Society tells us that pregnancy is ‘a magical time’ for women, however many women struggle with mental health issues ranging from stress and anxiety through to psychosis. Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week aims to raise public and professional awareness of perinatal mental health problems, advocating for women affected by it, changing attitudes and stigma attached to it, and helping families access the information, care and support they need to recover.
According to the Maternal Mental Health during a Pandemic report commissioned by the Centre for Mental Health, between 10-20% of women develop mental health problems during pregnancy, or within the first year of having a baby.
Pregnancy in a pandemic
The economic impacts of COVID-19 have exacerbated issues faced by women, including the gender pay gap and maternal mental health. Distanced working, living, and caregiving have meant that recognising symptoms of maternal mental health issues has been more difficult, and signposting treatments for women has had to change.
Isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increasing numbers of women facing pregnancy and motherhood alone. During the pandemic, many women’s journey to recovery following birth has been different with less access to in-person help and not being able to rely on close family and friends for support. Missing out on identifying and treating maternal mental health issues can cause collateral damage in every part of a woman’s life and it’s vital that employers recognise the impact of perinatal mental health issues, to help their own employees both inside and outside the parameters of the workplace.
The price of pressure
The stigma surrounding maternal mental health is one of the most significant barriers that prevents women from seeking help. It means that many women hide their perinatal mental health problems for fear of repercussions. It is estimated by the NHS that the cost of poor perinatal mental health is £8.1 billion each year, equating to approximately £10,000 per birth. With pressures and expectations ranging from body image, work-life balance, finances, relationships, and mothering techniques, expectant and new mothers are at a significantly greater risk to mental health issues.
Returning to the workplace
However, just as isolation can be difficult for mothers, coming out of it can be equally as hard. Many mothers have found the transition from isolated maternity leave, back to work to be a transition larger than they expected. In our recent webinar, Leadership Lessons from Vulnerability, guest speaker Carmel Bawa opened up about her experience of returning to the workforce after maternity leave, and finding a different space than the one she had left behind, both physically as her company turned to remote working during the pandemic, and mentally as a shift in communication and management styles had occurred to accommodate the changes. When transitioning back into work from maternity leave, support for mothers is crucial whether the return is into the physical office or the remote one.
The motherhood tax
The return to work and many women’s journey to recovery is not the only challenge that mothers face as members of the workforce. “The Mommy Effect'' or “The Motherhood Tax” is a phenomenon explaining the monetary penalty that women face when they become a mother, worsening the gender pay gap. The so-called “informal economy”, where mothers and many women finish their professional work day, only to commence the running of the household, meaning that women, and especially mothers, face a double-burden - the monetary penalty at work, and the unpaid, second shift at home, which often impacts the ability to perform, create and thrive, both at home and at work. This double burden is something that needs to be addressed by a shift in societal norms, which can be led by workplace policies that support women beyond the early stages of motherhood and can be facilitated by employers who commit to developing women's roles within the workplace to nurture and retain them as valuable assets to the workforce.
Inequality in motherhood
At HappyMaven, diversity and inclusion is at the heart of our ethos, however when applying the lens of women from minority groups on top of maternal mental health, the inequalities are uncomfortably stark. To further explore the intersections of women in our economy, we must acknowledge that in the UK, Black women are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women, according to a 2019 report, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, 55% of pregnant women admitted to hospital with coronavirus were from BAME backgrounds. These figures on women from minority groups maternal physical health, compounded with research indicating higher rates of mental health problems amongst women from BAME backgrounds during pregnancy and early motherhood, call for a desperate need for society - starting with employers who are responsible for the wellbeing of these employees - to recognise this disparity in maternal experiences and ensure that all women and mothers have equal access to support, opportunities and care within their organisation.
To further explore the intersections of women in our economy, women of colour who are mothers are at a further disadvantage, experiencing higher rates of mental health problems during pregnancy and early motherhood..The societal disparities that women face must be tackled directly by employers to ensure that all women and mothers have equal access to support and development opportunities.
Employer Support Ideas
• Clear and accessible policies and practices: Many newly expectant mothers may find discussing their pregnancy options daunting and intrusive, so employers who have easily accessible and clear maternity policies will allow employees to prepare and understand their position.
• Supportive and inclusive leadership: Employees at any stage in their lives will thrive under great management, but when the employee requires confidential and empathetic communication and support, this type of leadership style will enable employees to confidently navigate their professional future.
• Flexibility: Empowering employees with flexible roles will enable them to thrive beyond the constraints of fixed office walls and 9-5 hours. Many expectant mothers experience fluctuations in energy and emotions, but with the right level of flexibility, can successfully navigate these obstacles and perform effectively. Similarly with mothers of babies and children, traditional office hours may not match the lifestyle requirements of juggling childcare and work responsibilities.
• Communication and planning: Government sanctioned ‘Keep in Touch’ days are common in most workplaces, however ensuring that employees feel valued and prepared for the eventual return to work is important to ensure a smooth transition back into the workforce. Creating a bespoke return-to-work plan could help the employee to reintegrate following maternity leave, allowing them to establish a new routine, regain confidence and get up to speed with changes that occurred during maternity leave.
As expectant mothers prepare for life-altering personal and professional changes, employers have a duty to ensure that their employees are supported and well equipped to manage the realities of motherhood in the workplace, from pregnancy to maternity leave, through to returning to work. At HappyMaven, we can support HR teams with employee wellbeing, mental health and diversity and inclusion strategies to ensure that all employees are supported and equipped with the tools needed to be happy, healthy and valued in the workplace.
Read more about the Maternal Mental Health Alliance here.