How employers can support staff experiencing maternal mental health challenges

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This week marks Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, a campaign dedicated to talking about mental health problems before, during and after pregnancy. Here, we take a look at some of the challenges women may face and how employers can support employees going through maternal mental health challenges.

The addition of a new child to the family is of course a joyous occasion, but that’s not to say it doesn’t come with its own set of challenges – you are after all responsible for the 24/7 care of a new baby who is reliant on you for everything.

As a mother myself and having heard the experiences of so many other mothers, it is clear that everyone’s journey is unique to them.

The mental health struggles for some women begin before they are even pregnant. The most obvious issue here would be when a couple who are trying for a baby are struggling to conceive, which can bring with it a lot of emotions. Couples struggling to conceive can feel helpless and hopeless which can have a detrimental impact on their relationship, and therefore the mental health of the couple. These mental health issues can also impact on those who are not even thinking about having a baby. “So, when are you thinking about settling down and having kids?” is a common, and totally inappropriate, question many single women will hear, whether from friends, family or colleagues. These questions can be quite triggering for some women and can make them feel like they’re not where they should be in their lives. Everyone is on their own journey, and not everyone has the same goals to settle down and have a family.

Pregnancy itself can be an emotional rollercoaster in so many ways. During pregnancy women’s hormones fluctuate significantly so they may experience mood swings, feel emotional, forgetful, and/or become easily irritated. And of course, some have to deal with nausea or ‘morning sickness’ which has a huge impact on how they feel and are able to cope with normal day to day life – including work. As expectant mothers near the end of their pregnancy there is of course maternity leave, which allows mothers time off to look after and bond with their baby. Whilst from the outside it may look like maternity leave is an enjoyable experience to spend time with a new baby (and those who refer to it as a ‘holiday’ are particularly unhelpful), it is not always as simple as that.

Talking from experience, when I became a parent for the first time, I found the first six months quite tough. I’d spent so long wanting to have a baby (in the end we had our first daughter through IVF) and the emotions of extreme joy were mixed with the realisation that my life had instantaneously changed forever now I was responsible for this little baby; it was a lot to take in. My sense of identity had been heavily aligned to my job in the years leading up to becoming a mum and it took me a long time to get used to the fact that my primary role was as a mum. I was also dealing with the physical recovery after giving birth having suffered significant blood loss. I was physically weak, exhausted and had lost my identity – a perfect storm of issues.

It’s therefore not unsurprising that I struggled within those first few months after becoming a mother, but I kept this to myself for fear of being judged. There is a societal belief that you’re constantly on cloud 9 after becoming a new parent, but it can be tough for some to adapt to this huge change in their life. If I could go back in time, I would have sought professional advice which would likely have helped me deal with the emotions I was experiencing. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

The journey women go on from planning for a baby through to becoming a mother can be long, stressful and emotionally draining at times – most of the time during which they may still be working. Here are a few tips on how employers can support women who may be experiencing maternal mental health challenges:

  • Offer counselling to employees – Many employers now have free and confidential counselling services available to staff, so if an expectant or new mother (or other parent) is struggling with things, they have a professional to speak to.
  • Support group at work – If you notice an expectant mother or a recent returner from maternity leave is struggling in the workplace, look to see whether other mothers who have been through similar experiences can offer them support and reassurance.
  • Regular check-ins – Keep in regular contact with the employee during their maternity leave, which will allow them to remain connected to their job and their colleagues, while also giving them some grown up conversation during the day which may be missing if they’re at home alone with the baby! This should be an option for the employee on maternity leave, but ultimately it shouldn’t be a requirement that they have to stay in contact if they don’t want to.
  • Offer flexible working arrangements – Once they return from maternity leave, it is a good idea to offer an employee the option of a flexible working arrangement at the beginning to allow them a more seamless transition into balancing motherhood and working. However, how they wish to return – whether full or part time – is a decision for them.

We have also produced a dedicated article on supporting employees who unfortunately suffer baby loss which can be read here and may also be useful for employers.

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