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Baby blues: how can employers help?

What is an employer's role in reducing risks when someone returns from parental leave.
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Baby blues: how can employers help?

Baby blues: how can employers help?

4 November 2020

By Gaby Grammeno

The birth of a baby can turn your life upside down, especially if the baby seems intent on not letting you sleep. A host of new problems can take your emotions on a roller-coaster ride, and vulnerable individuals can experience serious depression.

The current focus on workplace mental health has highlighted the challenges of returning to work after parental leave, and the employer’s role in reducing the risks.

Post-partum depression and employers’ responsibilities

If an employee who has been on parental leave seems a bit fragile, an employer’s first reaction might be to think it’s a personal, private matter, and ‘no concern of ours’.

But this is not the case. Work issues can combine with personal or family issues to incapacitate an employee to the point where their ability to cope is seriously compromised.

On the job, this can result in oversights, misjudgements, conflict with other staff, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, grievances and a massive management headache. It can also lead to long periods of sick leave – with the consequent need to find and train replacement staff – and in some cases, worker comp claims for psychological injury.

And it shouldn’t be assumed that such claims will fail because the problem can be blamed on personal propensities and stresses that are not work-related – many employers have denied liability on this basis, only to have courts and tribunals come down on the side of the worker, after hearing evidence that the person’s employment was a significant contributing factor.

In any case, the various Work Health and Safety Acts around the country clearly define ‘health’ to include workers’ psychological health, so employers have a duty to take whatever steps are reasonably practicable to manage risks to workers’ mental health and wellbeing.

A caring workplace culture is also good for business, as it can improve morale, productivity and commitment.

New study supports family-friendly policies

A study, published in a professional public health journal, aimed to investigate the impact of ‘precarious’ working conditions, work-life balance issues and psychosocial work stress during pregnancy on symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD) in new mothers. PPD affects about one in five women, especially after a first baby, and is an enormous psychological burden for them.

Working conditions are characterised as ‘precarious’ if the job is temporary, wages are low, or the worker is defenceless against authoritarian treatment, has little scope for negotiating work matters, and little power in practice to exercise workplace rights. Such conditions have been linked to poor mental health – the more precarious the employment, the higher the prevalence of psychological ill-health.

Work-life balance issues can arise from conflict between the dual roles of domestic and workplace responsibilities. These two roles have a reciprocal relationship, as experiences at work can spill over into the private or family domain, and vice versa. Potential negative consequences of this spill-over include a higher prevalence of burnout, depression, anxiety, and absenteeism from work as well as lower life satisfaction, lack of energy, sleep disorders, fatigue, and poorer self-reported health. In general, women with a high socio-economic status or a university degree seem to be at greater risk of this type of problem.

In the present study, analysis of the data revealed that work-life balance issues, an imbalance between effort and reward at work, and precarious working conditions significantly predicted symptoms of PPD, even when other relevant factors were the same (eg level of lifetime depression, anxiety, education, age, and whether the baby is a woman’s first).

The study concluded that family-friendly workplace policies can mitigate the burden of PPD, with consequent benefits for the business as well as the individual.

What employers can do to reduce post-partum depression and benefit the business

This and other studies have demonstrated convincingly that an effort-reward imbalance – where the person feels that the effort they put into the job is not justified by the level of reward they derive from it – is a significant factor predicting PPD. It follows, therefore, that employers can minimise the risk of PPD (and its consequences for the business) by increasing the perceived reward for effort.

This is not necessarily a matter of remuneration. Reward can take the form of evidence of appreciation, such as praise and recognition for a job well done, or a willingness to be flexible in the face of personal or domestic issues, for example, consideration of the changing private situation of women during the perinatal period.

The study highlighted the importance of adopting family-friendly policies, discouraging employees from working at home after working hours, and training supervisors to promote the management of work and non-work responsibilities and acknowledge their workers’ private lives.

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