Meaningful Business (MB:) What has been your experience with working with expectant and new mothers and their mental health needs?
Josephine Suleiman (JS:) During pregnancy a woman’s body undergoes many changes, some of which are physical and can be seen – like a growing belly, and others which are well known – like morning sickness, backaches and mood swings! But there are other changes that take place which can be a total surprise even to the woman herself. This experience can be both emotionally and physically draining.
At Olivelink, the most common mental health issues the expectant and new mothers experience are depression and anxiety. Some women may be at a higher risk of experiencing this if they already have other predisposing factors, for example if the pregnancy was not planned, or if they have experienced a miscarriage before. We have seen a few cases of postpartum psychosis, albeit rarely, which is the most severe psychiatric disorder associated with childbirth.
Unfortunately, the majority of the women in the community that we serve experience a lack of support from their spouses, or the family in general. This makes them feel alone and this problem becomes worse if they are stay at home mothers. When they visit our clinic and have a chance to interact with other women, they experience a sense of belonging and this acts as a stress reliever.
We have recently introduced a session where we take them through simple exercises in groups as they come for their antenatal clinics. This also acts as a support group, and during these sessions we discuss other issues that touch on them directly like diet and sleep patterns.
As a result of these group sessions, 90% of mothers have reported that their energy levels are higher, they are able to do things that they would not do ordinarily and they suffer less with pains and aches (which is what brings a majority to hospitals). For those who have already had their first babies, they have reported that after going through the exercises, the birthing process was much easier compared to their previous experience.
From our experience, most of the mental health issues can be remedied by having properly structured support systems both at a society level and in the work place.
MB: What kind of support do the women that attend your clinic receive from their workplace?
JS: The support given to working expectant women varies from one work place to another. Happily, in a majority of cases, women are able to take time off to attend their antenatal care classes or visit their doctor when feeling unwell. Those who are on permanent employment are also given three months maternity leave fully paid.
However, in a majority of cases, those who work on casual basis do not enjoy the same privileges.
MB: How can we build more of a social support structure for new mothers within companies?
JS: Social support may take any of the following forms; emotional, tangible, or informational. The effectiveness of it depends on the perceived need and also on the relationship between the giver and receiver of the support.
Some of the things that companies can do to support new mothers include, but not limited, to the following:
- Make it very clear what benefits the pregnant woman can enjoy. For example, if they are able to take maternity leave and for how long. This information should also be easily accessible.
- Create support networks within the workplace where both expectant and new mothers can freely share experiences. This will act as a strong support system.
- Set up rooms where mothers can freely pump breastmilk while at work. This will ensure that the babies will continuously be fed on breast milk even after the mother resumes work. The benefits of breast milk cannot be overemphasised on the growth of the child.
- Hold honest and candid conversation with pregnant employees to establish what they can and cannot do, so that you are on the same page instead of making a blanket assumptions. Discussions around career progression, taking on more responsibilities or even dropping some responsibilities should take place. The discussion should continue throughout the period of the pregnancy as circumstances can change along the way.
MB: What advice would you give to business leaders who want to better support their female employees?
JS: The COVID pandemic has taught us a lot, and brought out unaddressed issues at workplace. Many women have had to choose between work and family and many more have left their workplaces compared to their male counterparts.
Business leaders should first understand the obstacles that their female employees face in order to create policies that directly address their needs. Below are some things they can do on a daily basis to better support them:
- Consider the other identities of women, like their marital status and if they are mothers or not. Single mothers and married women will need different policies. Understand what women want, their values, their energy and passion areas. Help them understand their own personal “ why”
- Offer various forms of flexibility. This may be in form of working hours or the ability to work from home, and allow one to adapt when life changes. All business leaders need to understand a working mother’s commitment to family
- Include more women in key decisions and influential positions. This calls for elevating women and providing them with opportunities. In order to achieve an equitable workforce, we must prioritise women and provide them with clear career paths
- Recognise that men and women are equal and women should be promoted when they are good candidates.
- Invest in women-focused employee resource groups and networks. Women will feel more secure in such groups since they share same fears and challenges
- Provide coaching and mentoring training programmes, which could be provided by external or internal coaches or mentors. Through this, female leaders can take time to share their strategies, potential struggles and words of encouragement to upcoming women.