Let’s Talk About Postpartum Depression in Male Workers

Matt Gonzales By Matt Gonzales May 3, 2022
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Let’s Talk About Postpartum Depression in Male Workers

​Postpartum disorders are often associated with new mothers. But studies show that new fathers also get the "baby blues."

About 8 percent to 10 percent of fathers experience symptoms of postpartum depression, according to a study published in the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience. Additional research, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, showed that up to 18 percent develop a clinically significant anxiety disorder.

"Despite the fact that nearly no one is talking about it, postpartum depression in dads and non-birthing caregivers is very much a thing," said Gina Nebesar, co-founder and chief product officer at Ovia Health, a family health benefits platform. "It's staggering not only in its scope but also in its ability to almost completely fly under the radar as a public health issue."

According to the Cleveland Clinic, postpartum stress can cause male employees to experience:

  • Poor concentration.
  • Irritability.
  • Social isolation.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Pressure to overwork.

It can also produce what the American Psychological Association calls "male-based depression," characterized by increased fatigue, aggressiveness, sleep disturbances, alcohol abuse and self-medication.

The effects of postpartum depression can compromise productivity at work. However, employers can support the needs of male and female workers with the disorder to ultimately improve their health as well as the company's culture.

Do Male Workers Hide Their Depression?

Expecting fathers are at their highest risk of depression during the first trimester, according to a 2019 meta-analysis. The study also showed that postpartum depression was highest among men when the baby was 3 to 6 months old.

Fathers experience similar psychological, hormonal, biological, social and economic stressors that mothers have long felt, Nebesar said. This includes long nights caring for a newborn, little sleep, baby bills and work stress.

However, depression in men is often hidden, underdiagnosed and undertreated, according to Healthline. New fathers might think the condition represents a flaw or weakness of character. This can keep male workers from talking about their symptoms and seeking treatment.

"We still live in a society where there isn't as broad of a recognition of fathers' experiences in the identity shift to becoming a parent," Nebesar explained. "Because of changing cultural norms, fathers may not be as apt to recognize in themselves or ask for help when the symptoms of anxiety and depression arise in what's truly a radical life upheaval postpartum."

Sheehan Fisher, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, said many fathers who deal with postpartum depression are unaware they have it.

"In some instances, [fathers] focus more on their partner's well-being and health," Fisher explained. "And as a result, they are not always in tune with their own health and how they're coping with the stress of adjusting to parenthood."

The Importance of Paid Paternity Leave

Nebesar said companies should support the mental well-being of all new parents. Providing flexible parental leave can be an effective form of help.

A yet-to-be-released Ovia Health survey found that 30 percent of the partners of birthing mothers, many of whom were men, did not take parental leave, either because it wasn't available or it wasn't financially or logistically feasible. And over half of male partners took less than a month of parental leave.

"While adequate parental leave is perhaps the most significant benefit to better serve new parents, it should be one element of an overall culture of inclusion that sets families up for success," Nebesar said. "Employers should create a framework for mothers, fathers and partners to take time needed to take care of their well-being and feel encouraged to seek support when needed."

Research shows that parental leave significantly reduces the risk of postpartum depression in both mothers and fathers. Yet more than half of companies still do not offer paid paternity leave, according to a 2020 joint report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Oxford Economics.

And 76 percent of fathers return to work within a week after the birth or adoption of a child, according to research cited by SHRM in 2019.

"Parents need an opportunity to adjust to and connect with family, but many times fathers must return to work after two weeks," Fisher explained. "Compared to any other Western country, there's a stark difference in how we support moms and dads during the postpartum period."

He implored companies to provide flexible work schedules for employees. New parents, including fathers, should have the ability to manage home responsibilities and take their children to doctor's visits as needed without worrying about work responsibilities. This can ease stress that feeds into postpartum depression.

"I've been in rooms where if the kid is sick, they assume the man's partner will get the child," Fisher said. "Companies should normalize that the father is needed in emergency moments for taking kids to hospital or doctor and to accommodate the child's needs."

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