Maternal mental health: what are employers doing?

Beena Nadeem looks at the different strategies employers are using to support the mental health of new parents.

Stressed mother holding her baby


On paper, she should have been thrilled. After six IVF attempts, she had finally given birth to daughter Amy. As the chief executive of Virgin Money, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, faced what many women do: expectations that babies should bring nothing but joy. In reality, Gadhia was fighting thoughts of suicide.

Unlike other kinds of mental illness, postnatal depression is not widely accepted in the workplace. Business consultant Karen Kwong of RenOC,  an executive coaching and business change management consulting firm, says: “It’s a taboo for mothers to feel this way because misconceptions say she ‘should’ feel happy and it’s just fatigue.”

Kwong, who is researching businesses approaches to postnatal depression, says: “Sadly I’ve not found one company that specifically addresses and acknowledges PND directly or indirectly,” she says.

“If someone has PND most HR departments are legally obliged to support those individuals (under the maternity/paternity support umbrella). But in terms of what they actually do proactively – it looks like a big fat zero for mothers, let alone fathers whose partners are suffering.”

This sentiment is reflected by Lorna Feeney, who trains mental health first aiders (staff members trained to look out for mental health issues). Lorna found it hard to bond with her baby and returned to work just three months after the birth. Her boss’ reaction to her struggles was ‘it’s not my business’ fault that you had a baby’.

She says: “I was doing all the childcare after work myself and I felt trapped. When the doctor asked me if I felt suicidal – I told him, ‘I don’t have the option, I’m a mother’.” Feeney had a breakdown at work.

Mental first aiders are becoming more prevalent in organisations from WH Smith to those like Royal Mail and Thames Water. “Sometimes people don’t realise what’s happening to them. By the time HR departments step in, it’s too late,” says Feeney. “We need to be more proactive to the signs – and this comes from Health and Safety who are all about preventing illness.”

Figures from MBRRACE-UK which documents perinatal mortality show that 20% of women and 10% suffered from postnatal depression. A shocking 23% of women who died between six weeks and one year after pregnancy died from mental health-related causes.

A recent commitment by the NHS to help an additional 30,000 women get help with perinatal mental health through its Five Year Forward View for Mental Health plan means employers are more likely to focus their thinking towards perinatal mental health.

What is business doing?

There are some organisations taking enlightened steps. Moment Health is a new app that tracks moods and feelings and links to support. Early intervention, says founder Nuala Murphy, has been shown to help 90% of people make a full recovery.

Flexible working is often cited as helpful to parents. But, despite efforts by many campaigning organisations, including, few senior flexible jobs are being advertised. Meanwhile, a recent TUC survey found two out of five low-paid young parents who ask for flexible work are ‘penalised’ through being offered the worst hours or even losing their jobs.

When firms get flexible working right, it works well and’s annual Best Practice Report documents many examples and the benefits to both worker and employer, including increased retention rates and more loyal employees.  Pearson, for example, offers phased returns to work on full pay, while other employers offer support around difficult times such as holidays.  Deloitte, for instance, offer four-week blocks of unpaid leave to spend with family in addition to holiday entitlement.

Although structural and logistical elements help with the transition back, Moment Health’s own survey reported many parents felt more supported at work, but a third of mums still struggled with ‘mental health issues as a result of parenthood’.

A buddy by your side

One way to help returning parents is through buddy schemes. Caroline Wilson, Senior Business Manager at brand specialists SThree, said having someone who had already gone through having a baby and returning to work “removed the fear of what impact the pregnancy would have on the business and on my career”.

SThree says that buddies who can advise on everything from changes at work to morning sickness and childcare are part of a package of support that ensures that 84% of female employees taking maternity leave returned to work.

Many organisations set up parenting networks. This enables expectant and current parents to obtain a good work-life balance, share relevant policies and build up support around mutual experiences.

Parents in waiting (and current parents) at the University of Lincoln can take paid time off work to attend their antenatal appointments (including travelling time) as well as relaxation classes and parentcraft classes. As well as phased returns it launched an Academic Returner’s Research Fund in 2014, providing an opportunity for mothers in science to apply for up to £10K research funding to help sustain research activities during or after maternity leave.  Meanwhile, the Bar Council offers a maternity mentoring scheme. This matches a mentor who has taken a break after having a family and gone on to establish a thriving practice with new parents.


Emma Spitz, director of The Executive Coaching Consultancy, which supports parents during the transition back to work through one-to-one coaching, training to managers, workshops and webinars, says fathers don’t tend to seek out help in the same way mums might.

“Dads often find demands from family and work means they feel under a lot of pressure – there’s an expectation on new fathers that wasn’t there in previous generations and a workshop is often the first time they’ve been able to express that,” she says.

Zoe Sinclair, a founder at Employees Matter, an employee engagement organisation, says that “creating a culture where staff empowered to speak about maternal ill-health and managers deal with it means more people are more likely to return to their jobs. But this should apply more generally too.

“Companies now are looking are a more holistic approach to looking after their staff. Now that laws have changed to enable dads to take more parental leave, there’s not so much of a gender-specific approach. Businesses are waking up to the fact people will need support at different times in their lives, including just before retirement.”

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