer from endometriosis, so my period was (before receiving treatment) painful and exhausting. But most other women powered through, gave me side-eye for taking pain killers or making it seem like periods made women fragile, so the whole experience was really isolating and stressful. Even feminist fantasy books just tell girls that their periods don’t mean they can’t kick butts, so I felt even worse.

            These days I have several friends with similar medical issues (which is actually pretty sad, if you think about it), but if I hadn’t finally received treatment from the fifth doctor I saw, I would probably be labelled that flaky woman who is knocked out by a bit of blood.

    12. Legal Beagle*

      The citing of “pregnancy/baby/mommy brain” also REALLY irks me because it’s a discussion-ending cliche, and it also generalizes ALL pregnant women and new moms into that cliche. It’s not saying, “My memory is just not up to par right now, how can we work on this?” It’s saying, “Pregnancy makes women dumb, oh well.” I was working full-time, in the office, until my baby was born, and I made a ton of effort to not let it interfere with my performance. Pregnant women should absolutely be accommodated, as should anyone else with a significant medical or life circumstance, but it’s really undermining to write off pregnant women and new moms in the workplace by saying that, basically, we’re all functional idiots.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        But it’s only a “discussion-ending cliche” if the person in question is using it to end all discussion on their performance. Otherwise, it’s an explanation, just like “sorry I missed that typo, the chemo is making me so tired it affected my proofreading skills” would be. If the person thinks they can say “pregnancy brain!” and end any discussion of how to do better or avoid any consequences to their poor performance, then sure. But giving that as an explanation for why they aren’t their normal selves is not, in and of itself, being used as a discussion-ender.

        1. Legal Beagle*

          I completely agree with you. I was too broad in my comment when I said that. But still, it IS a cliched generalization and it has strong potential for backlash, even if you follow it up with discussion. I’d like for all of us to do away with “pregnancy brain” and its ilk altogether!

    13. JerryLarryTerryGary*

      There are dozens of pregancy symtoms most people never experience, and real range on the severity- I threw up only a few times, others do so multiple times a day. We all tick the morning sickness box.
      For some, pregnancy brain is minor, and for others, it has a severe impact on their life.

  8. Merisa*

    I was pregnant while working a new job as an Admin. I found that my previously awesome memory failed me constantly so I made sure that everything important got an annoying alert every so often in my calendar. I wouldn’t turn the alert off until the task was completed even if it meant it popped up every 5 minutes. I would say it took 3 years for my memory to come back to full capacity and during that time I just kept using alert systems to keep me on track. If you can help her come up with some kind of system to double check herself it could be useful.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Is it mostly associated with the lack of sleep? I know pregnancy and new babies both disturb sleep, and I know I need a lot of good sleep to function well. Memory and emotional regulation are the first things to go!!

      1. Bea*

        Sleep is one thing but it’s also that your body and mind are changed with that chemicals your body releases during pregnancy. It’s more than just memory that’s effected.

      2. CanadianEngineerLibrarian*

        It is not just sleep. It is as if the baby itself had stolen half your brain. It also took me almost three years, and then I was pregnant again, so I felt stupid for over 5 years.

        1. Cols*

          I’m six-years-stupid with no end in sight. The good news is I was told it would get worse each time (because I guess some people feel like they never get back to 100%, and so each subsequent baby steals more and more brain), but I’ve had three babies in five years and was definitely felt the effect most strongly during the first pregnancy. My youngest is 7 months and I wouldn’t say I’m 100% of where I started out before I ever got pregnant, but probably 90-95%, which is good enough for me!

          1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

            I had two kids a little under two years apart and I definitely felt less stupid and less tired with the second one. I did have the horrible thought that it was probably because stupid-and-tired was my new normal though. I’m not sure when I went back to feeling more normal. It’s been too many years for me to remember all the details at this point (my youngest is about to turn 13).

      3. Anonymoosetracks*

        Yes- lack of sleep and divided attention (simply because you have so many new things you are paying attention to). It can sometimes also have a hormonal cause but just the sleep loss and divided attention on their own are more than enough to affect memory for many people.

        Source: have a one-year-old. :)

      4. I'll come up with a clever name later.*

        I think sleep is a big part of it during pregnancy and the first few months of being a new parent, but honestly I think another part of it is the fact that there’s already a good deal to juggle before having kids: work, chores, social, etc. That doesn’t just go away when you become a parent and most of us try desperately to keep up with all of that while also caring for a helpless human being who literally needs us to survive. I think it’s the reason that they say your first born is the hardest. I had my second about 18 months after the first and while it wasn’t easy the adjustment period was way shorter. I think three years really is about the amount of time for a family to adjust to the rhythm of having a life and having children.

      5. Emily*

        For me (and it was after baby was born more), it felt like the mental energy required to care for a newborn just maxed out my brain capacity. It was as if my brain storage was full and anything new I tried to put into it that wasn’t baby-related just wouldn’t STAY IN THERE. It was very disconcerting, because trying harder didn’t really help. The processing was slower as well, but that was more of a tired/groggy feeling. The memory thing was what really freaked me out.

    2. Nita*

      I’ve tried this also, but it recently blew up in my face in a big way! I got yet another annoying alert about needing to follow up on something, noted it, and deleted the alert. Only the alert wasn’t what I thought it was – it was a call invite, and my absence from the call was a big problem. I’ve moved all the “to-do” type alerts out of my calendar and into a separate app, and am keeping my fingers crossed this will help.

  9. Midge*

    What’s the employee’s current task management method or system? If she normally has a super sharp memory, she may be using a system that relies that vs. a physical or digital system that would take some of the mental burden off of her memory. In my old job, I used Asana religiously. It helped me keep details in a centralized place, keep my tasks up to date (deadlines, details, key documents), and follow up with coworkers and customers. If she’s not already doing something like this, it may be worth looking into.

  10. nnn*

    On a more macro level, depending on the kind of work you do, maybe your organization would benefit from a system where people double-check each other’s work rather than leaving everyone to double-check their own.

    It’s easier for fresh eyes to detect errors than for people to notice their own errors after being submerged in a particular document for hours/days/weeks. Since, as you mention, errors can cause drama, increased workload and significant costs, it may be worth taking a bit of extra employee time to catch them. This pregnancy isn’t going to be the last time one of your employees isn’t quite functioning at 100%, so the issue is almost certainly going to come up again at some point.

  11. One legged stray cat*

    When I was pregnant the first time, I not only was distracted by nausea, tiredness, and gas, but I had a weird short term memory loss. I would put my shoes in fridge and spend two hours looking for them. I was late three hours one day to work because I thought Friday was Saturday. I also would not have any memory of random conversations that happened a couple days prior and would miss deadlines. My second pregnancy I was affected with this to a much lesser degree, and I know plenty women who did not have this at all during their pregnancy.

    I find this problem similar to how some women get crabby during their period. I had one coworker who honestly was never nice (unless it was to someone who had the power to promote her) but would occasionally lash out very publicly at a coworker. She would blame it on a bad period, which managers would then excuse, but it never did really solve the hurt feelings in the office and it made the male managers look at the rest of us women as potential lose cannons.

    In my mind pregnancy brain and PMS are excusable for the first couple offenses, but then once you recognize you have a problem you have to take steps to prevent the damage it causes. For me, it was to start documenting everything. I finally realized that I could not rely on my normal memory skills and lived on an extremely detailed calendar and a bunch of lists. I still wasn’t perfect, but I at least had more control of myself and the damage to the office was minimal.

    1. AnonForThisOne*

      Yeah, I recognized years ago that, during my PMS week, I’ll almost always blow something. A deadline, a commitment, an appointment, something. So I actually calendar it as “magic week” and double-triple check my schedule and deliverables all week. The struggle is real for pregnancy brain and PMS brain but “we have the technology” and we can put backstops in place so that we minimize the balls we drop.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Just for the record, I have never experienced this. I might be extra crabby during that week, but I haven’t noticed it causing me to make work errors. I don’t think this is universal.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          It’s different for everyone, same as “pregnancy brain” isn’t a thing for all pregnant women.

          I, personally, get exceptionally clumsy during my period. Dropping things left and right, tripping over my own feet, discovering random bruises on my body…

  12. TotesMaGoats*

    The really, really dumb things I did while pregnant because my brain just didn’t function remotely like it was supposed to were pretty embarrassing. My memory and attention to detail were something I was known for and all of the sudden both were gone. And it lasted after I gave birth for a while. I think the thing that helped me was that I knew I could tell my boss that I’d screwed up without getting blowback. I still had to fix it, if possible but there wasn’t any shame in it. So, I would make sure that she knew that was true for her. Most people are more likely to “fess up” earlier to mistakes if they know they won’t be crucified for it.

  13. Nita*

    This question is terrifying to me. I become seriously absent-minded when pregnant – trying to butter my phone instead of a sandwich, traveling 40 minutes to get my parked car – only to discover I don’t have the keys with me, forgetting to pack important papers, leaving food cooking on the stove when I walk out of the house… I can’t even blame it on lack of sleep, I’m sleeping very well. Something in my brain just stops doing its job – probably because it’s pivoting to learn to do a new job in a few months.

    My biggest nightmare is that this could carry over to work, and on occasion it does. I’ve showed up to an inspection where I had to take pictures with no camera (thank goodness for cell phone cameras), and forgotten about a conference call that was on my calendar (that did not go well). I’m in a job where attention to detail is key, and 99% of the time I’m still doing great, so the scariest part is that I don’t know when or where pregnancy brain will strike.

    I’ve removed all non-meeting reminders from my calendar and moved them to another app, so I never mistake a meeting reminder for anything else. My reports are always checked by at least one more person (it’s standard policy because everyone benefits from one more set of eyes on the text). Beyond that, I’m not sure how to stop mistakes in their tracks. Maybe the best strategy is to triple-check work where messing up has the biggest potential for problems, but I’m looking forward to others’ suggestions – AAM commenters always have such great ideas!

    1. Friday*

      “the scariest part is that I don’t know when or where pregnancy brain will strike.”

      Love this. I posted upthread about all that I did to mitigate my screwed-up brain, but it’s never a sure fix and you never know what will slip past!

  14. AdminX2*

    I am an admin and was hired to back up an admin about to go on maternity leave. It was PAINFUL watching her try and push through her fog. She was ADHD and off her meds, also due to pregnancy. I so much wanted to just grab up all the stuff and let her rest, but she insisted on keeping things until she had to be out. And not a lot of places can hire someone just as a back up for a few months.

    Admins are a weird space also because we keep the trains running on so many levels and you only really notice when things go bad and that can block up everywhere else. There’s no easy solution given it’s temporary and specific, but just work out what systems you can and keep on guard.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      That’s true, even if you don’t want to promote the idea of “pregnancy brain” as a universal concept, plenty of women have to go off of needed medications during pregnancy and that can have impacts also.

    2. Manders*

      Yes, one of the really tricky things about being an admin is that a lot of your work can’t be easily double-checked by anyone else unless they’re literally listening in on your phone calls and following you around the office all day. When I was working as an admin I set up some processes for making sure everything got confirmed in writing, which helped a lot for tasks that couldn’t really be handled with even the most thorough to-do list.

      At the time, I was working with another admin who had some sort of memory problem (it was unclear if she was still trying to find a diagnosis, or if she’d been diagnosed and didn’t want to accept that she had a problem, the stories she told me about it didn’t add up), and when she didn’t keep any kind of written record of her work there wasn’t much I could do to catch her mistakes before there was a crisis. So if OP doesn’t already ask for written confirmation for meetings, orders, etc. now is a great time to start.

  15. Bea*

    Pregnancy Brain is real. Chemo Brain is real. When your body is being bombarded with chemicals, either naturally or pumped in from outside sources to cure an ailment, you’re going to have many changes. Heck, your eyeballs change during pregnancy, it can and does undo lasik surgery!!

    There are great ways to help get cope listed here but this isn’t some stigma attached to pregnancy or made up excuse. It’s truly a medical side effect to take seriously and be supportive of.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I’m just a little uncomfortable with the idea that this is a universal thing – as women have always faced discrimination on medical grounds, and this seems like arming our enemies. I certainly know many women who have continued to perform well right through their pregnancies and after the birth of their children. I don’t doubt that some women also experience these symptoms … I just wouldn’t want it to become the basis of policy or something – “no pregnant women can work accounting during the tax season, you know how they get” etc.

      1. Bea*

        Right and just because you’re taking X Medication won’t mean you’ll experience the known side effects. So you “exercise caution while operating vehicles” until you know how it effects you. Each pregnancy is wildly different even when it’s the same woman.

        By protecting the ones without any side effects, we’re punishing women who have a real issue because “others are just fine, you’re making up an excuse! Just pay more attention!”. Disciplinary action towards a woman who is up front with her difficulty is much worse in my experience. It’s truly important to understand the science and how it differs.

        It’s wrong to diagnose someone with pregnancy brain without being their medical professional, which isn’t the issue here because the pregnant woman is the one who stated her issue. By telling her she can’t, that’s far more discriminatory and dangerous to women.

        1. JerryLarryTerryGary*

          Agreed! It’s like saying PMS isn’t an excuse, when, for some women, the experience is debilitating. And if we don’t acknowledge the range of responses to pregnancy you do a disservice to all.

      2. LBK*

        But the solution shouldn’t be to screw over women who do actually experience it by denying them their experience – it should be to get people to treat women as individuals, not a monolith.

  16. Hello patriarchy*

    Signs you have a bad boss:
    She frequently excuses her mistakes by blaming her own pregnancy brain. Without any changes in her routine to help mitigate mistakes.

  17. Dagnabbit*

    I know this is only tangentially related, but as someone who finished her last year of law school and studied for the bar exam while pregnant, I absolutely detest the expression “pregnancy brain.” Listen, I get it, you’re tired, you’re not fully at 100 percent, but do not blame your professional shortcomings on the pregnancy itself, as if being pregnant suddenly renders you stupid or less capable. Ugh!

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Oh good I’m glad someone can comment that they didn’t experience these symptoms – as I haven’t been pregnant myself so I really don’t know. I do absolutely think women experience it, but I’d like to believe it’s not some universal constant where all women completely lose the ability to function and focus.

      1. CanadianEngineerLibrarian*

        It is not a universal symptom, but I also disagree that pregnancy does not “render you stupid”. It rendered me stupid, and it was not sleep deprivation or anything else. 25 years later, my husband still laughs at some of the things I did. Baby hormones can do a number on some people’s brains, mine included.

        I never had a minute of morning sickness, but I will never blame morning sickness on being tired or not eating right as a parallel to Dagnabbit’s comment. If I ran with Dagnabbit’s logic, I would have to state : “Listen, I get it, you’re tired, you’re not fully at 100 percent, but do not blame your perpetual barfing on the pregnancy itself, as if being pregnant suddenly renders you sick or unable to eat. Ugh!”

        We are all different.

        1. Manders*

          Yes, I think a lot of people aren’t fully aware of the fact that hormones aren’t one-size-fits-all. That’s why there are so many different hormonal birth control options on the market–the pill that works perfectly with no side effects for Jane might make Sansa gain 30 pounds and become suicidal, even if they have exactly the same body shape, diet, exercise routine, etc.

          At the end of the day it’s still this employee’s responsibility to avoid mistakes, but that doesn’t mean hormonal changes have no effect on behavior.

          (I’ve never been pregnant, but I did have a pretty serious hormone issue that was causing big behavioral issues go untreated for a while because my mom didn’t have it herself and therefore didn’t believe it was real. Treating it wasn’t as simple as taking a pill either, I had to try a bunch of different doses of different hormones until I found one that worked for me.)

          1. LouiseM*

            Yes, exactly. I’m always suspicious of people who act as though their experience with [x BC pill] are universal. Horomonal interactions are so fundamental to how we think and feel. Everybody, and every body, is different!

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I don’t think anyone here is saying that “all women completely lose the ability to function and focus” so I’m not sure where you’re getting that idea.

        ANY massive change to your body could have potential side effects that could have a negative impact on your work performance.

        1. CanadianEngineerLibrarian*

          read the comment from Dagnabit that you are in the thread for. She says it. I am rebutting.

        2. Lil Fidget*

          I think we’re in kind of the same place, actually! Any change can have big impacts on your ability to function. Totally agree. I think that’s why I feel a little anxious at the idea that “pregnancy brain” is a near-universal phenomenon specific to gestation – which is something that only young women do, a class of workers that is already subject to traditional discrimination. I really like the “all workers need extra support sometimes, whether because of a death in the family, an illness, a medical condition cropping up, pregnancy, parenting, or any other factor. We should understand that ability to perform may vary over time, and provide extra support to employees when they are struggling. Here’s some things that might help.” That to me feels a lot safer than saying, “a woman’s performance during pregnancy will probably go to pot – expect costly mistakes and inattention because of biological factors that can’t be controlled.”

    2. McWhadden*

      I can’t imagine you are a very good attorney if you don’t know to check the sources before making uninformed comments.

      It is a real thing that goes beyond being tired. It isn’t experienced by everyone. You were lucky. But it is a verified condition.

      1. Dagnabbit*

        I wasn’t doubting that it’s a real condition. I take umbrage with the expression itself.

        1. Joielle*

          So is it that you don’t like the phrase “pregnancy brain”? How about “hormone-related memory lapse caused by gestation” or something? If it sounded more like an official medical diagnosis, would that be less objectionable?

          The thing is, some people literally experience a change in brain function caused by pregnancy hormones. Luckily it didn’t happen to you, but that doesn’t mean that someone having a rough pregnancy is just being dramatic about being tired.

          1. Genny*

            That phraseology is actually a lot better! I’d majorly side eye someone in the workplace talking about boo-boos or tummy aches, because that language is infantilizing. I find “baby brain” and “pregnancy brain” equally infantilizing. Describe it as the serious medical condition it is and you have a better shot of it being taken seriously by the powers that be without adding to the negative stereotypes working women already face.

    3. Bea*

      Cool. You’re lucky and didn’t experience any difficulties. I sure wish we were all as privileged as you are. How crass.

    4. Cols*

      So you got lucky. That doesn’t mean you can discount others’ experiences with very real physiological reactions to pregnancy. I had hyperemesis gravidarum with three pregnancies and dealt with literally-nonstop nausea and frequent (like 8x/day) vomiting, lack of sleep that couldn’t be compensated for, likely malnutrition, plus whatever hormonal effects cannot be quantified. I was absolutely comparatively stupid and less capable, and by the third time had figured out how to safeguard myself from as many preventable mistakes as possible, but still messed stuff up because of what can only be called pregnancy brain. My job happens to be such that my mistakes really only affect me, so in a sense I was lucky too, but it really rubs me the wrong way that you’re saying that your pregnancy experience was universal.

    5. DCompliance*

      “Listen, I get it, you’re tired, you’re not fully at 100 percent, but do not blame your professional shortcomings on the pregnancy itself, as if being pregnant suddenly renders you stupid or less capable. Ugh!”

      Pregnancy brain is not 100% caused be being tired/not getting sleep. It is also caused by a surge in hormones. The studies done do say these hormones affect memory. I also remember reading some scientists thing there biological factors as well. I don’t think the studies indicate that it renders you stupid. Not sure where that came from.

      FYI- Hitting my second trimester this week. Not experiencing pregnancy brain…just heartburn.

      1. CMart*

        The pregnancy I was on progesterone supplements? I was STUPID. Or at least I felt like a complete idiot due to my brain turning into Swiss cheese.

        I forgot the word for “bread” for a whole week. My husband would laugh and remind me and I would laugh and yet the next day that word eluded me yet again. My short term memory was completely shot. I live in Chicago, have my whole life, and am a baseball fan and saw a car decal of a small bear holding a baseball bat and thought “oh how cute, I wonder what it’s for?”

        Other pregnancies haven’t affected me that way. Every pregnancy I’ve had has been different. Once I got off the progesterone supplements things improved, but it was a huge wake-up call about how bananapants hormones can be.

    6. Anonarama*

      PRAISE BE! I didn’t even know about pregnancy brain until I was like 8 months pregnant and someone mentioned it to me. It was not my experience at all and the idea that it is a universal is really gross.

    7. Fish girl*

      I’m another person who didn’t experience “pregnancy brain” in terms of brain fog, forgetfulness, memory lapses, etc. (But I noticed having a lot more trouble regulating my anger than normal.) And I HATED when I did make a minor mistake and got a condescending “aww are you having mommy/baby brain?”. Nope, just made a normal human error like most normal humans do.

      However, my issue is definitely with the language, not with the people that experience it. To me, it feels a lot like “baby blues” aka a cutesy term to infantilize women and sweep their serious medical issues under the rug. I did not have baby blues; I had postpartum depression, a serious, and sometimes deadly medical issue. I want women’s health issues to be taken seriously, by the medical establishment, by our managers, by our family. And this entire comment section really shows how much using the term “pregnancy brain” makes it hard to be taken seriously! I’m ashamed to admit that I always have to resist rolling my eyes at women taking about “pregnancy brain”, despite knowing it’s real.

      We need better terminology and honestly, the fact that there isn’t a good medical term for pregnancy brain, is probably because it’s an area that has little research (and no solutions). It’s just another “woman problem” for doctors to wave their hands and say “Oh yeah, it happens” and shrug. And I’m about to get on a rant about women’s pain and health issues historically being ignored and downplayed by the medical and research community, so I’ll leave off here.

      1. Amey*

        Yes, I absolutely agree. For me, it was fairly severe health anxiety and SPD that consumed more of my brain space than I would have liked. The terms ‘pregnancy brain’ and ‘baby brain’ feel far too trivialising for the profound experience that I had.

      2. Daisy Steiner*

        Oh yes, like “morning sickness”. “Aw, just a bit of morning sickness. A quick vom and you’re done! It’s good cos it means the baby’s healthy.” Grrrr

        1. 2 Cents*

          People who have that attitude toward morning sickness just made me wish I’d get sick right on their shoes. (You know, during one of my 8-12 daily episodes during Weeks 6-18.) “Morning sickness” is so inaccurate a term, it’s nearly criminal.

      3. Genny*

        Preach!!!! It’s not the medical condition itself that’s annoying; it’s the cutesy language.

  18. Business Cat*

    I sympathize with the employee—I’m struggling similarly right now, except in my case it’s fibro fog. My manager proofreads every single piece of paper that leaves my office, and it is helpful but can be a bit overwhelming. Going from a high performer with little oversight to barely keeping up with my workload is a hard pill too swallow.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Undiagnosed-until-they-started-triggering-basically-24/7-silent-migraines-over-here feels you hard. Similar situation of going from high performer to barely qualified for a while there. I am making my way out now and I hope you’ll be able to do the same.

      1. Business Cat*

        Thanks so much! I’m sorry you’re dealing with that (Before medication I was havin go migraines several times a week and it was horrid), but I’m glad you’re getting close to the other side.

    2. Filofox*

      I hope things get better for you. I have M.E. and my brain fog makes me feel so stupid and I worry that everyone thinks I *am* stupid. I just started a new job three months ago and I’m desperate to prove myself as smart and competent.

  19. The OG Anonsie*

    I’ll leave the ole soap box in the closet for now, but whenever this comes up it always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up because of how it fits into the big terrible puzzle of how any kinds of illness or disability are treated in the workplace. I think for folks who have been healthy and able bodied for all of their adult lives, being willing to just not be 100% and learn to work around that is extremely difficult, and a lot of that comes from how we Other people with ongoing health problems. People aren’t comfortable taking or asking for accommodations and changing their routines to anticipate their new needs because they feel like they’re losing something and becoming a different, lesser kind of person who isn’t as good as the person they were before. Accepting accommodation is taking something with grabby little hands, and the moral implications make people uncomfortable.

    I think that’s a really large part of why you get this thing other folks are talking about, no matter the specific thing going on that’s making their body behave differently than normal, where you’re pushing and pushing and pushing to still be 100% and it both leads to more mistakes and drains you even more because you’re spreading it all out so thin. To work with it as a new reality is kind of abandoning some of the privilege you had before, and that scares the hell out of people. Folks think they can fight it the way they’re used to handling everything before, but it usually doesn’t work that way, and then you’re just even more exhausted and overcommitted.

    The more we address this as a need everyone has at some point or another (no one’s 100% healthy forever!) and normalize workplace accommodation, the easier it’ll be for people to get through these things without it being a nightmare.

    1. animaniactoo*

      What was the most frightening to me was my company’s desire to document but not really support me when I asked for help. That startled me a lot. Accommodations that were talked about as being possible if I got documentation moved from seeing what could be done to “we’re not set up to do that” (even though it could have been done easily enough) and a push to get out of the office and take leave if I was going to need more than some leeway for occasional dr appts. I do appreciate that the documentation has acted as a form of protection – but I really didn’t need to take leave, I needed things to be re-arranged some in a totally doable manner that would have been a change it became clear they didn’t want to have to deal with.

      1. animaniactoo*

        And to be clear – while I recognize that they are free to figure out what works for them, some of what I needed was stuff that wasn’t how we normally operate, but I had been asked to do when it was their emergency, and I pulled through for it them. As they are normally pretty good about supporting employees through all kinds of things, the fact that it wasn’t there for me – as a generally high-performing, long-standing, employee – was kind of scary. Because I didn’t have a backup on their not coming through for me if I had actually needed to take leave. I am sure I would have found a way to manage. But I didn’t think I would have to do that, and finding out that I would… hurt.

    2. Amey*

      This is a great comment, you are absolutely right. I definitely felt this way. I think one of the issues is that everyone knows it’s temporary and the parameters are theoretically well-defined so it’s easy to believe you should just power through. And there are often enough other pregnant women who end up needing very little accommodation that it can start to look/feel like you’re being weirdly needy.

  20. animaniactoo*

    As someone who is coming out of a “fight-for-memory” fog, I would say that the important thing to do is stress that okay, you understand that she’s startled by how much of a change this is for her. However, the likelihood is that it’s not going to go away tomorrow, so the real need is not just to slow down and double-check her work. It’s to put some new *systems* in place to support her new memory capacity. Because while it’s a temporary issue, it’s the kind of long-term temporary that means needing to actively do something different about her work methods.

    However, as her manager – I would also ask her to talk me through what that’s going to look like. I knew I was losing memory capacity, and I’m the organizational person in my dept who thinks about how to set up systems and stuff like that to keep us all on track. I seriously could have used someone to help me think through what I was putting in place, where, and how. Because my fogginess has also meant that I have found it harder to think about how to get from point A to point B. So just trying to figure out what the new systems could or needed to be has been problematic at points. Not enough that it was significantly noticed by those around me most of the time (until it got really really bad). But definitely noticed by me, and it was frightening indeed.

    1. Business Cat*

      So thrilled that you are coming out of your fog! I completely sympathize with everything you’ve said here. I’m still deeply entrenched in fibro fog and have been wrestling with whether I’m even capable of continuing my current work, which is time-sensitive and requires the attention to detail that I once had in spades.

  21. Confused*

    This is kind of unrelated, but I’m wondering: can a company legally decide not to hire you if you’re obviously pregnant? How would the logistics play out here in every scenario? Is the advice, “Don’t interview when you’re pregnant” really sound?

    1. fposte*

      A company of at least 15 employees (might be smaller limits in some states) cannot legally discriminate against somebody pregnant when they’re hiring.

      That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, of course. I don’t think there’s advice here not to interview when you’re pregnant, but it’s obviously a time that puts you more at risk of discrimination. Additionally, if you’re interviewing when pregnant it’s likely you won’t qualify for FMLA at a new employer at the point when you have the baby, so they’re not legally required to hold the job for you (unless they’ve held the job for similar leaves for reasons other than pregnancy). So it’s not the best case, but there are plenty of people who have interviewed while pregnant and worked out non-legally mandated leave at a new employer; it can work out fine.

      1. Confused*

        Thanks. I guess one of my biggest questions is: Is it legal to say to a pregnant woman in her last month: “We can’t commit to someone who will need to be out of work for the next few months.” Because what if you’re the best candidate for the position but the company legitimately doesn’t want to/can’t wait around?

        1. fposte*

          This gets into the territory of Real Lawyers, and I am not one. However, my impression is that they technically could not factor her pregnancy into her hiring, but they could inform her that they would be unable to provide her with any maternity leave or hold her job for her so long as they don’t provide or offer similar leave to employees out for non-pregnancy reasons (all this is federal, since states, especially California, have other relevant laws that might be relevant). So it would be pretty much up to the applicant to self-select out on the basis of only being promised a job for a month.

    2. atalanta0jess*

      Oh, and you have no FMLA for your first year of employment, so being pregnant while interviewing can put you in a tough spot as far as negotiating any kind of leave, for folks in the oh-so-common situation of no other maternity leave.

    3. Anonymous Poster*

      No. Pregnancy is classified as a disability for the purposes of the ADA in the United States. Basing a hiring decision off of someone being (or not being) pregnant is classified as disability discrimination in the United States.

      1. fposte*

        Pregnancy isn’t a disability under the ADA unless there’s a pregnancy-related complication that’s disabling. Pregnancy discrimination is forbidden under the helpfully named Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

        1. Anonymous Poster*

          Ah, I always thought pregnancy was classified as a disability for purposes of discrimination under the ADA. Good to know, though I suppose it’s the same result at the end of the day.


  22. OP*

    Hi all, OP here–thanks for all the constructive advice! I love and will use Alison’s script, and I’m also grateful for the commenters who suggested things like cross-training, which is very smart. Coincidentally, we are also in the midst of a staff transition where one of our long-time admins is transferring out of the department; we’ll need to hire a new person before the employee in question (Hepzibah? Sure.) goes on leave, so that will be the perfect vehicle for cross-training, as the new person will have to take over many of Hepzibah’s duties for a few months.

    W/r/t the commenters saying that Hepzibah should do more to QA herself, I want to defend her by saying that she definitely has taken some steps in that regard! She’s not just saying “pregnancy brain! what can you do?” and throwing up her hands. And nothing has happened that is a firing or even disciplinary offense by any means. But as many commenters have noted, she is so used to functioning at a super high, super fast level (I call her the border collie in an office of labradors) that I suspect she’s going to take a couple rounds of recalibration before she’s adjusted to her current physical/mental state.

    1. LBK*

      I think you’ve got the right approach here. I would definitely suggest building third-party QC at least into the most sensitive elements of her job for the time being – I think most people who work at that level already do have systems of self-checking, so where those are now failing she’s going to need backup from someone whose brain isn’t compromised. If you can spare the capacity/have enough understanding of the details of her work, I think it might help if at least initially you’re the person who QCs her work, since that can feel a little less demeaning than having a peer do it – it can feel like you’re failing/going backwards if you’re the senior person and suddenly you’re having people “under” you having to point out errors to you.

      All in all, I think maintaining your confidence in her is critical and will mean a lot to her, because her self-confidence is probably shaken. It will help to convey that you understand her brand is delivering high quality work – and that you want to support her in continuing to do that, because you don’t want people to think these mistakes are the new normal for her. That just might mean there’s a couple extra steps between the start and the finish than there would be normally.

      1. OP*

        Oh, good point about having me check her work vs people she supervises. That would definitely feel more supportive, I think.

    2. Fish girl*

      So Hepsiah sounds an awful lot like me (I was actually referred to as the German Shepard in a department of labradors!) She’s probably not used to asking for help or needing help and probably embarrassed that she can’t just force her brain to work at her normal level. What might help is some phrasing like this: “We are legally obligated to provide accommodations for you because of the pregnancy. I know that some of these new systems (QA, extended deadlines, etc) we’re putting into place might look like punishments or like we don’t trust you, but they are here to help you during your legitimate time of need. We all go through times we’re our brains and bodies can’t operate at the level we’re used to and, as your manager, it’s my job to help you get the accommodations you need to perform your job to the best of your ability.”

      1. Amey*

        I think this is a good way to approach it. My impression is that the legal obligations aren’t as stringent in the US as they are where I am but I had a conversation with a kind HR person when I was pregnant and worried about suddenly taking loads of time off work for emergency appointments when my boss was on leave. She basically said ‘You’re entitled to this and as a good employer it’s our job to make sure you get the support you need while you’re going through this.’ That framing really helped.

    3. JerryLarryTerryGary*

      You mentioned data entry errors were a big issue. That kind of thing is easy to do on automatic pilot- and it’s hard to realize right away when you’ve made an error. It might help to say it out loud as she’s doing it- just give her brain a jolt if the audio doesn’t match the visual on her screen.

  23. Kittyfish 76*

    I had a manager at oldjob, which was a toxic place at that, who would blame everything on “Baby Brain” when she was pregnant. Problem was, when she wasn’t pregnant, she was still incompetent, but she never gave an excuse for that.

  24. Eye of Sauron*

    OP, I think you have to treat this situation as you would any other performance issue. (Stay with me for a min!)

    Employee begins to make mistakes.
    Coach employee offer support and tools to fix performance (this could be anything from suggestions to specific direction.
    Monitor and check work of employee -This can be hard for you, because you may now be checking a usually strong employees work. But at the end of the day if you know the employee isn’t performing to their usual standard, it’s your responsibility to provide oversight as needed.
    Continue to coach, monitor as needed
    If problem continues then proceed to next steps…
    Has employee implemented remediation plans?
    No- This is now a specific performance issue -go back to coaching, and add monitoring of remediation plan to what you are monitoring. If this part doesn’t improve it’s a bigger issue- potentially formal coaching/improvement plans).
    Yes- Adjust remediation plan -Different tools, decrease workload, etc

    I do this with all my employees no matter what the issue is that is causing the performance problems.

    If you’re still with me and not calling me a big meanie, let me explain. If you have a standard approach to employee performance issues, it makes it easier and more fair for everyone involved. Just because you do have the standard doesn’t mean that you can’t support employees through temporary issues (examples; pregnancy, health/medication, grief, stress, etc) it also means that I had to step up to provide more active oversight to the employee and their work.

    I’ve done everything from help employees set up new organization systems to reassigning work temporarily. Most of the time the temporary measures are all that are needed and the employee resolves (that’s an awkward way to say it… hopefully you know what I’m trying to say) the temporary issue causing the performance dip, vary rarely it doesn’t and the employee needs formal coaching and improvement plans (In over 10 years of managing people I’ve only had 1 that this was the case).

    1. OP*

      Not at all a big meanie! This approach–providing consistency for all employees regardless of that their particular issue is–makes a ton of sense to me. Thanks!

  25. nonymous*

    So one of the things I’m constantly impressed with in retail is how well it runs given the lack of training/compensation/motivation of certain staff. My local box store is well stocked, and it’s a fairly straightforward task to find specific items, pay and keep track of receipts. Pricing is on point. All of that is due to the systems that the org has put in place to automate many of those daily processes. Not perfect but good enough.

    Can OP take advantage of the coaching script that Alison proposes to suggest some process development? This can be framed in “hit by the bus ” language or cross-training or even creating future advancement opportunities for the admin. Basically you are looking for tools/systems that let a non-expert (or exhausted) brain to be able to assess and triage or take detailed action. While it’s common to frame this development solely from the perspective of training (e.g. decay theory), I’d encourage also considering the entire perspective of “working memory” which has a finite capacity and can be overloaded by interference (e.g. task-switching), sleep-deprivation and biological factors.

  26. SpaceNovice*

    Okay, this isn’t a medical advice blog, but since the symptoms commenters are mentioning match what I went through with forgetfulness, brain fog, and even the systems I used to remember things….

    Thyroid hormones change during pregnancy. If your employee’s experiencing those symptoms, she needs a full thyroid panel if she hasn’t already had it, even if she has to fight the doctors about it: TSH, Free T4, Free T3, Reverse T3, Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies, and Thyroglobulin Antibodies. Then she’ll need to get the results and look up optimal levels herself. Doctors are a hit or miss with regards to properly testing and treating thyroid disorders.

    (I truncated a lot of things I could have said here to prevent from going further off topic; I could discuss hypothyroidism in the next weekend free-for-all if there’s interest. Doctors having misinformation, giving sub-optimal treatment, and refusing to test/having the wrong ranges severely impacted my ability to work as well; thankfully that’s now past tense. Other women have dealt with it, too. It’s to the point where it’s horrifying.)

  27. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    I’d argue that the OP needs to proactively reduce the admin’s workload. If you’re asking her to add an extra step — which is reasonable! — she needs to have the space to do that. I’d go into the conversation with a proposed set of projects/tasks/responsibilities that she can let go of for the time being and ask for her input on the list.

  28. zapateria la bailarina*

    i like allison’s script, and if the employee brings up pregnancy brain again, i would suggest saying something along the lines of, “since you recognize the root of your mistakes, i need you to be more careful/thorough/etc in your work to mitigate that”

    1. Nox*

      Yeah I agree and if she doesn’t shape up I would then advise her to start taking her LOA and time off a bit earlier or intermittently to help calibrate that and see if that might help her get herself together. I know ideally you wouldn’t want to burn through your medical leave like that but I got to make sure that you’re performing at what I expect you to perform at. In my experience this seems to help make sure no one is getting complacent either and then trying to pin it on baby brain.

  29. Attack Sheep*

    Alison is right on in her advice for this one. While we don’t want to pathologize pregnancy, the reality is that pregnancy can be really tough on women (and even when it isn’t, you can be constantly exhausted!). Both my pregnancies I was so ill that I was unable to work months at a time (but it would have still made me crazy for someone to assume I couldn’t do things… I had a bad run, not everyone does). It’s bang on in that you treat this like any other temporary life situation that could cause fatigue (which, in my mind, is a big source of the “brain” errors – exhaustion will do that to you!). Whether it’s pregnancy, sick child, sick parent, divorce, medical condition, insomnia, otherwise, at the end of the day you want to cut them a break, give them the support they need, slow things down if necessary. I would avoid the QA bit if you can and rather reduce the work load/pressure (to me, it would be so insulting to have someone double check all my work just because I’m pregnant, but you could ask her if she has any thoughts on how to address it and she may come up with the idea herself which is preferable, or she may agree to triple check everything herself, or otherwise).

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