It is key for Leaders to know about the impact of maternal mental health on the workplace. To put it into context, here are some staggering statistics:
- One in five women reportedly develop mental health issues during pregnancy or within the first year of parenting[i]
- It is estimated that maternal mental health problems cost the UK £8.2bn each year[ii]
- 25% of maternal deaths that occur between six weeks and a year after childbirth are related to mental health problems[iii]
- Almost half of the UK’s pregnant women and new mothers have no access to specialist community maternal mental health services[iv]
Maternal mental health conditions can range from general feelings of sadness or a low mood to full-blown psychosis. After giving birth to a beautiful baby, many mothers experience a period of ill-mental health. This is not the ‘baby blues’, which everyone experiences as their hormones adjust around day three to five after birth. Rather, this is when mothers start to experience increased anxiety, low moods and, in some cases, a strong desire to withdraw from the outside world and reduce or even cut contact with others
There are many reasons as to why this happens, and each is personal and unique in some way to each individual mother. My own story is not too dissimilar. After the birth of my first son, I felt overwhelmed and experienced a level of anxiety I had never felt before. While some mothers find it hard to bond with their babies during this time, I did not. I loved my baby fiercely, and I was happy to have him with me all the time. What I could not deal with was everything else. I felt troubled by the constant attention from people wanting to help and give me advice on how to do everything.
Eventually I just hid away in my room, hoping people would forget I was there, and that my husband would just deliver food and drinks through the door and keep everyone else at bay. I am quite the introvert, and so having people around 24/7 is hard for me to deal with; I did not just find it exhausting but utterly draining. When you have a baby, the pressure to be a great mother in itself is a little overwhelming. On top of that, you have the feeling of trying to figure out what to do with this little bundle of screaming humanity. Then, there is still a need to get the housework done and entertain friends and family who drop by to celebrate the new arrival. Finally, the pressure to look like you are happy, serene and in control parent can be pretty intense.
I have learnt over time to take time out for myself and not feel guilty (even if the people around me do not like it). I need that space and that silence to recharge my batteries. This revelation has not been new to me; however, what was new was taking action on it.
I decided to go back to work as soon as I could after having my son. This helped me in so many ways. Having contact with other grown-ups and talking about something other than food, poo and baby routines was hugely beneficial. It allowed me to structure my day in a way that worked for me and got my son into a great routine. I was fortunate that our office was literally at our home, so I did not need to get childcare until a little later on as I eased back into full-time work. It was a chaotic time and the support I received from my colleagues made a huge difference.
So, what are the top tips I can share with you as Leaders about supporting parents in your teams who return to work after the arrival of a gorgeous bundle of joy? A vital thing to remember in all of this is that mental ill-health does not just affect the mothers, but it can impact heavily on the fathers too. In fact, the charity Family Lives reports that one in 14[v] men experience post-natal depression. So, all these tips apply to any new parent.
Stay in touch
This is important right from the moment maternity or paternity leave starts. It helps to schedule some check-in calls in the diary even before the person goes on leave. These are not formal calls that need to be reported to HR, so make sure they know that it is very much an informal discussion to see how they are coping while away from work. It is great to use these meetings to update the person on business issues and changes in the workplace, leaving them feeling like a valued member of the team and alleviate any concerns they may have before heading back to the office.
Early intervention is key when supporting employees with maternal mental health issues. Educating your line managers to help them spot any team members struggling with emotional health is vital and this can save the business a great deal in HR and recruitment costs. Investing in training your team in mental health first aid will support these new mums, as well as all employees who may experience mental ill health for any number of reasons.
It is no surprise that many returning parents ask for a change to work patterns as their needs, such as childcare requirements, medical appointments and family commitments change. By allowing them some flexibility in their working hours and schedule, you will see happier and more dedicated employees. In my experience, flexibility works both ways. I started back at work with flexible hours, but slowly, as I built up my routine and dealt with challenges as they cropped up, I was able to return to work full time and I found that I was enjoying it very much.
As a Leader, building a culture
that supports mental health at work will yield many returns. Try
to see this
period of maternity or paternity for what it is, a brief moment to be treasured
in a person’s overall career, rather than a hindrance.
Organisations that view maternity as a major disruption are far less likely to
retain their high performers, according to Dublin City Universities Business School[i].
Getting back into work can be stressful for new parents. It can be emotionally draining as they navigate leaving their child in someone else’s care and all the emotions linked with that. Employers need to be aware of the mental health risks associated with this period in life. Putting good wellbeing strategies in place will see employees returning in a safe and healthy way, boosting both company morale and employee retention.
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[i] Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. Maternal Mental Health – Women’s Voices. February 2017 [https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/patients/information/maternalmental-healthwomens-voices.pdf]
[ii] London School of Economics and Centre for Mental Health. The costs of perinatal mental health problems. October 2014
[iii] MBRRACE-UK. Saving Lives, Improving Mother’s Care. December 2015 [https://www.npeu.ox.ac.uk/mbrrace-uk/reports]
[iv] Maternal Mental Health Alliance. UK Specialist community perinatal mental health teams (current provision) [http://everyonesbusiness.org.uk/?page_id=349]