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Postpartum at Work: Tips for Moms and Managers

Amanda Dustan gave birth to her second child, daughter Charlotte, in September. By November, she knew she felt “off.” But she chalked her feelings up to any number of hurdles, including her husband’s travel schedule, her daughter’s fussy feeding habits, or general sadness about going back to work.

She rejoined her team in January, determined to get back up to speed and alleviate the workload her coworkers had absorbed in her absence. But the transition was more challenging than it had been with her first child.

“I was unable to find any joy or any kind of good in my work day. I wanted to run away,” she remembers. A social person by nature, she found she had no interest in developing relationships with the company’s growing team. She began to shut out her friends too. Anxiety mounted over taking the kids out of the house or inviting others in, and she isolated herself, both personally and professionally.

It took Amanda a long time to accept that she was experiencing postpartum depression and seek help. Yet when she did, two months after returning to work, she was told there was a two-month waiting list to see a counselor. Only patients in crisis could receive earlier assistance.

And a crisis it became. “I literally didn’t sleep for two weeks,” Amanda recalls. Always tired but never sleepy, she operated in a fuzzy, autopilot fugue.  That was the tipping point.   She disclosed her problem at work and told her leaders she needed time off. At that moment, she says, she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to come back. “The state I was in, I had no idea when or even if I could return.”

She took six weeks off and transitioned back slowly, while meeting with both a counselor and a new parent coach. One year later, she’s in a growing management role and grateful to her leaders and team who supported her with a “No questions asked. Tell us how we can help,” attitude.

Today, she’s able to look back on the experience with greater perspective and offer advice for both new moms and their managers. Here’s what she wants other women to know:

  • It’s really common. Postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders affect one in seven new moms. Amanda says once she started talking about it, other women approached her to share their stories. “Talk about it. There’s no shame in this.”
  • Everyone’s symptoms are unique. Amanda says she didn’t really fit the standard postpartum warning signs. “I read the checklists and they didn’t sound like me. The thing is, I didn’t feel like myself, and that was MY warning sign.”
  • Talk to your doctor. Unfortunately, long wait times to see a therapist are relatively common. The sooner you seek help, the better your chances of avoiding an emergency. In the meantime, you might get started with alternative resources, such as work-life coaches, doulas, on-call counseling through your employer’s EAP, or your ob-gyn. You can also find resources that include chat and phone support, at postpartum.net.
  • Remember this is a temporary illness. The darkness and symptoms of postpartum depression/anxiety are symptoms of the disease (like a fever is a symptom of the flu), not a new definition of who you are.  “I recall my coach telling me over and over again that PPD does not define me, that the symptoms will go away with treatment, and that I will feel better again,” says Amanda. PS: You wouldn’t question getting help for a bad case of the flu, and you shouldn’t for PPD either.
  • Lean on your village. “I know it sounds cliché but I would NOT have been able to focus on my health and healing if I didn’t have my friends, family and amazing spouse to help me throughout the journey. Lean on those in your life that give you strength and energy,” says Amanda.
  • Request changes at work. You might be too deep in the weeds to see how a different schedule or workload might help. But if you can, try to identify adjustments that would help you feel and function better. Talk to HR and tell them what’s going on. PPD qualifies as a protected disability under the ADA, so disclosing your condition could help you secure reasonable accommodations and protect your job, if that’s a concern.

And here are some tips for managers to help an employee experiencing postpartum depression:

  • Notice…and show that you care.
    As a manager you have to be careful about asking about someone’s health in the workplace. But you can say, “You don’t seem like yourself. What can I do to help?” The caveat here is that you need to know your team members well enough to spot when something seems wrong. That means creating a culture where investing time in relationship building is critical to employee and business success.
  • Create a safe place.
    This is another long-term culture tip. Create an atmosphere in which employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work. Make it okay to admit to struggles, bad days, and work-life conflict.
  • Offer flexibility and workload adjustments.
    Talk to your team member about reduced schedules or shifts in their responsibilities that could help alleviate any pressure and demands.
  • Clarify the person’s desire for connection and communication.
    If your employee will be taking disability leave, ask about whether or not they want to stay connected. For some, having the ability to monitor emails or sit in on weekly calls will alleviate anxiety. Work with HR and find a solution that meets the employee’s needs, without skirting any legal rules.

When Amanda took disability leave, for example, she asked one of her leaders to maintain weekly connection. “For me, it was important to keep that conversation alive,” she says. “It reassured me the company still cared. And from a very practical standpoint, we used that time to talk openly about whether my work might have impacted my situation, what the organization needed, and paths to change my reality at work.”

PPD is a temporary condition, but it can be transformative. Employees who’ve gone through significant hurdles like this gain perspective, insight and personal growth that can prove invaluable to your organization down the road.

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Amanda Dustan manages the coaching program at Life Meets Work, offering new parent career coaching and work-life coaching to law firms and Fortune 1000 organizations. She shared her story in an effort to help coaches and clients address the common (but often unspoken) challenges of PPD.

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