How should employers support returning mothers’ mental health?

Returning to work after maternity leave can be a stressful time for a new mother and managers should be alive to the signs of poor mental wellbeing. But such risks can be minimised when careful thought is given to training, communication and flexible working opportunities, as Boma Adoki explains.

Last week marked Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, which aimed to encourage conversation around mental illness during pregnancy and after having a baby. Returning to work from maternity leave can be particularly a stressful time for new mothers, and it is essential that employers are equipped to safeguard their mental health.

A smooth transition back to work can be the difference between retaining a motivated employee or losing her because the demands of her previous role and family life are irreconcilable. The transition process should be well-planned and agreed by both the employer and new mother.

Successful transition

So, what does “good” look like? A successful transition back to work should involve the following:

  • Training: The employee should be offered training or coaching to support her return. This could take place while shes on maternity leave on a “keeping in touch day” or when she returns to work. It could cover updates to equipment or software, personnel moves and/or changes in the market affecting the business. Managers should be trained in how best to support employees who are returning from maternity leave, recognising “flash points” or issues, and in developing support skills.
  • Communication: In order to avoid feelings of isolation, employers should keep lines of communication open both during maternity leave and after. Ensuring that employees are included in informal office communications, news and updates can also assist with reassuring her that she is still a valued part of the team and the organisation has not significantly moved on in her absence. It can also help to mitigate the “shock’” factor of the first day back. However, employers should take their lead from the employee as to how much information they wish to receive and whether they are happy to catch up on an informal basis while on maternity leave.
  • Flexible working: It is common for returning mothers to seek to alter their previous working pattern or work from home to better balance childcare responsibilities and their career. Employers should deal with such requests reasonably and in accordance with the statutory flexible working procedure. The location of a meeting to discuss this request should be considered carefully – a noisy coffee shop where people can be overheard is far from ideal, as is insisting that the employee comes into the office at a difficult time. There are eight fair reasons on which such a request can be rejected, including “inability to reorganise work among existing staff” and “detrimental impact on performance”.Employers should tread carefully here – rejection of a flexible working request may form the basis of a sex discrimination claim if it is rejected as a “matter of course” for fear of precedent setting, or without solid and sound rationale as to why it cannot be accommodated. Employers should always agree a compromise, if possible, and recognise the sensitivities of rejecting the request and its potential effect on the employment relationship.

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A “one size fits all” approach will never be appropriate when supporting returning mothers, as the transition will differ from individual to individual. While it might be a source of trepidation for some, for others it may be seamless. Employers should be wary of generalising or making assumptions that a returning mother may be more susceptible to mental health issues than any other employee. While managers should be alive to spotting the signs of an employee who is struggling mentally, assuming that a working mother is “high risk” may open employers up to claims of discrimination.

It is unwise to follow a pre-determined route of how and to what extent an employee’s mental health should be addressed. Instead, employers should be led by the employee and seek medical advice where appropriate from the employee’s GP (with their consent).

A ‘one size fits all’ approach will never be appropriate when supporting returning mothers, as the transition will differ from individual to individual.”

The lines of communication between employer and employee should also be kept open – for example, regular one-to-one meetings between the employee and their line manager, and facilitating feedback both before and after their return. Meanwhile, relevant policies should be followed consistently to reduce the risk of discrimination accusations.

Culture is key

As always, prevention is better than cure. Employers should challenge cultures that may be hostile to returning mothers. This would look different depending on the size of the organisation and available resources. For example, mentoring schemes provide a forum to raise concerns; whether this is regular line manager meetings or a more informal “buddy” scheme pairing employees with colleagues to provide support on matters outside their specific role.

Consideration should also be given to scheduling meetings and training, and whether the notice, timing and location of such events is sensitive to flexible working patterns or childcare commitments. An unnecessary culture of “presenteeism” should be challenged so that employees are encouraged to prioritise their mental health and wellbeing.

Taking a conscious and considered approach to employees who are on, or returning from, maternity leave can help create a positive culture surrounding workplace mental health and minimise the risk of any issues arising in future.

Boma Adoki

About Boma Adoki

Boma Adoki is a lawyer in the employment team at Stevens & Bolton.
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