Postpartum Depression Is A Common Work Issue We Don’t Talk About Enough

Postpartum depression, which affects 1 in 8 new mums and 1 in 10 new dads, can show up in subtle ways at work.
Postpartum depression is all too common, and at work, it can be hard to notice.
boonchai wedmakawand via Getty Images
Postpartum depression is all too common, and at work, it can be hard to notice.

Last November, when Danae Huff-Taylor returned to work six weeks after giving birth, she felt like a different person.

The San Antonio, Texas-based professional felt moody when she used to be known as a cheerful colleague. She felt apathetic and disassociated with her job at a call centre that she used to take pride in.

“I didn’t really want to bond with my teammates. I didn’t wanna go that extra mile doing work, which is definitely out of character for me,” Huff-Taylor said.

“I was also dealing with insomnia, so I was already tired. And you know, when you’re depleted, you don’t have anything to give out,” she said. “It was like a shell version of myself showing up to work every day. I wasn’t my whole self.”

Huff-Taylor made an appointment with a doctor, where she learned her experiences had a name: postpartum depression.

And she’s not alone in her diagnosis.

Odds are, you may work with a new parent going through postpartum depression, or PPD, at some point in your career. Postpartum depression is the most common childbirth complication, affecting 1 in 8 new mothers. PPD can last months or years after giving birth, long after most parental leaves in the U.S. end and postpartum employees are back to work.

Postpartum therapists, medical experts and Huff-Taylor shared advice for employees who are experiencing PPD and employees who want to support their colleagues going through it.

PPD symptoms at work can be hard to notice at first.

There’s not one symptom that automatically means you have PPD, because symptoms differ for everyone, and they can show up at work in different ways.

“For some moms, it can look like, ‘I can’t think straight enough to do the task, and I’m having to walk myself through each step of things in a way that is much different from when I left,’” said Christine Rivera, a clinical psychologist who specialises in motherhood transitions. “For some moms, it can be feelings of sadness and not really wanting to be there. For some moms, it can be just a whole sense of this level of overwhelm, especially if you want to even plug in pumping into your workday.”

“When it starts to feel like an impairment both at work and at home ... that’s when it becomes more concerning for depression.”

- Christine Rivera, clinical psychologist

According to Postpartum Support International, a nonprofit that aims to help parents with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, PPD symptoms can include:

  • Feelings of anger or irritability
  • Lack of interest in the baby
  • Appetite and sleep disturbance
  • Crying and sadness
  • Feelings of guilt, shame or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest, joy or pleasure in things you used to enjoy
  • Possible thoughts of harming the baby or yourself

And in workplace settings, these symptoms can be hard to notice.

“It can be really subtle to start, which can be really challenging,” said Dr. Priya Gopalan, an associate professor of psychiatry and obstetrics, gynaecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. “It might just be that someone is less engaged at work or less able to interact with their peers in a way. Irritability is one of those depression and anxiety signs that’s really under-diagnosed, and especially in women.”

Gopalan noted that job adjustments can be hard, and people should pay attention to whether the feelings are persistent and are accompanied by a loss of functioning in regard to sleep, appetite or your ability to do your job.

“When it starts to feel like an impairment both at work and at home, these feelings of ‘I’m not enough’ or ‘I’m not doing enough,’ or like these negative thoughts about yourself and the future and hopefulness of your life, that’s when it becomes more concerning for depression,” Rivera said.

Note that most new parents are at risk of developing PPD. Dads and non-birthing partners can be diagnosed with PPD, too. For fathers, Rivera said it’s common for them to become more reserved about how they are feeling because there can be an “expectation for them to be the support system and just be managing everything for the birthing parent. So then that’s a lot of pressure,” she said.

Managers can make it easier for postpartum employees by offering accommodations.

Gopalan advised managers to understand that PPD is underdiagnosed and undertreated and to be proactive about checking in with postpartum employees as a result.

Rivera highlighted issues around pumping at work as one area in particular where managers could be a big help.

“A lot of moms will talk about the grief of not being able to either produce enough milk or breastfeed, and especially depending on how early they’re going back to work, that can impact the breastfeeding relationship,” she said. “So as a manager, I would want to make sure to have the correct things in place so that a parent is able to pump.”

Consider the many risk factors that can increase the chances of having PPD.

According to PSI, for fathers and mothers, they can include relationship and financial stress; inadequate support with caregiving; having gone through infertility treatments; pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding complications; having an infant in a neonatal intensive care; or a major recent life event like job or family loss or a move.

“I run postpartum groups for moms, and one of the first things we do in the group is I read that list of risk factors, and I just have everybody [to] take a minute to kind of like note how many of those risk factors they have,” said licensed marriage and family therapist Robyn Alagona Cutler. “I always say, like, ‘You’re going to have more than one of these things. If you were human and you had a baby, you’re going to probably have a handful or more of these things.’”

“It was actually a relief to say it out loud, like, ‘I’m not OK.’”

- Danae Huff-Taylor

Huff-Taylor said talking with her manager was key to her getting the help she needed at work.

“With my manager, I was just upfront with her because we had really good rapport, and I let her know like, ‘I’m having a hard time adjusting ... I need a little bit of help,’” Huff-Taylor said. “So she helped me get those extra breaks. She let me know about the [Employee Assistance Program] services that we had available at the job. So I always knew that I had options, and it wasn’t like it was just sitting there festering. And it was actually a relief to say it out loud, like, ‘I’m not OK.’”

Through contacting the EAP, “I was able to get in therapy, and that was really big for me to kind of talk things through and get some insight on how I can make my quality of life a little bit better,” Huff-Taylor said.

If your manager is not supportive, know that you have rights. Under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, postpartum employees who work for an employer with 15 or more employees have rights to “reasonable accommodations,” like the ability to sit, take additional breaks and have flexible hours after they return to work.

Career coach Becca Carnahan said that if your boss is not supportive, you can also “consider who else you can work with, like folks in HR, or [seek] advice from fellow parents in a parents ERG [Employee Resource Group].”

“It’s likely that other parents in your organisation have managed transitions back to work after having a baby, and they can be a wealth of information on how to navigate the specifics of your company,” she said.

Note that you may need an official diagnosis from a provider to access your employer’s accommodations like time off or medical leave, which is why seeking help from your health care provider sooner rather than later can be useful.

If you work with someone who just had a baby, the kindest thing is to not make assumptions about how they should feel.

It’s always good to check in and ask how your work friend is doing with the parenthood transition. But be careful not to presume that it’s a blissful time.

Rivera said colleagues can project their excitement in conversations and make it harder for postpartum employees to be open about how they are actually doing.

“It’s such a wonderful period for a lot of people’s lives, but not everyone experiences it that way. We don’t always know if it’s a planned birth or if there are other challenges around the birth of the baby that we’re just not privy to when we’re talking to someone,” Rivera said. “So being able to check in with that person and say, ‘How are you doing? Like, this is such a huge transition, how’s everything going for you?’ Rather than, ‘Oh my God, that’s so exciting. Congratulations on your baby. Can I see a picture?’ Like, those are really different reactions.”

“In the latter [scenario], you have a very clear expectation of that person rather than allowing them to let you in on how their experience is,” Rivera added.

“Once you have a new baby, all the conversations are, ‘How’s the baby? What’s the baby doing? Can we see the baby?’ And those [bring up] moments of like, ‘What about me?’” Huff-Taylor said. “Just acknowledging the mom and her well-being is so important.”

And if your postpartum work friend does share how they are doing or if you do catch them feeling overwhelmed, normalise their struggles.

“A lot of women have a lot of different feelings about having babies, and it doesn’t mean anything about you, it just means that you’re having a hard time. And I would normalise that for them if they’re open to talking about it,” Rivera said.

“One of the most healing things that postpartum people need to know and hear is that they’re not alone,” Cutler said. “Modern motherhood can feel so lonely and isolating, and I think if you’re ... at a workplace where maybe your experience is not reflected back to you, like maybe there aren’t a lot of other people who are postpartum or pregnant or parenting, it can feel even more like you’re the only one.“

For Huff-Taylor, some co-workers recognised the change in her behaviour and offered their support. It’s something she said she will be “forever grateful” for.

“I had a co-worker call me and just meditate with me ... he’d let me know that if I needed to sit on the phone and cry that I was free to do that, and that he was just there for support,” Huff-Taylor said. “[My co-workers] weren’t overbearing, but they always checked in to make sure that I was OK, if I needed to talk about anything.”