‘Maternal mental health needs to be higher up the agenda at work’

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work heard about some of the big issues facing women in their 30s in the workplace this week, from maternal mental health issues to fertility problems.

silhouette of a person with grey paper scrunched up around to depict depression


Maternal mental health problems are very prevalent, yet few employers mention them in their policies to support working parents, the All-Party Parliamentary Group [APPG] on Women and Work heard this week.

The APPG is looking at the different issues facing women in different decades. This week’s meeting addressed the 30s and covered everything from flexible working to fertility and mental health.

Laura Seebohm, CEO of the Maternity Mental Health Alliance, a group of 125 organisations covering the perinatal period to two years after the birth of a child, said maternal mental health needs a much greater focus at work. The alliance has recently begun working with employers to drive change, given the impact on retention and the gender pay gap. Seebohm said 60% of new mums leave their job very soon after maternity leave, with mental health likely to be a factor for a significant proportion. She wants to see employers naming maternal mental health in their policies on supporting working parents as many don’t.

She also cited figures showing one in five new and expectant mums have been diagnosed as having poor mental health, yet she said many think they are alone. Many don’t get the support they need with long term consequences, she added, saying that suicide is the leading cause of maternal death from six months after birth to the first year and that the figure is rising fast. This is in part due to judgemental attitudes towards mums and stigma at a time when many are very vulnerable, said Seebohm.

She added that the economic cost to the country of not treating maternity mental health is £8.1bn a year so prevention is vital, particularly given the problem is very treatable.

Government plans

Mims Davies, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, spoke about what the Government is doing to help working mums with regard to childcare support on Universal Credit, for instance, covering upfront payments of childcare fees. They are also working with Gingerbread on job redesign for women looking to get back to the workforce. Recent legislative changes have covered statutory maternity leave for parents who have suffered stillbirth, maternity pay for mums of babies born through IVF, extending discrimination laws to cover miscarriage and the upcoming flexible working legislation. Davies said the Government was committed to making it a day one right to request flexible working.

It has also appointed a menopause employment champion to support women and is extending Job Centre support for women.

Analiese Doctrove from Pregnant Then Screwed [PTS] highlighted three areas for action for women in their 30s:

1. Childcare and parental leave – tackling childcare costs and addressing the issues facing providers, which mean that increasing numbers face closure and many are worried about delivering the Government’s expanded childcare proposals.

2. Flexible working – Doctrove said many have their flexible working requests turned down and a day one right to request was just making the process happen faster. Also, not allowing flexible working until day one in a job means it is a risk for women to leave the jobs they are in. PTS wants employers to be forced to advertise flexible options unless there is a good business reason not to.

3. Access to justice – given the high rate of pregnancy and maternity discrimination [Doctrove cited figures showing one in nine women had lost their job as a result of getting pregnant], the fact that only 1% of cases go to employment tribunal is very worrying, said Doctrove. “Employers can act with impunity if there are limited repercussions,” she said. PTS wants the Government to extend the time limit to take out cases.

Fertility issues

Becky Kearns, co-founder of Fertility Matters at Work, said one in six people around the world are thought to be affected by infertility. We therefore need to change how fertility treatment is seen – not as a lifestyle issue, but something linked to people’s circumstances, she stated. And that needs to be backed up with more education about infertility, greater empathy, a legal requirement to ensure women can take time out for fertility-related appointment and more peer networks. Kearns said many women who have fertility treatment say it has an impact on their career. Many are reducing their hours while they go through treatment or taking sick leave without telling their employer why. Around three quarters of people polled said having treatment for fertility affected their productivity and some had lost promotions as a result of having treatment. The lack of legal protections is a big problem, added Kearns.

Ami Thacker from Centrica spoke about her own fertility journey and how Centrica supports its workers. She is co-chair of their Fertility Sanctuary Network which has been going for five years and has 250 members, with a 50% increase in the last year. She spoke of how this had fed into a more open culture and support for people going through fertility treatment and how it had raised awareness and reduced stigma. Centrica has also recently announced up to £15K in support for employees who need fertility support to start a family. This can be used on anything from IVF and egg or sperm donation to complementary therapies.

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