Perinatal mental illness can affect up to a fifth of new and expectant mothers. Francesca Prior discusses how occupational health professionals and line managers can support those with a mental health condition their partners.
Parents make up a large part of the UK labour market – 75.1% of mothers and 92.6% of fathers with dependent children are in work, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Many of these parents face challenges in balancing their responsibilities. The ONS figures, from 2019, showed that 34.9% of working parents whose youngest child was between 0 and 4 years faced difficulties in fulfilling their responsibilities. This can often have an effect on their mental wellbeing.
Some new mothers may also suffer from perinatal mental illness (PMI). According to the Centre for Mental Health, PMI can affect between 10 to 20% of women during pregnancy and the first year after having a baby. Yet, relatively few employers know about PMI.
By supporting employees who are experiencing PMI, or partners of those with PMI, organisations can help employees to remain in work, support wellbeing and ensure productivity and service delivery is continued.
Perinatal mental illness can affect a woman from the day of conception. This means that once an employee has announced their pregnancy, managers, colleagues and occupational health practitioners need to look out for them.
The transition into parenthood can be an anxious and stressful time. According to research by PATH – an EU-funded project that enables women, families and healthcare professionals to prevent, recognise and manage PMI – 59% of new and expectant mothers expressed feelings of low mood and depression, 55% were stressed and 35% felt lonely.
What is more shocking is that 41% felt a pressure to be perfect, with 20% expressing that social media has increased the anxiety they experience.
Furthermore, the Institute of Health Visiting found that a quarter of mothers and 10% of fathers have experienced some form of psychological distress antenatally and postnatally.
So, the question is, what can be done to support parents in the workplace?
The Institute of Health Visiting and Southampton City Council conducted research with parents and employers to identify what could be put in place to improve support at work. While there are laws and policies to guide employers and support employees, there is so much more that can be done.
Parents’ mental health
Ideally, occupational health practitioners, HR professionals and managers should all be trained in spotting the symptoms of mild to moderate PMI. The PATH project offers training, which is available for free from Southampton City Council’s Employment Support Team, where employers and health professionals can find out more about best practice in this area.
You should have some clear documentation in place. For instance, a maternity calendar can be used to notify managers when they need to have conversations with pregnant employees about their wellbeing and their plans for maternity leave. Having regular check-ins is essential and not only helps show the employee they are being supported, but also gives managers a clear idea of what work needs to be covered, which will reduce pressure on them and their colleagues.
You could also consider developing a wellbeing recovery action plan. This allows the employee to discuss any their concerns and how they would like to be supported if they become unwell or anxious. This small action can make a big difference later.
Occupational health professionals can support managers and employees in having these open positive conversations, as well as providing clear information regarding PMI. For example, they could consider linking their intranet information pages to PATH where there is information for families, healthcare professionals and employers.
It is worth remembering that becoming a parent is a different experience for everyone – some will sail through pregnancy and the first year with few or no issues; some may suffer inside and not reach out for help; and others may be very vocal about how they are feeling.
Don’t forget about partners
Employers should also check in with fathers and partners as well as mothers. Perhaps they are looking after someone with PMI, or experiencing their own mental health struggles.
It’s important to reiterate that someone with PMI is never alone; there is always support, advice and help available. As occupational health professionals the best thing we can do is listen, validate their concerns, and signpost them to the right support. Employees should be reminded to speak to their GP if they are getting increasingly anxious or worried, but some parents may just need a listening ear.
Destigmatising PMI is key. The reality of parenting isn’t always Instagram-worthy, and many parents will have their struggles.
Empowering new and expecting parents to have conversations about their mental health; offering training for managers, HR and occupational health professionals; and using resources like PATH’s toolkit will help organisations support parents and develop a happier and healthier workforce.
Let’s destigmatise PMI, upskill people to recognise signs and symptoms of PMI, and, more importantly, let’s talk about PMI – it is nothing to be ashamed of.