Designing better leave programs for working moms

The responsibilities placed on today’s workforce has created a need for employers to address the toll these demands can have on a worker’s mental health and overall well-being. While there have been strides made to improve employee mental health there is one group whose needs still aren’t being fully met — working mothers.

Experts agree that women raising a family can have different needs than other members of the workforce. But despite some shift of the responsibility of family life to both parents, mothers can often still feel they shoulder most of the responsibility.

In addition to their work responsibilities, working moms take on more of the intellectual, mental and emotional work of childcare and household maintenance, according to research from sociologist Susan Walzer. Maintaining a healthy balance of professional and personal responsibilities might be one of the biggest mental health challenges these employees face.

“I think there is still a lot of pressure on women that if they do get pregnant and they do take leave — it’s like, well, when are you coming back and I hope you’re at 100%,” says Danielle Schweiger an adviser with Gregory & Appel Insurance. “It makes me wonder if there’s not room to design certain leave programs [to address this issue].”

It can take some women a year or longer to fully recover from childbirth both emotionally and physically, according to a blog by Overlake OBGYN, a clinic in Bellevue, Washington. So the idea that a woman can be entirely ready to get back to work and be as focused as she was before her few weeks of leave is flawed.

One way employers can tackle this problem is by making changes to their leave programs. Employers and benefits professionals often think about the steps to take for an employee going on leave but not how to successfully integrate them back into the workplace.

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With that in mind, employers can design a leave program that eases a woman — or any employee that has been gone a while — back into their jobs.

“[Designing] certain leave programs that allow for six weeks of paid leave and then the employee comes back mandatorily no more than three days a week for a month,” is one option Schweiger says.

Setting up a structured and a mandatory set number of hours an employee can work once she returns from leave will help get the worker back into the flow of things, while providing the scheduling flexibility a new mother needs.

“In the benefits profession we think about benefits in a very narrow category,” says Rae Shanahan, chief strategy officer of Businessolver, an employee benefits administration technology provider. “But if we turn around and think about it from an employee’s perspective, they really broaden the view of what benefits are and often times people will commingle benefits and perks.”

Talking about specific benefits around mental health for working mothers or the general employee population from their perspective may not be what people in the industry think of as traditional benefits.

“But really getting into the types of flexible schedules including before school and after school options,” Shanahan says can really impact an employee’s life and impact their mental health.

More than 90% of the employees surveyed in Businessolver’s 2019 State of Workplace Empathy survey say that an employer who recognized the importance of mental health is more likely to retain employees. Additionally, over 90% of employees say mental health benefits demonstrate empathy and that employers should do more for overall well-being and mental health.

In a perfect world benefits packages would be designed with everyone in mind. Working mothers and women in general wouldn’t be thought of after the fact and society wouldn’t be sending women and girls mixed messages about the importance of building a successful career yet still tying the idea of femininity and what it means to be a woman with motherhood.

Indeed, there are vastly different pressure points on women to be more involved mothers than men, according to Pew Research. About 77% of adults say women face greater pressure to be the more involved parent.

“If I were advising [an employer] on how to address the issue, especially that anxious mental state that comes from women being under pressure from two different forces, I really think it’s the employer’s responsibility to help them ease back into a role,” Schweiger says. “If an employer is not willing to be helpful and cognizant, that woman is going to have a mental breakdown or quit.”

Schweiger has seen this happen with a former coworker. The woman had only been back from maternity leave for two weeks when she decided to quit due to the demands of needing to focus on both work and her child 100% of the time.

A woman who doesn’t have access to a well developed leave policy is likely going to have to make that choice at some point, which highlights that gap in the benefits planning thought process.

Employee benefits aren’t one size fits all, what makes one employee happy might not thrill the person at the next desk. Employers and benefits professionals have to start thinking about more personalized approaches for each demographic of people they have working for them.

“Benefits should be personalized, they should be tailored, whether it’s working moms or it’s empty nest moms,” Shanahan says. “Based on where people are in their life stage, an employer should be able to have a different suite or different menu of benefits and perks that employees can pick from.”

Mom’s mental health

Solving mental health issues is becoming more prevalent in society, but there is still work to be done. The stigma that having mental health issues means there is something wrong with you still hovers over people. Employees may worry that disclosing their struggles with mental health disorders could negatively impact their work life.

About 74% of employees believe employers would hold back job offers to a potential candidate if a mental health issue were disclosed, according to the Businessolver report.

Untreated mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the U.S., according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Creating a work environment where mental illness is addressed openly and positively can be another huge benefit or perk for employees, especially working moms who may be dealing with postpartum depression.

“I want to get rid of the stigma for people having mental health issues,” Shanahan says. “It does not mean there can’t be fully functioning people in the workplace. The first benefit we can give to employees is to get rid of the stigma so people are open to talking about it … The best thing [employers] can do is humanize mental health and the benefits that are available.

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