Returning to paid work after welcoming a baby can be challenging for anyone, and even more so for those who experience perinatal anxiety or depression. This is the case for up to one in five expecting or new mothers and one in ten partners. PANDA Community Champion Renee Knight bravely shares first-hand advice based on her experience of perinatal depression and anxiety and the challenges she faced returning to paid work.
I’m Renee Knight, a wife, mother, human resources manager, and a PANDA Community Champion. Having experienced severe postnatal anxiety and depression following the birth of my first son several years ago, I know first-hand what it’s like to go through such a traumatic experience, come out the other side, and then return to the workforce.
Fortunately, I had a smooth transition back to work, thanks to a very supportive manager and work environment, and I wanted to share my thoughts on how to make returning to work easier when you’ve experienced perinatal depression or anxiety.
Rewind to early February 2016 when I set off into the unknown of parental leave. I quickly became consumed with all things ‘baby’ and work became a distant memory! Before starting parental leave I’d put some thought into what my ‘return to work’ life would look like, covering off what I thought were the important things which included:
- Ensuring we were on plenty of child care waiting lists.
- Discussing flexible working arrangements with my manager.
- Recording all those computer and internet passwords in case my brain was still a little scrambled when I did return to paid work!
Fast forward twelve months and my approach to returning to work looked very different. I was going back having weathered a personal storm that saw me deteriorate into a shell of a person, completely unrecognizable, and far removed from the visions I’d had of myself as a mother.
I developed postnatal anxiety and depression shortly after my son was born, experiencing suicidal thoughts and anxiety symptoms that were so severe I endured a tortuous ten days without a single moment of sleep. I was awake for 240 hours and living a nightmare. The illness rapidly ravaged my body and mind. Help finally came when my baby and I were admitted for a lengthy stay in a mother and baby mental health unit, followed by several months of support at home.
My son was seven months old before I finally felt well again, giving me only a few months to spend with him before returning to paid work part-time. I was looking forward to going back to my fast-paced corporate job, but I also realized I was returning after enduring a very tough twelve months, and my illness was still so fresh in my mind. I would need to manage the working mother transition and my career while ensuring my mental health remained a priority.
I eased my way back into my role when I returned in 2017 and put a number of tactics in place to ensure I stayed well and was able to be both a present parent and employee. Once I found my feet again, I was able to focus on my career, and I was fortunate to begin a more senior role in 2018 when I was five months pregnant with my second child.
It’s encouraging to know that workplaces are becoming increasingly aware of mental illness and ways to support employees; however, if you’ve experienced or are experiencing any form of perinatal anxiety and depression or postnatal psychosis, it helps to be aware of how you might manage through your own return to work.
My suggestions on managing through your return to work.
These are actions that helped me (For expert advice and support in relation to your return to work, contact a perinatal depression and anxiety support center or hotline in your area):
- Discuss your return to work options with your manager well before you return. Consider flexible options for you and your family.
- Discuss your return with someone who understands what you’re experiencing and can provide expert guidance (e.g. a support center or crisis hotline).
- Be aware of and engage with any mental health support networks available in your workplace or support channels provided to you via your employer.
- If you are still experiencing anxiety, consider what impact your work environment might have on your anxiety and ways to avoid or reduce triggers at work.
- You’ve been on the journey, but your colleagues haven’t. Carefully consider what you might tell them about your experience and whom you might tell.
- If you do tell your story, be prepared for differing reactions from your peers or colleagues.
- Surround yourself with people who are your supporters.
- Keep up with any medical or well-being appointments.
- Focus on being ‘fully present’ at work. This might take time and practice, but it helps keep anxiety at bay.
- Ensure you have self-care strategies in place if your workplace gets overwhelming.
- Carve small amounts of time out of your day to complete mindfulness or meditation practice if that helps your well-being.
- Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to ‘advance your career’ in the short term. No one will expect you to be at your peak as soon as you return from parental leave – having experienced a mental illness or not! Take the time to re-engage with your workplace and adjust to the home/work rhythm before embarking upon promotion or advancement plans.
- Take the pressure off at home. Hire help or call upon family and friends to share the load. You don’t need the added pressure of being a domestic superstar right now.
- Finally, don’t let mental illness define you or your career. You own your story and life journey, just as you own your career.
Postnatal depression and anxiety have had a profound impact on me and my family. However, in many respects, it has made me a far stronger and more resilient person. As an employee, a wife, a parent, and a PANDA Community Champion, I’m proud that we are having this conversation, to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding these severe and potentially devastating mental illnesses.
Professional advice and guidance on returning to work after experiencing perinatal anxiety and depression are available. Contact your general practitioner, postnatal nurse, professional support service, or crisis hotline in your area.
Postpartum Support International (Canada)
PADA (New Zealand)
Written by Renee Wright. Renee is one of those people who can’t sit still, filling her days with being a mother to two amazing children and learning about life through their eyes. She loves spending time with friends, drinking nice wine, and running as far and as long as she can. Renee chooses to spread the PANDA word because she’d like to limit the suffering this illness can bring at a time when parents are at their most vulnerable.
Image (Knight family): Sheena Cooke
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