Mothering at work: Exploring maternal mental health

Postpartum affects mental health in the workplace. What can companies do about it?

Up to 1 in 5 women will experience a mental disorder in the postpartum period such as postpartum depression or generalized anxiety disorder.

How an organization handles a mother’s return to work can have a significant impact on her mental health, according to new research from the University of Georgia.

Organizations control for most work-related factors that predict better mental health outcomes. This may include access to paid maternity leave, overall workload and work flexibility.

But previous research examining maternal mental health in relation to work has combined return to work with maternity leave, said lead author Rachel McCardell, a doctoral candidate in the UGA College of Public Health.

“But returning to work is more than that, because while maternity leave is an important resource, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual process of when the leave ends and when you start to resume work, and when you start to combine your roles as an employee and a mother – she said.

Understanding the role that return to work plays in a working mother’s mental health can help in finding solutions. It will indicate where interventions or support could prevent or reduce the severity of conditions such as depression or anxiety.

The roles of mother and employee can collide

The authors conducted a systematic review of peer-reviewed articles from the past 20 years that examined mental health among working mothers in the United States. Studies include cross-sectional and longitudinal studies that vary and sometimes conflict on whether returning to work improves or harms mental health.

“But when we synthesized all the studies together, we saw that a kind of conflict emerged between balancing the responsibilities and demands of being an employee, as well as the responsibilities of being a parent, and wanting to meet the needs of both roles,” McCardell said.

They found that greater conflict between the two roles led to poorer mental health outcomes.

In workplace research, explained co-author Heather Padilla, return to work is a term applied to people who have been injured or out of work for a long time due to illness and are returning to the workplace.

“There are return-to-work programs and, in some cases, a very systematic process of assessing an employee’s abilities and adjusting their job responsibilities to help them transition back because research shows that there are positive benefits to returning to work.” place after injury or illness, but there is a balance,” said Padilla, an associate professor in the College of Public Health.

“I don’t know if we have the same conversations about going back to work after you’ve had a baby, even though we treat pregnancy as a disability and illness in the U.S. workplace.”

The results of this study reveal some strategies that people can take to maintain their mental health when they return to work. Peer support, for example, was cited as an important resource for parents returning to work. But the organization’s policies will ultimately have the greatest impact.

McCardell says this review highlights why it’s so important for workplaces to address maternal mental health in an intentional way.

β€œIt’s about creating that structure to say you’re not alone. To show that as an organization you care about and value your employees. Let’s create a structure where we can have those conversations and address those needs,” McCardell said.

McCardell and Padilla are joined by third co-author Emily Loding, also a doctoral student in the College of Public Health.

The paper is published in the July issue of the Journal of Maternal and Child Health.

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