· Features

An employer's guide to postnatal depression

One in six women experience postnatal depression after giving birth, but three-quarters of them suffer in silence

Recent studies by the NHS revealed that most women choose not to talk about their symptoms in fear of being labelled a ‘bad mother’. Only one in four cases of post-natal depression are diagnosed and treated.

There is plenty of publicly-available information on ways to prevent post-natal depression. Adjusting one’s lifestyle, making dietary changes and early screening are just some of the suggestions.

But even after one has taken all the suggested measures, there are risk factors that may be beyond an individual’s control. With more women choosing to stay in full-time employment, while also taking on motherhood, the question of whether employers have a part to play in preventing or at least reducing the risk of post-natal depression is a pertinent one.

If my own experience is anything to go by the answer is a resounding yes.

My struggle with pre- and post-natal depression was more prolonged than the average sufferer. I had no idea I was ill at the time and therefore struggled for several months without a diagnosis. My illness eventually deteriorated into clinical depression and I had a breakdown at work in front of my boss and colleagues. To say I was mortified by the experience would be an understatement. And on top of that I blamed myself for the way I was feeling, which only served to intensify the trauma.

These types of incidents are not rare. Thankfully employers are finally starting to take the mental health of their workforces seriously. Initiatives such as employee assistance programmes and mental health first aid training are extremely beneficial. Mental health first aiders especially can provide vital education and resources and point colleagues in the direction of appropriate professional support, such as counselling services before an individual takes leave.

During maternity leave employers should stay in touch with the employee and provide regular updates on the business that may affect them. On returning to work I was informed that we had a new IT system in place. My colleagues had had a three-day training course on it and became well-acquainted with it fairly quickly. There was no warning given when I was away from the office that there would be such an important development taking place and it subsequently affected my productivity.

Employers should communicate changes within the company so an individual has a smooth transition back into working life with minimal disruption.

In a similar vein, it is prudent for employers to manage expectations for returning to work before maternity leave begins. This eases the pressure on the employee to perform at full capacity as soon as they return. Employers should be sensitive to the fact that the individual has had a huge permanent life change, which is taking up a lot of their emotional energy.

New mothers and their spouses are under a great deal of mental and emotional stress after giving birth. I worked miserably for 12 months then found out I was pregnant again. I had a miscarriage the second time around and although the loss was difficult to bear, in hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened given my mental state. Having kind and trustworthy colleagues was essential to getting me through that time.

Assuring confidentiality, being approachable, and being mindful of an employee’s circumstances is something many employers may take for granted. My experience proves that it goes a very long way.

Early intervention is key in helping with recovery. Because of the lack of early detection and the rapid deterioration of my condition, I had to be out of the business for several months. Not having a structure or routine did not help my cause. I felt worthless and like I had nothing to get up for in the morning. Combine that with separation anxiety and isolation, and I was on a very slippery slope.

It’s been eight years since my depression and I have made a full recovery. But stories like mine need not be repeated. Mental health education for employees and employers can help sufferers get the treatment they need as soon as possible. But building mental health resilience in the workplace is of utmost priority. Given the tools now available, there is no excuse for any business not to place this at the top of its employee wellbeing agenda.

Lorna Feeney is a mental health risk adviser and mental health first aid trainer at Marsh and Jelf