Workingmums.co.uk guide: Perinatal mental health and returning to work

One in five new and expectant mothers experience mental health issues such as post-natal depression. We look at your rights and options for returning to work.

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In this Workingmums.co.uk guide, we try to answer some of the main questions you might have around perinatal mental health issues and preparing to return to work.

What are perinatal mental health issues?

Perinatal mental health issues are those which occur during your pregnancy or in the first year after you give birth – ‘perinatal’ is an umbrella term that covers both the antenatal and postnatal periods. Perinatal mental health problems include depression, anxiety, and OCD.

If you’re experiencing any of these, you’re far from alone. One in five new and expectant mothers experience mental health issues, according to a report last year from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance. New fathers also experience higher rates of depression than the general male population, studies have shown, and they seem to be particularly at risk if their partner has postnatal depression.

You can find more information on perinatal mental health here.

If you’re returning to work while you’re still unwell or recovering, should you tell your employer?

You’re not under any obligation to tell your employer about a mental health issue, but you may find this helps you to request any adjustments that you need. If you decide to tell your employer, it’s helpful to do so as soon as you feel able to – try not to leave it until your return date is imminent.

“It’s a personal decision how much you disclose to an employer about a medical condition,” says Katy Salt of Working Families, a charity that provides free legal advice and other support for parents. “But, in our experience, the more information you’re able to provide [for] your employer and the earlier you’re able to [do so], the better. And the more likely you are to reach an agreement.” 

What kinds of adjustments can you request?

Calendar and clock

You can request a phased return or a deferred return, using the annual leave you’ve accrued during maternity leave, unpaid parental leave of up to a month, or general unpaid leave.

You can also submit a flexible working request if you wish to adjust your working hours, pattern or location. Anyone who has been in their job for at least 26 weeks has a legal right to make a request (“day one” rights are expected to come into force next year). You can submit a request at any time, including after you return.

Employees with postnatal mental health issues do not have extra legal rights at work, unless their illness fits the criteria to be classed as a disability. During the antenatal period, pregnant women have some protections.

How should you prepare for these conversations with your employer?

“Have a really clear…reflection, prior to the meeting, of what [you] want from that discussion. Is it flexible working? Is it time off for appointments? Or is it something else?” says Annie Belasco, head of PANDAS, a perinatal mental health charity that runs face-to-face and virtual support groups for parents.

Before a meeting, think about your exact requests and make a list of the points you wish to raise. Focus on the positive – think about all the things you can contribute and any adjustments you need to make that happen, rather than dwelling on anything you can’t do. It can be helpful to take a letter from your GP or midwife with you.

What other kinds of support might your employer offer?

Woman helping another woman up a ladder

You might have access to the following, especially if you work for a large organisation: Employee Assistance Programmes that include free counselling services, staff networks for parents, return-to-work mentoring or buddy schemes. Your line manager or HR team should let you know about all the support on offer. 

Employers can read our guide to supporting staff with perinatal mental health issues here.

What can you do if your employer isn’t being supportive?

Organisations such as Working Families, Acas, and Pregnant Then Screwed run free legal advice helplines Workingmums.co.uk also runs a free service where employment lawyers answer your questions (details below).

Many employers will have an internal process where you can appeal against a rejected flexible working request, or file a grievance. Taking your employer to court is generally seen as a last resort, as it can be stressful and time-consuming. “Always, always try and resolve it informally at first,” says Salt at Working Families.

What are the positive aspects of returning to work for some parents with perinatal mental health issues?

For some women, returning to work when they feel ready can be “hugely beneficial”, says Belasco at PANDAS. Many women struggle with a change in identity when they become mums – if their profession was a big part of their identity before they had a child, it can feel good to reconnect with that part of themselves. Many women also feel lonely during maternity leave – if so, some time with colleagues can be a boost.

“We know that…it’s so important to have time away from [the] home and parenting, to focus on something potentially unrelated to your purpose as a parent,” Belasco says.

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Employers can read our guide to supporting staff with perinatal mental health issues here.

If you have a question about your employment rights, please email it to [email protected] and we will endeavour to answer it, drawing on the advice of the employment lawyers who work with us. Q&As will be edited for anonymity and posted online to help others with similar issues. You can see an example here.



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