Returning to paid work after having a baby can be challenging for anyone, and even more so for those who suffer or have suffered, perinatal anxiety or depression. This is the case for up to one in five women expecting a bub or new mums, and one in ten soon to be dads or new dads.
I’m Renee Knight, a wife, mum to two boys (a toddler and a small baby), an HR Manager (currently on maternity leave) and a PANDA Community Champion (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia). Having suffered severe postnatal anxiety and depression following the birth of my first son in 2016, 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 following suffering perinatal depression or anxiety.
Let’s rewind to early February 2016 when I set off into the unknown of maternity leave.
I quickly became consumed with all things ‘baby’ and work became a distant memory! Before starting maternity 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 childcare wait 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 unrecognisable and far removed from the visions I’d had of myself as a mum.
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 my work part-time. I was looking forward to going back to my fast-paced corporate job, but I also realised 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 mum 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 mum 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 baby.
While I’m not the only person who has returned to work after suffering these illnesses, with Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Awareness (PANDA) week being 11th – 17th November, I wanted to help bring this conversation into the community, and workplaces.
Australian workplaces are certainly more aware of mental illness and aware of ways to support employees; however, if you’ve suffered or are suffering any form of perinatal anxiety and depression or postnatal psychosis, it pays 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 things that helped me. For expert advice and support in relation to your return to work phone the PANDA National Helpline (1300 726 306) or refer to the PANDA website.
- 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 guidance (for example the PANDA National Helpline).
- 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 suffering from 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 wellbeing 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 wellbeing.
- 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 maternity leave – having suffered 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 goddess 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 has 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 mum 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 suffering perinatal anxiety and depression is available on the PANDA website, or phone the PANDA National Helpline (1300 726 306).
Hood: Location: Inner West, Melbourne
Children: I have two boys – a toddler and a small baby.
Me: I’m one of those people who can’t sit still, filling my days with being a mum to two amazing little boys and learning about life through their eyes. I’m a present person, I try to live life in the moment, and I love those moments to include spending time with friends, drinking nice wine, and running for as far and as long as I can!
PANDA: I choose to spread the PANDA word because I’d love to limit the suffering this illness can bring a time when parents are at their most vulnerable.
Photography taken by Sheena Cooke.
Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia www.panda.org.au
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