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As many as one in 10 women experience postnatal depression. So what happens when you’re in the midst of it, or recovering, and you’re due to return to work? We look at your options and share tips on handling the transition

Staying in touch

As difficult as it may be when you’re going through PND, you may find that keeping in touch with your employer and colleagues helps you feel less anxious about returning to work.

Sybille Raphael is Head of Legal Advice Services at Working Families, an organisation specialising in work-life balance, and she has the following advice:

‘It usually helps to have regular contact with your employer, allowing you to explain your worries and your wishes, so you can prepare for your return to work together.’

You can come to work – and be paid – for up to 10 Keeping in Touch (KIT) days without maternity leave or pay ending.

There’s also no substitute for talking. ‘Emails, or what feels like a suspiciously long silence, can be misinterpreted.’

‘So it’s often better to take the bull by the horns and suggest a quick chat, in person or by phone,’ says Sybille.

Keeping your employer informed

It’s completely up to you whether or not you want to disclose your PND to your employer. You are not legally obliged to do so.

However, informing them might mean they’re better able to understand and support you.

‘It might also help you negotiate whatever you think might help, or diffuse any tensions before they arise,’ says Sybille.

Laura Clark is mum to Edward and founder of The Butterfly Mother blog about mental health, emotional wellbeing and self care for parents. Because she was starting a new job she didn’t feel able to disclose her PND, but in hindsight she says it might have helped.

"You’re not obliged to tell anyone about your PND if you don’t want to"

‘When I had a relapse of anxiety around two years later I was forced to tell my boss and she was absolutely incredible. Most companies have a mental health policy and sometimes mental health champions to support you.’

She adds: ‘If you’re returning to your previous job, and feel comfortable doing so, try to have a frank discussion with your manager – maybe they can find a way to ease you back in, such as a phased return.’

Talking it through

If you’ve decided to disclose your PND, telling your employer or colleagues something so personal can feel very daunting.

So it’s worth working out what you’re going to say. You can tell them as much or as little about your experiences as you feel comfortable with.

Also think about how you’d like them to respond – are you asking for any specific help or support when you return to work, or do you need to delay your return to work?

Write it down and bring notes with you if you feel it will help.

Presenting solutions, not problems

Sybille advises: ‘Consider your situation and try to put forward the best proposal you can. So, instead of arriving with a problem, you will be a problem-solver.’

Being proactive and trying to plan for your return to work is always sensible – and hopefully it will make the process smoother.

‘If there’s anything specific that you’re worried about, face the problem head-on and try to find solutions,’ says Sybille.

‘Be positive. Try to plan ahead and be prepared to suggest ideas to get around any issues. For instance, if you think you’ll find it difficult to leave your baby, suggest a phased return to work or that you start work a bit later so that mornings aren’t so hectic.’

‘Or, if you’re worried about having to do overnight travel, think carefully about how your manager could reallocate your responsibilities.’

Sybille’s advice is to prepare thoroughly before all meetings with your employer.

‘Think about what you need from the discussion with your boss or colleague. Make sure you know what you’re asking for and make sure to ask for it.’

She adds: ‘It’s a good idea to keep notes of your meetings and of anything that is agreed along the way.’

What if you’re unable to return to work?

  • You don’t have to return to work straight after your maternity leave. You can ask for parental leave. It’s unpaid and lasts a limited time (statutory is four weeks maximum).
  • PND is an illness and you should be treated like any other sick employee if you’re not well enough to return to work at the end of your maternity leave.
  • This means you may get statutory sick pay.
  • But you’ll also be subject to your employer’s sick policy and could potentially be dismissed for long-term absence just as another long-term sick employee would be.

Weighing up your options

You may feel like the clock is ticking and your return to work is looming, yet you’re just not ready because of your PND.

If this is the case, try to have a discussion with your partner about what options might be open to you as a family. For example, would your finances allow you to request a change in working hours? It may help you cope emotionally if you know you’ll be working fewer hours.

Or, would it be financially viable to delay your return to work? You are legally entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave (although the last 13 weeks are unpaid) and some further time off might help your recovery.

Many women don’t realise that they accrue holidays while on maternity leave so you could ask if this can be added onto the end of your maternity leave to buy you some more time to recover.

It can help to figure out what your options are – so you don’t feel like you’re pressured into following a path that could set your recovery back.

Managing expectations

"Be realistic in your goals and don’t be afraid to ask for help and support"

It’s very tricky when you have lots going on in your personal life but you’re still expected to perform at work.

Sybille has the following tips: ‘Think of the resources you need and ask for them. Clarify mutual expectations and priorities.’

She adds: ‘Communication is key. If you’re going to miss deadlines, raise your hand early on.’

‘Come prepared to present your boss with potential solutions to show that you have the same sense of urgency as they do about projects. And be sure to flag your successes for your boss.’

Resolving conflict at work

Many employers prove understanding and sympathetic towards women experiencing PND, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

Sybille says: ‘If your manager does not support you, the next step is probably to seek help elsewhere. Raise the matter with HR or a superior informally first. If this does not get you anywhere, ultimately you can complain about it in writing through a grievance.’

However, Sybille does caution about raising a grievance before you’ve explored other options.

‘It is almost always better to be clear about what you need in terms of support and raise it informally first.’

Taking it one day at a time

"Try to take it slow and give yourself time to get used to the new routines and arrangements"

Returning to work after having a baby is difficult enough, even without PND thrown into the mix.

Laura says: ‘This is not just a tip for returning to work but for handling PND in general. During those first few weeks I had several moments when I felt completely overwhelmed and I questioned whether I could do it at all.’

‘This usually occurred when I let my mind run away with me and focused too much on the future. If you take your job literally one task at a time everything feels a lot more manageable.’

Finding the right childcare

Laura explains how important it is to feel happy with the childcare arrangements you’ve put in place.

‘Focusing at work can be challenging when you’re still in recovery – even without the distraction of worrying about your little one.’

‘So finding childcare that you’re comfortable with is vital and it’s the first step you should take especially since some nurseries and childminders have waiting lists.’

You’re not alone

PND affects 10 to 15 in every 100 women having a baby*.
In a study by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists 81% of women surveyed had experienced at least one episode of a mental health problem during or after their pregnancy**.

Remember there are so many other people in the same boat as you.

You are far from alone. PND can happen to anyone and it does not mean you’re a failure, a bad parent or that your child will be taken away from you.

Don’t suffer in silence – talk to your partner, family, friends, other new parents, your GP or health visitor.

There is so much help available for you. And, with the right support, you can and will recover.

Focus on the positives

When you’re recovering from PND and feeling fragile, a big change might feel like the last thing you need.

But actually it’s worth thinking about the benefits of work and what you enjoyed about your career before your maternity leave.

Laura says: ‘I craved the normality that had been missing since my son’s arrival but at the same time I was utterly terrified.’

‘But you may end up finding your return to work is really helpful to your recovery.’

"Going back to work may help you establish your new identity"

She explains: ‘It may help you build your confidence back up as you transition into familiar tasks; it might help combat isolation and loneliness; and it helps to focus your mind or distract you from intrusive thoughts’.

Most importantly of all, keep in mind that you can and you will recover. And that no matter how overwhelming returning to work and handling PND might seem, with the right help and support, you will get through this.

Your rights

  • You can ask for a phased return to work or put in a request for flexible working. Your employer does not have to agree your request but must respond in a reasonable way (for example, properly investigating it and responding in a timely way).
  • PND does not necessarily give you additional protection against dismissal but your employer must not treat you less favourably than they would treat a man who is absent from work for the same length of time due to sickness.
  • Severe depression can amount to a disability. So, if you have told your employer that you are suffering from PND, you may potentially have rights under the Equality Act 2010. This would depend on the severity and length of your PND.
  • To qualify, your PND needs to have lasted, or be expected to last, at least 12 months and it must also have a substantial impact on your day-to-day activities. While most women suffering from PND are not likely to meet this test at the point when they are due to return to work, in some circumstances, individuals may qualify.
  • If you meet the criteria, you may be able to ask for reasonable adjustments if your current working conditions would disadvantage you because of your PND. These adjustments may include being able to work reduced hours, on a part-time basis or returning to a less stressful role.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700. 

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby. To find out when an NCT nearly new sale is happening near you, search here.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

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