Exploring Mental Health in Working Mothers

Heather Padilla, Assistant Professor, Health Promotion & Behavior

How a company manages a new mother’s return to work could have a big impact on her emotional health.

Mental health problems such as postpartum depression or generalized anxiety disorder could affect up to one in five women during the postpartum period. According to recent University of Georgia research, the way a company treats a mother’s return to work can have major implications on her mental health.

The bulk of workplace variables that indicate positive outcomes for mental health is under the control of organizations. It can include having access to paid maternity leave, having a flexible schedule and a total workload.

However, according to lead author Rachel McCardel, a doctorate student in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia, past studies that looked at how maternal mental health related to work had included returning to work with maternity leave.

“But return to work is more than that because, while maternity leave is an important resource, it doesn’t necessarily capture the actual process of when the leave ends and when you start resuming work, and when you start combining your roles as an employee and a mother,” she said.
Finding solutions may be made easier by comprehending the impact returning to work has on the mental health of working mothers. It will highlight potential areas for support or treatments to prevent or decrease the impact of disorders like depression or anxiety.

How Workplaces Influence the Mental health of Working Mothers

The authors conducted a systematic analysis of the peer-reviewed papers over the previous 20 years that investigated working mothers’ mental health in the United States. Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies on whether returning to work benefited or harmed mental health were included in the investigations.

“But when synthesizing all the studies together, we saw a type of conflict emerge between balancing responsibilities and demands associated with being an employee, as well as the responsibilities associated with being a parent, and wanting to meet the needs of both roles,” said McCardel.

They discovered that lower mental health outcomes were associated with increased conflict between the two roles.

Return to Work Programs

According to co-author and OIBR Affiliate, Heather Padilla, University of Georgia Assistant Professor of Health Promotion and Behavior at the College of Public Health, the term ‘return to work’ in workplace research refers to individuals who have been ill or injured and are returning to their jobs after a prolonged absence.

“There are return to work programs and, in some cases, a very systematic process to assess an employee’s capability and adjust their job responsibilities to help their transition back because the research shows that there are positive benefits to coming back to the workplace after an injury or an illness, but there’s a balance,” said Padilla. “I don’t know that we have those same conversations about the return to work after you’ve had a baby even though we treat pregnancy very much as a disability and illness in the U.S. workplace.”

The findings of this study suggest some methods that people might use to support their mental health as they resume their jobs. One resource mentioned as being crucial for parents returning to the workforce is coworker support. However, the decisions made by the organization will ultimately have the biggest impact.

According to McCardel, this review highlights the need to intentionally address mothers’ mental health in the workplace.

“It’s about creating that structure to say you are not alone. To show that as an organization, you care about your employees and value them. Let’s have a structure in place where we can have those conversations and meet those needs,” said McCardel.


Written by: Lauren Baggett