Broadly concerning pregnancy and the months after giving birth, the perinatal period can represent a time of particular vulnerability to poor mental health for many women.
With this in mind, it’s important for employers to consider how they can support expectant and new mothers within their organisation, beyond the usual commitment to maternity rights.
Perinatal yoga can offer one such source of support - helping women to shore-up their wellbeing at a time where they need it most.
It goes without saying that the advantage to businesses in enacting wellbeing strategies is in the reduction of long-term costs and the retention of valued members of staff.
But with it being widely understood that maternal mental health has a significant impact on the next generation, another motivator lies in the opportunity to play a vital societal role - and one that could have positive ramifications for decades to come.
The practice of yoga is increasingly recognised for its health benefits for a variety of physical and mental health conditions, with yoga for depression and anxiety particularly promising areas of research.
With the combination of physical and psychological considerations that encompass pregnancy, childbirth and new motherhood, yoga is a uniquely effective and holistic self-help method that interacts with both mind and body.
Perinatal mental health
One third of British mums are the main breadwinners in their family, and the proportion of working-age mothers in the workforce has increased by 50% since the 1970s. More than ever before, work and motherhood exist concurrently in women’s lives.
This represents a huge step forward in the ongoing fight for equality, but comes with a sting in the tail - with attitudes still lagging behind progress, women have five hours less leisure time a week than men, and still conduct the majority of unpaid household labour and childcare.
It is within this context that women must navigate their professional careers as they intersect with becoming a mum - and all the attendant pressure this can bring.
Despite the images of glowing perfection that dominate Instagram under hashtags like #mamatobe and #bumpstyle, pregnancy can be pretty hard work - and looking after a newborn is something else entirely.
The importance of mental health during this time cannot be overstated. This is often a period of happiness and excitement, but there are also anxieties and huge physical and mental changes to contend with.
For women with pre-existing mental health issues, the perinatal period can worsen symptoms (especially if long-term mental health medications are suspended during pregnancy) and create a susceptibility to relapse even if they have been well for a long time.
As many as 1 in 5 women have mental health problems in pregnancy or after birth - some of which, such as postpartum psychosis, can arise even if the mother has no history of mental health problems.
Being understanding and accommodating as an employer can go a long way in making sure work responsibilities don’t exacerbate these issues, and that women can fully recover should they arise. It’s also worth remembering that new fathers can struggle with postpartum depression too.
Perinatal yoga in the workplace
There are a variety of benefits of introducing yoga into an organisation, whether that’s through on-site yoga lessons, encouraging employees to apply yogic stress-reduction techniques or subsidizing classes for staff to pursue in their spare time.
Evidence is building to suggest that yoga helps people to manage and reduce in-work stress, and this appears to bear out in organisations which have embraced the practice.
The US-based health insurance company Aetna estimates that they gain $3,000 per employee per year through their free yoga and meditation classes, with employees who take part gaining an average of 62 minutes of productivity per week.
When considering in-work yoga programs for pregnant women, however, employers have to take into account the suitability of certain yoga classes.
Yoga teachers need to be trained in working with pregnant women in order to avoid encouraging any poses or practices that may cause harm - which is something to consider if you wish to create in-work lessons or refer your employees to outside classes. Pregnant women should also talk with their doctor before beginning a yoga practice.
The benefits of perinatal yoga doing for pregnant employees (and those returning after maternity leave) include:
● Improved sleep. Sleep is something that is often negatively impacted during the perinatal period, both through the discomfort sometimes associated with pregnancy and the demands of looking after a newborn. Research from the Harvard Medical School indicates that yoga improves sleep for people with chronic insomnia, increasing both sleep quality and quantity. While yoga won’t stop a hungry baby waking up at 2am (and 3am, and 4am…) it can help people drop off to sleep and ensure better quality sleep when they do.
● Decreased lower back pain, headaches and nausea. Aches and pains - and lower back pain in particular - are a common issue during and after pregnancy. Yoga exercises have proved extremely helpful in relieving lower back pain, nausea and headaches, all of which can cause distress and make it difficult for expectant and new mothers to engage with or enjoy their work.
● Reduced stress. Perhaps one of the most profound benefits of yoga - and one that has an impact on many other aspects of our health - is in the reduction of stress. Yoga increases our resilience to stress, and can interrupt the stress response (which operates as a kind of physiological feedback-loop). The overarching benefits of this are profound; by bolstering people’s ability to manage rising anxiety and apply stress self-management, yoga can lead to a noticeable betterment in our quality of life.
Employers who included perinatal yoga in their corporate wellbeing programs can expect to see a reduction in absenteeism and a smoother transition back to work for returning employees.
The aforementioned company Aetna found that those who participated in their workplace yoga reported, on average, a 28% reduction in stress levels, a 20% improvement in sleep quality and a 19% reduction in pain. This is all particularly relevant for women who are pregnant or have babies to care for, as stress levels and discomfort tends to rise just as sleep quality is reduced.
By facilitating yoga and encouraging employees to learn this technique, organisations can empower their staff with the ability to protect their wellbeing.
The perinatal period - as wonderful as most people find it - is also a time of upheaval and stress, and being introduced to a comprehensive and research-based self care method such as yoga could make a big difference in people’s lives and careers.
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