Managing people

Employers: help dust away baby blues

The birth of a baby can turn new parents lives upside down, especially if sleep-deprived, night after night. A host of new problems can take emotions on a roller-coaster ride, and vulnerable
individuals can experience serious depression.

The challenges of returning to work after parental leave, and the employer’s role in reducing risks are important considerations in workplace mental health wellbeing.

EMPLOYERS’ RESPONSIBILITIES

If an employee who’s recently returned from parental leave seems a bit fragile, your initial reaction may be that it’s a personal or private matter, and ‘no concern to the organisation’. But this may not be the case. Work issues can combine with personal or family issues to debilitate an employee reducing their ability to cope.  

On the work front, this can result in oversights, misjudgements, conflict with other employees and grievances. It can also lead to long periods of sick leave – with the need to find and train replacement staff – and in some cases, worker compensation claims.

It would be wrong to assume that such claims would fail because the problem can be blamed on personal tendencies and stresses that are not work-related. The courts often take the side of the worker, after hearing evidence that the worker’s employment was a contributing factor.

Work Health and Safety Acts across Australia 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. Providing a caring workplace culture is good for business – it can improve morale, productivity and commitment.

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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. 

‘Precarious’ working conditions include temporary jobs, low wage jobs, when the worker is defenceless against authoritarian treatment, has little scope to negotiate work matters and is powerless in exercising workplace rights. These conditions have been linked to poor mental health – the more precarious the employment, the higher the psychological ill-health. 

Work-life balance issues can arise when there’s conflict between the domestic role and workplace responsibilities. Experiences at work can spill over into the private or family domain, and vice versa. Negative consequences of this spill-over include burnout, depression, anxiety, and absenteeism from work as well as lower life satisfaction, lack of energy, sleep disorders, fatigue, and poorer self-reported health.

The study revealed that work-life balance issues, an imbalance between effort and reward at work, and precarious working conditions significantly predicted symptoms of PPD. The study concluded that family-friendly workplace policies can diminish the burden of PPD, with benefits for the business as well as the individual.

Employers can help reduce post-partum depression

This and other studies have demonstrated that an effort-reward imbalance – where the effort put into the job is not justified by the level of reward received from it – is a significant factor predicting PPD. Employers can help minimise the risk of PPD and the consequences for the business by increasing the perceived reward for effort. 

Reward is not necessarily remuneration but can be appreciation, such as praise and recognition for a job well done, or a willingness to be flexible when personal or domestic issues arise.

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.

Gaby Grammeno

Contributor

Gaby has extensive experience as a researcher, writer, editor and project manager on a wide variety of information products, including books, guides, reports and submissions.

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