Over the course of this month we have been reflecting on the topic of parental mental health. In particular we have explored how mental health can show up at any time, during pregnancy, during maternity leave at the time of the return to work - even beyond. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the NHS estimated that up to 1 in 5 new mothers and 1 in 10 new fathers will experience mental health issues during pregnancy or in the year after birth—what is often called the perinatal period (‘peri’ meaning ‘around’ and ‘natal’ meaning ‘birth’). However it is believed to have increased significantly since 2020.
In this blog post we wanted to explore how line managers can play a supportive role to new parents as they adjust to being back at work and potentially overcome challenges with their mental health. Perinatal mental illness appears to be largely overlooked in the workplace, perhaps because it is assumed that the greatest risk is post-natal depression which occurs soon after the birth and therefore during maternity leave, and not when the colleague is back at work.
What contributes towards mental health challenges in working parents?
Research indicates that there may be a number of factors that could contribute towards mental health challenges when it comes to perinatal mental health. Many parents report feeling disappointed by how their parental leave is handled by their employer. Examples include poor communication whilst they are out of the office, difficulties with handing over and handing back client work, discriminatory practices relating to career progression and/or promotions and clarity regarding roles and responsibilities. Furthermore, the reality of being back at work whilst adjusting to leaving their baby in childcare, alongside navigating disrupted sleep patterns and work-related stress can have a negative impact on the wellbeing of parents.
What can organisations do to help?
Organisations can take proactive steps to enable people to disclose their illness, or that of their partner at work. From an HR perspective, ensuring that the appropriate policies and practices are in place is crucial. However, given the relationship between the line manager and the new parent is so important, equipping line managers with the appropriate guidance and support for how to manage this transition is key.
Help line managers support working parents
We provide workshops and toolkits for line managers to support them as they manage employees through the transition of becoming a parent and then becoming a working parent. Research by Platform 55 shows that 62% of managers report that they don’t feel equipped to manage modern parenting conversation and 43% of dads say that their manager isn’t aware of their parenting challenges. In our experience, the golden rule for line managers throughout a parental transition is to stay supportive, curious and connected. By always staying curious and asking questions about how your colleague is feeling, what support they might want from you and how they would like to stay connected whilst they are on leave (if indeed they do) or how they would like to return, you will be confident that you are keeping the lines of communication open, and providing them with the opportunity to speak up and ask for what they need.
Make sure they feel valued, appreciated and included
Prospective parents need to feel valued, appreciated and included throughout their leave and beyond. Letting them know how much they are valued within the team, that they will be missed while they are on leave and taking the opportunity to include them where possible whilst they are away will help them to still feel part of the team and the organisation. Take care to remember their birthday with a card, invite them to the Christmas party, utilise Keeping In Touch days and look ahead to their return. When it comes to returning to work, invest time in exploring how they would like to re-integrate with the team. Show empathy for how much their lives have changed and demonstrate your confidence in their return.
Importantly, in those first few weeks and months back, check in with them regularly. Ask them how they are doing, how they are finding the return, what is working well and what could be better. Show how you care about them as a human being - seek to understand what they are doing to take care of their wellbeing and find out how you can best support them. The more that you can do as a line manager to let your colleague know that you want their return to be a success, the more likely they are to disclose if things are proving challenging - either at home or at work. You are then able to signpost them to resources such as HR, workplace parent networks, mental health first aid and counselling provided through work.
My colleague Sarah Turner l and I have been busy creating content highlighting the importance of organisations providing support for working parents. As part of this, we created this video series exploring the entire journey of maternity leave, from before the leave starts, through to preparing to return and then the first few months back at work. In our most recent video we talk about maternity coaching and mental health.
If your organisation would like to understand more about how to support line managers in managing their employees as they take parental leave, please get in touch.
This blog post is a collaboration between Maternity Coaches Laura Duggal and Sarah Turner. They are working together, sharing their experiences and bringing the best of their joint advice and knowledge to you.