Going back to work after having a baby is tricky stuff. After all, the new parent is simply not the same person they were before.
This personal struggle, combined with a misguided workplace view of what a parent was actually doing on leave (no, they were not just lounging about and cuddling with their baby) add to a cultural disconnect. While the complexities of early days at home with a baby are often overwhelming, most workplaces simply treat any leave as time “off,” like it’s an extended vacation. In reality, a new parent is actively climbing a steep learning curve: mastering a whole new set of skills, tackling challenges that are not only foreign but also highly personal, and making sense of a new emotional and physical normal. The birth parent has to cope with physical healing, which itself can be complicated and tiring, while also caring for and bonding with a newborn.
This transition is challenging for almost every new parent, but for some it can become postpartum depression (PPD). While PPD is the most commonly used term, a range of mood disorders can occur around (not just after) the birth of a child. According to the Centers for Disease Control, how often PPD symptoms occur, how long they last, and how intense they feel can be different for each person. About 1 in 7 women experience PPD, and men often do as well; people are usually surprised to learn that anywhere from 4%–25% of men report feeling some level of PPD.
Most employees don’t share their struggles with their employer. Karen Kleiman, founder of the Postpartum Stress Center, told me, “One of the most universal ‘go to’ responses…is to overcompensate by creating the illusion of being just fine through an extreme professional push. There is a general notion of being able to conquer.” The parent’s struggle doesn’t always show on the outside. As Kleiman explains, “Sometimes the women who look the best right away, the ones who come off as good and strong, are going to extraordinary lengths to show the world how in control and strong they are — these women are actually doing the worst.”
But a manager’s support can make a huge difference. Lucy (not her real name) is a first-time mother who works in a New York hospital. When she was pregnant, she began to experience symptoms of perinatal anxiety (PA), something that continued after the birth of her baby (becoming postpartum anxiety, or PPA). “I had not flat-out told them that I was suffering from PA and PPA, but I was open in describing my struggles and my manager was very kind and understanding,” Lucy said. For example, while hospital policy offered only a three-week leave, her manager supported her as she pieced together 16 weeks of leave using paid sick time and a recently implemented New York state policy offering paid leave. And when Lucy returned to work, she worked out an arrangement with her boss where she could ramp back up by telecommuting, something other women in her department had done. Regular conversations with her manager also helped. “She would regularly ask me to tell her if my workload felt like too much,” Lucy told me.
This preemptive, flexible, and gradual return strategy has been very successful for Lucy and her department, but unfortunately, this kind of arrangement is relatively rare. Lucy stressed that it was only her department, and her very understanding manager, that made it possible — it wasn’t the norm for her institution as a whole.
Anne Smith, the president of Postpartum Support International, is a leading voice and authority in PPD treatment. The organization is actively improving frontline provider training and support to better identify and treat PPD. When we spoke, she stressed that there are three types of support that people with PPD often need: social, therapeutic, and medical. Employers can be a key factor in the first two. Here’s how:
Identify. As a manager, commit to keeping your eyes wide open. Note over- or under-productivity as well as a changed or flat personality or loss of enthusiasm. This is not the same as adjustment issues, which are to be expected and also acknowledged.
Offer peer and professional support. Create a healthy menu of ways to access support without requiring an employee to ask or identify their need. Have ready tools to connect parents with each other. Have outside vendors and other resources listed and easy to access. Not only offer but require nonnegotiable self-care such as post-natal yoga. Consider a required part-time return plan or a mandated telecommute for a period of time.
Provide good coverage. Care, especially private counseling, can be expensive. Still, providing coverage for private or group work can be extremely helpful. Make this an easy-to-access benefit. Take advantage of centers that offer private and group work (such as the Pump Station and Nurtury in Santa Monica, California), as well as services (Pacify or Let Mommy Sleep) for services as part of off- and on-ramp benefit options. Smith says that “most people want to keep their mental health issues separate from the workplace; thus the biggest barrier is not the employers doing the right thing — it is simply too hard for an employee to explore PPD struggles at work.” Communicate the safety of the space and the benefits available without a requiring an employee to expose or ask too much.
Offer tools. Proudly offer options that can include flex time, telecommuting, gradual return, peer mentoring, and other support offerings at your management disposal. Share these with all team members, potential employees, and so on. Simply make it a part of your culture.
Normalize and educate. Actively work to remove misunderstandings around parental leave and PPD. Create a larger view of PPD through hands-on CSR work in the local community to underscore the truth that PPD can hit anyone, anywhere. Host internal or online events with experts on this issue. If you need ideas on what kinds of experts to bring in, some of the leading voices are Lauren Smith Brody, Anne Smith, and Karen Kleiman, all of whom have books and resources for overcoming the complexities of returning to work after giving birth.
Be knowledgeable and prepared. Make a strong commitment to identifying and supporting instances of PPD in your employees. It is a highly worthwhile investment for holding onto those you value through authentic support.
Originally published at hbr.org