What Employers Need to Understand About ‘Return to Work Syndrome’

Returning to work after the arrival of a new baby can be very stressful for some people. An often overlooked issue for many women in this category includes “postpartum anxiety” which can be directly related to their return to a job after the birth of a child. Some worry about how they will handle work-life pressures, experience a loss of confidence, and have general fear that the transition back to work will not be easy or successful. According to the American Pregnancy Association, it is estimated that 10 percent of new mothers will develop postpartum anxiety.¹

Symptoms of the condition include a noticeable increase in anxiety that can cause panic attacks and even depression. This condition is also often referred to as ‘Return to Work Syndrome’ and it is important for employers to recognize and acknowledge it in order to help ease the transition back to work for new parents.

The first few weeks or months after a new baby arrives, when many women begin the transition back to work, is a very critical time when support from an employer is most needed by employees. Research has shown that 43% of women leave the workforce within three months of having a baby,² so this stage is a key opportunity for HR and management to offer resources, supportive policies, and encouragement to these potentially-vulnerable employees.

Of course, every new parent is different. Some may want to jump right back into their day-to-day responsibilities, eager to return to the things they love about work and ready to pursue the next step in their career. Others may want to come back more slowly and ease into the new routine of juggling work and parental demands. Employers need to realize that each new parent has unique needs, and HR and managers need to be comfortable having conversations with employees to discuss what type of support is available. Here are a few areas that should be considered to help ease common return to work stressors.

Lactation Support

A key step is to make sure your lactation policies and onsite spaces for pumping employees are up to date, and relevant information is well-communicated to employees. If you need help updating or writing a Lactation Policy check out the written guidelines we have created to help.

Employers must make sure their breastfeeding employees have a comfortable lactation space available for pumping that complies with federal and local laws. The Break Time for Nursing Mothers law requires employers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to provide basic accommodations for breastfeeding mothers at work. These include reasonable break time and a private, secure space that is not a bathroom for non-exempt (hourly) employees each time they need to pump. And keep in mind that it can be some of the smaller touches that can make a huge difference. In a 2020 survey, 20% of new moms said that the best employer benefit would be a lactation space stocked with some supplies!³

Train Managers to Talk to Returning Employees

We believe open communication is also key to creating a supportive environment for new parents, and that managers play a critical role in that communication. Managers should be trained to have conversations about the needs of new parents. It is understandable that these conversations don’t always feel natural, but it is critical that there is a clear understanding between employees and their manager or supervisor from the beginning, with occasional check-ins to ensure the returning parent is getting the support they need.

HR professionals should make sure that managers and supervisors understand the company policies for things like flexible scheduling, child care benefits, leave of absence policies, and sick leave to take care of ill children, along with any other company-specific policies that might be relevant. Be sure your managers inform employees of any Employee Resource Groups (Affinity Groups) or mentoring programs in place for new parents.

Managers should also be prepared to help employees with workload responsibilities and to discuss how an employee can successfully re-engage while balancing work and parental demands. To help you train your managers and supervisors to have productive conversations that will show your new parents they are returning to work in a family-friendly environment, we have written a Guide to Preparing for Employee’s Return After Baby outlining topics they may need to address with their returning employee.

Pediatric Telehealth Service

If your company doesn’t already have a pediatric telehealth service for new parents, you may want to consider adding this benefit.

A pediatric telehealth service should include on-demand access, 24 hours a day, to certified lactation consultants as a core element. This support is very important to a breastfeeding parent, to ensure they are able to get issues or concerns resolved immediately – before the next feeding or pumping session which is typically every few hours with a young infant.

Having to wait many hours or days for a lactation appointment can be the end of breastfeeding for a concerned parent, so on-demand access is invaluable. But access to lactation consultants, who are truly infant feeding experts, is also important for families and parents that may not be breastfeeding, as feeding an infant in any manner can come with all kinds of questions.

Giving all new parents (men, women and caregivers) 24/7 access to pediatric experts for non-critical questions about baby’s health and nutrition can benefit the whole family. A study of emergency room staff indicated that 80% of ER visits were dismissed as non-urgent, and the leading cause of visits were persistent fevers, rashes and gastrointestinal problems.⁴

Allowing all members of the household who care for a new baby to access the virtual support services and get reliable answers when it comes to baby’s care can prevent unnecessary cost, effort and frustration!

Organizations that proactively review and develop parental benefit policies to help reduce Return to Work Syndrome will be well-positioned to attract and retain working parents.


1. https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/first-year-of-life/how-to-prevent-postpartum-depression/
2. Berry, et al. CDC. Becker’s, Harvard.
3. New Moms’ Healthy Returns Survey: Working Moms Want Better Breastfeeding Support from their Employer, March 2020
4. Sullivan, AF, Rudders SA, Gonsalve, AL, Steptoe AP, Espinola JA, Compargo CA, National Survey of pediatric services available in US emergency departments, International Journal of Emergency Medicine 2013.