When we think of parity in the workplace, we often think of equal access to senior roles, equal pay, even the fight for the complete eradication of sexual harassment, all of which are issues well documented in recent years. But when assessing what is truly holding women back in their careers, preventing the achievement of ‘parity at work’, it’s important that we also address another common issue which data suggests hinders women in employment – postpartum health.
The topic of postpartum health and the long-term symptoms of childbirth is shrouded in misconception, particularly for those who do not experience it first-hand. In America for example, the nation which spends the most money in the world on healthcare per person, the support for mothers is typically dominated by the ‘readiness’ stage i.e. pregnancy comfort, scans and birth plans. However, it is often relayed to us from new moms in the USA that after giving birth they felt confused about what was considered ‘normal’ about their body and the steps needed for a full recovery. After all, it is not a mother’s job to self-diagnose and self-educate on the symptoms she experiences, nor is it practical to do so. The lack of postpartum structures means that mothers are sometimes left to fend for themselves, in certain scenarios turning to the internet to try and understand why they feel the way the do and why their bodies aren’t responding the way they used to.
This lack of education on the changes of a postpartum body only heightens the anxiety of the return to the workplace after maternity leave. After all, postpartum symptoms don’t just disappear by themselves after 6 months. You could be a brand-new mother, a mother to teens, a grandmother – it doesn’t matter. A woman who develops postnatal incontinence, for example, in her 30s, could experience 50 years of bladder weakness, which is perhaps why almost 1 in 4 women between the ages of 18 and 44 experience incontinence. So what does this mean for a career? Can a woman ever truly fulfill her potential marred by the struggles of incontinence? Is there more that can be done to raise awareness of postpartum health to ensure that women receive the support they need to tackle their symptoms? These are the vital questions we need to address.
Incontinence in the workplace
Urinary and /or fecal incontinence are common results of childbirth and unfortunately are issues that many women suffer with for years before seeking a solution. The commercials we see for incontinence pads have almost normalized the issue as though it were a price to pay for having a child, or getting older, which is categorically not the truth.
In a recent survey of women in employment, 30% said that pelvic health issues had affected their performance or focus at work, 41% said they had taken time off work for health issues they did not feel comfortable sharing with their boss and 36% said they had felt anxious, embarrassed and uncomfortable at work due to issues with their pelvic health. What’s more, in a global study predominantly covering the UK and USA, 69% of women surveyed said they would not feel comfortable opening up to a colleague or boss about their postpartum issues and 95% said they felt it would be beneficial for bosses to take employee welfare courses with the incorporation of postnatal health modules.
These statistics highlight an apparent breakdown in communication between workforces and employers, the kind of which can lead to many female professionals falling out of their career or reaching a glass ceiling that won’t allow them to progress beyond a certain point.
We hear the stories of women who feel anxious to be stationed near a toilet at all times, would make excuses to avoid meetings in the event of leaking and would take extra breaks. You don’t need a medical understanding of pelvic health to empathize that these health issues are uncomfortable, embarrassing and possibly painful. These treatable symptoms mean women are less focused, less able to perform physically and almost constantly distracted. The result could also be more sick days, decreased productivity and unhappiness at work.
What can be done? – Employers
Potential employees who are, or may become, parents are increasingly looking at gender equality stats, parental leave and pay, transitional back-to-work support, KIT days, mentorship, breastfeeding policy, childcare, flexible working and health and wellness support. The key to addressing the impact of postpartum health on the careers of women lies in building a level of awareness to breed comfortability in a workforce.
The transition back into work from parenthood presents challenges that affect energy, drive and focus. These topics may not come up in conversation, but the effects on productivity and confidence to stay in work are real. The return to work phase is the point at which most women fall out of the workplace. 74% of professional women intend to return to the same employers; however, just 24% go on to do so. Turnover of new parents is high, but by knowing what parents need, providing it — and loudly proclaiming it — organizations give returning mothers the opportunity to pick up where they left off. Mothers need to be given assurance that there aren’t unrealistic expectations upon immediate return to the workplace and an understanding that they have different needs that need to be addressed. The great thing is, these aren’t solutions that require vast investments or time from a company – it’s just about education.
What can be done? Solutions to the root of the problem
Having the trust that an employer understands and supports the changes of a postpartum body and the requirements, flexibility and facilities required to be able to progress, is very important. But it doesn’t change the fact that these issues still may prevent them from attending meetings, working distraction-free, feeling empowered or free to make strides in their career.
The second part to the solution is addressing the root problem – the symptoms themselves. Medically backed exercise programs, such as those referred to by midwives, physiotherapists, primary care physicians and other medical professionals are clinically proven to reduce the onset of urinary incontinence and improve symptoms of pelvic organ prolapse and diastasis recti.
Whether working from home, or in the office in the future, there is an onus for women to understand that the symptoms they face are not permanent and there is support available to them. Finding the time to address these issues is much easier than it sounds, with remedies available with a simple 30 minutes a day of exercise and available to complete in the comfort of their own time and space, at their own speed.
Photo: damircudic, Getty Images