• Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

How to support staff with perinatal mental illness

ByJulie J. Helfer

Feb 2, 2022

Perinatal mental illness may affect up to a fifth of new mothers and pregnant women. Francesca Prior explains how occupational health professionals and supervisors can support people with mental health issues and their partners.

Parents make up a large part of the UK labor market – 75.1% of mothers and 92.6% of fathers with dependent children are working, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Many of these parents struggle to balance their responsibilities. Figures from the ONS, from 2019, showed that 34.9% of working parents whose youngest child was between 0 and 4 years old found it difficult to meet their responsibilities. This can often have an effect on their mental well-being.

Some new mothers may also suffer from perinatal mental illness (PMI). According to the Center for Mental Health, PMI can affect between 10 to 20 percent of women during pregnancy and the first year after having a baby. Yet relatively few employers are aware of the PMI.

By supporting employees who suffer from PMI, or partners of those who suffer from PMI, organizations can help employees stay on the job, support wellness, and ensure continuity of productivity and service delivery.

Perinatal mental illness can affect a woman from the day of conception. This means that once an employee announces her pregnancy, managers, colleagues and occupational physicians must watch over her.

The transition to parenthood can be an anxious and stressful time. According to a study conducted by PATH – an EU-funded project that empowers women, families and healthcare professionals to prevent, recognize and manage PMI – 59% of new mothers and expectant mothers expressed feelings of bad mood and depression, 55% were stressed and 35% felt lonely.

What’s more shocking is that 41% felt pressure to be perfect, with 20% expressing that social media has increased the anxiety they feel.

Additionally, the Institute of Health Visiting found that a quarter of mothers and 10% of fathers experienced some form of psychological distress before and after birth.

Support parents

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 to do.

Ideally, occupational health practitioners, HR professionals, and managers should all be trained to spot the symptoms of mild to moderate PMI. The PATH Project offers training, which is available free of charge from Southampton City Council’s Employment Support Team, where employers and healthcare professionals can learn about best practice in this area.

You should have clear documentation in place. For example, a maternity calendar can be used to inform managers when to have conversations with pregnant employees about their well-being and plans for maternity leave. Having regular check-ins is essential and not only shows the employee that they are supported, but also gives managers a clear idea of ​​the work that needs to be covered, which will reduce the pressure on them and their colleagues.

You may also consider developing a wellness recovery action plan. This allows the employee to discuss their concerns and how they would like to be supported if they are feeling unwell or anxious. This small action can make a big difference later.

Occupational health professionals can help managers and employees have these open positive conversations, as well as provide clear information about PMI. For example, they might consider linking their intranet information pages to WAY where there is information for families, health professionals and employers.

It’s worth remembering that becoming a parent is a different experience for everyone – some will go through pregnancy and the first year with little or no problems; some may suffer internally and not ask for help; and others can be very vocal about how they feel.

Don’t forget the partners

Employers should also check with fathers and partners as well as mothers. Perhaps they are caring for someone with PMI or dealing with their own mental health issues.

It is important to remember that a person 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 direct them to the right support. Employees should be reminded to speak to their GP if they become increasingly anxious or worried, but some parents may just need a listening ear.

The destigmatization of PMI is essential. The reality of parenthood isn’t always Instagram-worthy, and many parents will struggle.

Enable new parents and future parents to have conversations about their mental health; offer training to managers, HR and occupational health professionals; and using resources like The PATH Toolbox will help organizations support parents and build a happier, healthier workforce.

Let’s de-stigmatize PMI, train people to recognize the signs and symptoms of PMI, and most importantly, talk about PMI – it’s nothing to be ashamed of.