Empowering employees with perinatal mental health support in the workplace 

20 July, 2023, 11:50am GMT

Chloe Mumford

By Chloe Mumford

working mum

Perinatal mental health, encompassing the period before and after childbirth, is a crucial aspect of overall well-being for employees who are expecting or new parents. Perinatal Mental Illness (PMI) is a mental illness that occurs in parents up to a year post-birth – sometimes longer. The most common PMH condition is post-natal depression, which affects between 10 to 15 in every 100 women having a baby. Common symptoms include persistent sadness, irritability, lack of energy and more. 

While pregnant women and new mothers are 50% more likely to suffer from PMI , it can also affect the fathers/partners. Research suggests that one in five women and one in ten men experience mental health issues during the perinatal period. It’s a significant number, but there is little evidence of organisations supporting these individuals during that period or knowing this illness exists in their workforce at all.  

In reality, PMI can have disastrous effects on these individuals, as proven in a study that states that a quarter of all maternal deaths between six weeks and a year after childbirth were related to mental health problems.  

Employers can do a lot to support those suffering from PMI; creating a supportive and understanding work environment can have a significant impact on mental health and job satisfaction., but it may be the case that they don’t know what strategies to implement . In this article, we provide some examples of PMI, and what organisations can do to support employees who are affected by it. 

PMI conditions

There are multiple PMI conditions, and often people can have more than one in the lead up to and post-childbirth. Here are just a few examples: 

  • Post-natal depression: post-childbirth the individual may experience persistent sadness, irritability, loss of interest, lack of energy, trouble sleeping, problems concentrating and making decisions, change of appetite, negative feelings about themselves as a parent, feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and self-blame, and challenges bonding with the baby. 
  • Antenatal depression/anxiety: during pregnancy they may experience persistent and generalised worry, feeling nervous or panicky, panic attacks, elevated breathing and heart rate, excessive fears about life with a baby, racing and intrusive thoughts. 
  • Postpartum psychosis: the individual may display mood fluctuation, confusion, loss of inhibitions, and marked cognitive impairment (bizarre behaviour, hallucinations, delusions). 
  • Perinatal obsessive-compulsive disorder: the individual may experience unwelcome and often upsetting persistent thoughts, images, or urges, intense feelings of anxiety, guilt, or depression caused by these obsessive thoughts, and compulsions (repetitive actions) undertaken to reduce the feelings.  
  • Eating disorders: they may seem to be restricting their intake, binge eating, and/or purging. 
  • Tokophobia: this is the severe fear or phobia of childbirth, and for many women it also extends to pregnancy. 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: the individuals may experience vivid flashbacks (feeling that the trauma is happening right now), intrusive thoughts and images, nightmares, intense distress at reminders of the trauma, and physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea, or trembling.  

One of the issues people with PMI have is that in almost half of the UK, pregnant women and new mothers have no access to specialist community maternal mental health services. Meaning, a lot of them get no help either because they don’t have access or don’t want to speak up.  

What employers can do to support workers with PMI 

There are several approaches and strategies that employers can utilise to support workers with PMI. Employer support is especially important to those who  may not have access to  maternal mental health services. 

1. Talk about it

Open conversations are vital. Organisations need to ensure that their employees feel like they can have a conversation with their colleagues and/or managers instead of  suffering in silence.  

It’s recommended to educate the whole workforce on PMI. This can be done by organizing workshops, webinars, and informational sessions. Speak openly about the common challenges and symptoms people face during this period. By breaking down the stigma associated with mental health, you create a more open and accepting workplace culture and demonstrate that the organisation understands, supports and is prepared to provide resources for those who may need it. It’s also important to encourage employees who are expecting or have given birth to their child to open up about it if they feel comfortable with disclosing their PMI.  

Having these open conversations and understanding that everyone involved in a pregnancy will have different needs is vital to supporting workers who may suffer with PMI. 

2. Keep it anonymous

In a study, 28% believed that there is a stigma attached to mental health problems, and a further 28% felt embarrassed to talk about their mental health problems. Therefore, ensuring employees can remain  anonymous can be hugely impactful when talking about mental health in the workplace and incentivise people to open up.  

A lot of people don’t want their mental health problems known in the workplace and they shouldn’t have to disclose it to their higher-ups in order to receive help. Therefore, it’s necessary to provide anonymous support, like a councillor that they can book online without revealing their identity.  

This allows everyone – not only those with PMI – to get the support they need without the fear of  judgement or adverse impact on their careers. 

3. Support for return to work 

Organisations should also provide support and resources for people returning from parental leave.easing their transition back to the workplace. 

For example, employees can be given the choice to do a phased return, which is a work arrangement that allows employees to gradually ease back into their regular work schedule after an extended period of absence.  This will help to alleviate anxiety of this transition back to work while preventing work-related stress and burnout by offering a more manageable workload and allowing time to readjust to the demands of their job. Another alternative is to offer all employees flexible working options to allow them to transition back into the working environment, similar to a phased return.  

4. Create a supportive work environment 

New parents at work face unique challenges that employers should consider. In addition to flexible work options and parental leave, employers can further create a nurturing environment by offering on-site or subsidized childcare services which would likely be the best possible way to help ease the burden on new parents, allowing them to focus on their professional responsibilities with peace of mind. Consider establishing Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) which offer counseling and mental health support specifically tailored to the challenges faced by new parents. By implementing these initiatives, employers show their commitment to fostering a caring and inclusive work environment that promotes a healthy work-life balance for all employees. 

Final Thoughts

For a lot of parents, it’s hard to leave their children while they go to work. Employers must recognise that PMI conditions are incredibly common among new parents returning to work from parental leave. Employers need to do more to help their employees, especially when it comes to mental health. Workers suffering from PMI conditions must be able to get access to the support they need. By creating an open dialogue and offering support (with the option of anonymity) and other resources to manage their mental health, employers can ensure worker job satisfaction and wellbeing, crucial in an age of fast employee turnover.  

It is time for organisations to step up and support their employees, and in the process reap the benefits of fostering a sense of belonging in their workforce. 

Organisations are in a desperate bid to win and retain top talent to help their businesses grow and thrive, yet they’re not fully prepared to support existing skilled, experienced talent within their workforce. They need to make an effort to offer support to all new parents, but especially those with PMI. It’s clear that the extra support is needed, and the time to act is now. 

There’s a solid case for organisations benefiting from supporting new parents – doing so can improve retention of valued talent, increase productivity and engagement, reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, and generally create a positive workplace culture where employees are open to talking about their mental health and supporting other colleagues during that time.