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Maternal mental health experts find that most new mothers do not receive much support, if any, when they go back to work.Jecapix

After a year of maternity leave, Jen Strimbold reluctantly agreed to return to her job as an occupational therapist in northern British Columbia, even though the thought of going back so soon made her anxious.

When she arrived at her office, she wasn’t prepared for how little support she received from her employer and colleagues, despite having just been through such a major life change.

“Twelve months didn’t seem like enough. I never have felt so much dread in my life. My baby and I were so attached,” she says.

On her first day, Ms. Strimbold says a few colleagues came by to greet her, but quickly returned to their work. She remembers feeling overwhelmed and upset at the thought of her daughter being at daycare for the first time. “There were some tears at my desk,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting balloons and banners, but it was a big transition and for me it was emotionally lacking.”

She wishes there had been a support group at work, or at least a supervisor who would have checked in with her in the beginning to see how she was adjusting.

Unfortunately, Ms. Strimbold’s experience is not uncommon. Maternal mental health experts find that most new mothers do not receive much support, if any, when they go back to work.

More anxiety and depression through the pandemic

Despite the huge amount of information available on pregnancy and baby development, there is little about navigating the emotional, financial and psychological toll of the postpartum return to work.

According to the 2021 Maternity Leave Experience Report by Moms at Work, a professional association for working mothers, 95 per cent of women reported that they received no formal support during their transition to and from parental leave. Another 40 per cent of mothers surveyed considered quitting when they went back to their jobs.

Many women don’t realize how dramatically their lives will change and how much adjustment their new role as a mother will take, says Dr. Sophie Grigoriadis, head of the Women’s Mood and Anxiety Clinic: Reproductive Transitions and a research scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Dr. Grigoriadis says the back-to-work transition is especially difficult to navigate.

“A woman was an employee and now she’s a mom and she has to learn how to put those two roles together,” she says. “That is not easy. If she doesn’t feel 100 per cent ready, it will be extremely stressful.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made things even more difficult for women after baby. The Canadian Medical Association Journal noted a significant increase in women seeking mental health support for anxiety, depression and substance use disorders between April and November 2020. Up to one in five mothers experience postpartum mental illness.

Dr. Grigoriadis says number of women seeking help at her clinic during the increased dramatically during the pandemic. “There was a lot more anxiety and a lack of support,” she says.

Support groups can help

Sheila Duffy, director of the Pacific Post Partum Support Society in Lower Mainland, B.C., agrees that there have been many more requests for help since the pandemic began. Calls to the organization rose to 6,000 from an average of 4,000 per year. The number of postpartum support groups grew from eight, pre-COVID, to 17.

“It highlighted we don’t have a lot of support for families,” says Ms. Duffy.

One of the biggest stressors expressed by postpartum women in support groups is the return-to-work transition, Ms. Duffy says. She notes that resources such as support groups – whether offered in the workplace or from an outside organization – can be helpful in reducing postpartum stress and anxiety.

If a workplace doesn’t offer this kind of in-person support, online resources such as forums or virtual therapy can also be helpful, says Dr. Grigoriadis. “That is one good thing about COVID. It forced us to work well with online delivery of treatment,” she says.

When Swati Matta wanted to start a family in 2021, she found that information for expectant and new parents was incredibly fragmented. As someone who had spent her career in digital health, Ms. Matta decided to create a one-stop app, Koble, which would provide users with access to pre-and post-natal experts. For $199 a year, the app provides postpartum help including career coaches, sleep consultants, doulas and lactation consultants, along with video courses dedicated to pregnancy and birth.

Since its launch in January 2022, Koble has grown 200 per cent month-over-month and users visit four times a week or more on average, says Ms. Matta. She’s now working with a number of Ontario employers to include the Koble app as a parental benefit.

Having a section dedicated to supporting new parents was intentional, she says. “I found that many resources focused on the baby or the birthing person,” but there was a huge gap in guidance for postpartum parents returning to work.

Creating a compassionate environment

Employers can do a number of things to help postpartum women feel supported, says Ms. Duffy, such as on-site daycare, parent support groups, nursing support, flexible hours and hybrid work. This can help with retention and productivity.

For Winnipeg mom Jennifer Laspa, returning to work after her second and third child was a good experience because of the compassionate environment. At the time, she worked in child welfare and many of her coworkers were also new parents. A room was provided for pumping or breastfeeding, and she found her supervisors were sympathetic if she had to take time if her children were ill.

“It was a very supportive place – maybe because everyone had children or worked with children,” she says.

Some Canadian companies have taken steps to better support new parents. Cisco Canada, for example, has an “employee-first hybrid workstyle which gives employees the flexibility and choice to decide when and where they want to work,” says Shannon Leininger, president of Cisco Canada. The company also has a “Back to Business” community for parents returning to work after parental leave, with resources, advice and a community support system. The tech giant also offers unlimited mental health benefits for employees.

The most important thing is that new parents feel that their employer is also their advocate, says Dr. Grigoriadis.

“[Employers] need to keep the mental health of their employees top of mind, because when you have a healthy, well-adjusted employee, they will do a much better job.”

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