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How to navigate perinatal depression and anxiety when returning to the workplace

The human and financial cost of perinatal depression and anxiety are considerable, but Gidget Foundation Australia CEO Arabella Gibson offers fresh hope for new and expectant parents returning to the workplace.

Parenthood is a challenging and joyous time in its own right, so the transition back into employment can be hard and evoke complex and mixed feelings.

For new parents, the thought of going back to work after giving birth is often not at the forefront of their minds as they adjust to their new normal.

While many parents are relieved to return to their professional lives, for others, the overhaul of their routine and the decision to leave their newborn in someone else’s care can be more difficult.

The return to work following parental leave can raise significant challenges, including separation from your child; potentially a different workplace or new colleagues; childcare arrangements; the juxtaposition of work and family life; feeding issues with your child; changes in family dynamics; and new financial decisions to name but a few. Understandably, these challenges and changes can spark symptoms of depression and anxiety, or even re-ignite symptoms that had been previously managed.

While workplaces are increasingly recognizing the importance of mental health, many others still expect long hours and occasional weekends in the office, which can add pressure to parents already navigating the impact of returning to work.

It can be tricky to assert yourself to set clear boundaries with your employer, but it is important to clearly communicate your own needs and expectations about manageable workloads. This will help you to maintain a better work–life balance. It will also encourage your workplace to challenge cultural attitudes towards work and mental health which could lead to increased productivity and a healthier workforce.

The human and financial cost of perinatal depression and anxiety

‘The Cost of PDNA in Australia’ report found the annual economic cost of perinatal depression and anxiety (PNDA) totaled A$643 million (US$431 million).

The combined losses from PNDA affect the Australian workforce not just economically, but also in terms of disrupting workflows and impacting other employees.

Mothers with PNDA are also less likely to return to employment, resulting in an increased workforce exit equating to A$175 million (US$117 million) in the first year after giving birth. Losses related to absenteeism and presenteeism cost A$212 million (US$142 million) and A$707 million (US$474 million) respectively in the first three years of parenthood for those who experience PNDA.

In Australia, PNDA affects one in five mothers and one in 10 fathers, impacting 100,000 families every year.

However, effects of PNDA don’t necessarily disappear after the perinatal period has ended. If you’re experiencing PNDA, you may not feel ready to return to the workplace, particularly when your anticipated parental leave did not turn out as you had hoped.

Who does perinatal depression and anxiety affect?

There is neither a single cause of perinatal mental health issues, nor is there a specific type of person it affects. In fact, perinatal mental health struggles can affect any expectant or new parent and can come as a complete surprise.

For all parents, it is important to remember that some anxiety and worries, as well as changes in sleep, eating and routine, are normal factors when adjusting to parenthood. However, there are warning signs that may point to you experiencing PNDA or adjustment disorders.

If you experience any number of the following symptoms over a two-week period and notice a significant adverse effect on the quality of your daily life at any time throughout your pregnancy or parenting journey, you may be vulnerable to, or experiencing, a depressive or anxious episode.

These symptoms can include:

  • a lack of enjoyment in previously enjoyable activities
  • feeling numb or hopeless about the future
  • separating yourself from loved ones, repetitive negative thought patterns or frequent feelings of loss, guilt or grief

For expectant and new parents who start to notice these symptoms, it is vital for them to have access to early support for perinatal mental health and receive help in managing their condition.

Gidget Foundation Australia: A message of hope

As the CEO of perinatal mental health charity Gidget Foundation Australia, and a mother of twins, I know firsthand just how important the need for support is during this time in your life.

Having people around you to rely on is crucial, whether they are work colleagues, friends or family. When you return to work, if you need extra practical support, share the load with a partner, friends or family. Be kind and compassionate to yourself as you navigate the busy world of parenthood and work. Continue to prioritize activities that keep you centered and happy, whether that is exercise, eating well or simply connecting with loved ones.

We remind parents that they are not alone in their experience and encourage them to start talking.

A simple conversation can help break down the stigma of mental health issues in early parenting, and we urge all mothers, fathers and non-birthing partners to seek the help they need.

Gidget Foundation clinicians also recommend expectant and new parents to keep in touch with their colleagues while they are on parental leave, so that they can continue to develop these professional connections, which will assist with their eventual transition back to the world of work. Keeping that sense of community alive is so important in feeling connected and supported throughout the parental leave period.

Working styles and practices have changed drastically in recent years, with less need for time spent in an office environment and more work being done remotely. It is important to find out what works best for you and explore flexible working options with your employer.

Despite Australian parents reporting that they feel fatigued, stressed, anxious and depressed as a result of trying to juggle both family and work commitments, it’s possible for the two to coexist harmoniously. Parents and workplaces need to unite to create policies that encourage workers to balance their career and family commitments.

Annual Gidget Lunch: A luncheon unlike any other

On Friday 5 May 2023, we will be hosting our annual Gidget Lunch to help raise much needed funds to support parents and families affected by PNDA in Australia through our GP referred psychological counseling service.

This year’s theme is ‘London Street Party’ and is a nod to the King’s coronation happening that weekend. It will also be a celebration of 22 years of Gidget Foundation’s commitment to better mental health support for expectant and new parents.

Tickets are available to purchase individually or as a group. Corporate tables include a tax deductible donation and all money raised will go towards our perinatal mental health initiatives. Further information about our services and resources can be found at Gidget Foundation Australia.


Arabella Gibson joined Gidget Foundation Australia as CEO in early 2017 after a 20-year career in executive leadership roles. She has a passion for improving support systems for expectant and new parents by building emotionally resilient families. Arabella holds a Masters in Communication Management from UTS and is a Non-Executive Director of Future Women, an organization supporting the advancement of women to connect, learn and lead.

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