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Nov 28, 2018

Being a new parent is an exhilarating experience. But despite the joy that a new baby can bring, parents will sometimes get depressed or otherwise experience negative feelings immediately following the birth of their child. Sometimes these feelings are relatively mild — the so-called “baby blues.” Other times, the feelings are more serious and are indicative of postpartum depression.

When most people think of postpartum depression, they only think of new mothers. That’s understandable: approximately one in seven new mothers suffer from postpartum depression. But here is something that you might find surprising: new fathers can also suffer from postpartum depression. In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 25% of new fathers will suffer from paternal postpartum depression during the first two months following their child’s birth. This type of depression is widespread and can have a notable effect on a parent’s personal and professional life.

Postpartum depression is actually covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and some state anti-discrimination laws. Even though it is temporary, postpartum depression would be considered a disability if it led to problems with sleeping or eating that substantially interfered with a woman’s regular life and work. That means covered employers are required to provide an accommodation to allow an employee suffering from postpartum depression to stay in the workforce. It is helpful, but not required, to have a letter from a doctor to qualify for workplace accommodations.

Causes of postpartum depression

The exact cause of postpartum depression isn’t fully understood, but it often includes any one or more of the following factors: hormonal changes, lack of sleep, prior psychological issues, stress and drastic changes in daily living.

Stress is a fairly broad factor and can itself have its own variety of causes, from financial troubles to a meddlesome grandparent who is constantly telling the new parent what to do. But one of the biggest sources of stress is trying to balance professional and family obligations. So many parents, especially mothers, feel the dual pull of trying to be the best parent possible while excelling at work and meeting every single professional demand set before them. Many new parents believe they must perform to the same professional level as before the child’s birth, in addition to being the best parent in the neighborhood.

When it comes to being a working parent, consider the following proposition: “Your job, your family or your health – pick any two.” This isn’t always the case, but for many working parents out there, it’s a difficult decision that must be made.

In most situations, it’s the parent’s own needs that will fall by the wayside first. Less sleep and poor health are some common manifestations of this.

If that personal neglect doesn’t yield enough time to accomplish every single family and work-related task, something else starts to suffer. For some parents, it’ll be their job performance. For others, it will be family responsibilities. Either way, they start feeling guilty about their perceived neglect of work or family obligations. Put this often intense feeling of guilt or inadequacy on top of a human body that’s already running on fumes, and a postpartum depression diagnosis is not surprising.

How do I know this? Because I experienced it myself. Ultimately, I chose my family over my job, but believe it or not, I had it good. I had the luxury of making this decision. I also had an understanding employer. So many working parents out there do not have these luxuries and therefore continue to suffer without the ability to improve their situation. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Employers can foster an accommodating culture

Bosses and coworkers can help new working parents in a variety of ways, but there’s a more fundamental problem: many parents aren’t comfortable with asking for help from their employer. Not every workplace makes it easy for employees to ask for help, even if it’s something as fundamental as unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Employers can help by creating a culture where struggling employees can feel safe talking about challenges with postpartum depression.

The next time an employee asks for a few weeks of leave for the birth of their child, he or she should not feel like Oliver Twist asking for more porridge. Instead, they should confidently make the request, knowing that there’s no shame in taking leave.

How can an employer create this kind of culture? One of the easiest things you can do is put policies in place that accommodate the employee’s needs. This can include paid leave, part-time status, flex time, workplace counseling, or telecommuting.

Here is an easy program for an employer to offer. It’s called Mindful Return, which is an online course designed to help parents transitioning back to work after having or adopting a child. The program includes an on-line community that allows returning parents to discuss with each other their experiences returning to work.

Even when such benefits aren’t possible, employers can actively work to help employees take advantage of their existing workplace rights and benefits. If employees do not feel comfortable using it, a benefit, perk, or policy means nothing.

For many parents, postpartum depression is a real struggle, but there are ways employers can help. Still, even the most generous paid leave benefits mean little if employees are too scared to ask for them.