The Mother Load: Here’s how to help new parents avoid burnout at work

The Mother Load - a list of the jobs moms do when they're working and caring for their kids

Becoming a parent changes everything, especially for working moms. Of the 44 million mothers in the US, more than 75% work full-time1 — and many of them also do the majority of the housework and childcare. In fact, women in the US spend an average of two hours more each day on housework and childcare than men.2

And that’s just the day-to-day tasks. Women are also eight times more likely to stay home when a child is sick, and they’re the ones who most often manage complicated schedules of activities and appointments.3 This double-duty of work and parenting — the Mother Load — can lead to burnout, parental guilt and mental and physical health issues, even for people who’ve never experienced them before.

That’s why it’s so important for employers to help ease the burden on working mothers, especially when they’re transitioning back to work as new parents.

How heavy is the Mother Load?

In May, we celebrate Mother’s Day and Mental Health Awareness Month, so it’s the perfect moment to pause and consider how much we’re asking working mothers to carry, and the toll it takes on their wellbeing. 

Let’s start with burnout at work. The pandemic has been a struggle for all of us, and reports of burnout at work are higher than ever. Nearly 60 percent of millennials (those in their childbearing years), reported symptoms of burnout in the last year.4 But it’s not just that burnout is skyrocketing — in a study across all ages, researchers found that the gender gap for burnout has nearly doubled. In 2021, 42% of women reported burnout compared to 32% in 2020. For men, 35% experienced burnout in 2021, compared with 28% in 2020.5 Burnout is a problem everywhere, but women are being hit the hardest.

This aligns with the changes we’ve seen in the workforce since the start of the pandemic. During the Great Reassessment, women faced impossible childcare situations and work policies that made it too hard to balance career and family. In the last two years, 3.5 million women decided their best option was to leave the workforce.6

Even without a pandemic, the Mother Load can be overwhelming. The challenges start early — postpartum depression (PPD), is one of the most common mental health conditions for new parents (though it’s significantly more common among women, men can experience PPD, too). The reported rate of PPD in the US is about 13.2%,7 but many women are never screened. Ovia’s research — including 13 million mental health screeners we’ve delivered to our community — suggests that the true rate is closer to 30%. During the pandemic rates of distress rose higher, especially for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) mothers, first-time mothers, and mothers between 35-39.

If you’re an employer, the Mother Load matters

All companies want to attract and retain the best employees — and we all know that losing talent is disruptive and costly. So, if you are considering how to update your policies and benefits, easing the Mother Load for new parents is one of the most impactful things you can do. Here’s why:

  • As we’ve seen over the past two years, when the burden of balancing a job and family is too much, employees leave. In fact, according to a recent Ovia survey, 90% of employees said they would likely take another job if it offered better family benefits.8
  • New mothers between the ages of 35-39 are among those who’ve suffered the biggest increase in mental health challenges during the pandemic. These are your mid-career managers — employees you can’t afford to lose.
  • Postpartum depression usually presents three-to-six months after a baby is born — which is just about the time mothers are returning to work. This means that employers have a unique opportunity to provide help when it matters most.
  • Mental health challenges are the tip of the iceberg. Even if employees can muddle through, mental health issues can contribute to costly physical health problems, too.

How to build a better return-to-work program with mental health support

A comprehensive return-to-work program needs to begin before maternity leave and continue well after parents are back on the job. Here’s what’s important at each step of the process.

1: Get ready before it’s time for leave.

Most women decide whether they’re coming back to work before they go on maternity leave. So to retain employees, you need to offer support early. This begins with the very first interaction a parent-to-be has with her manager. Managers need training about how to respond well to a pregnancy announcement, use supportive language throughout the process, and notify the rest of the team in a positive way.  

After the initial announcement, employers should connect employees to the benefits they’ll need, create a pre-leave plan that helps ease stress and ensures continuity for teams while someone is on leave, and plan for a stop date (along with a backup plan if the date comes early).

Since benefits can be hard to understand, it’s also useful to create a simple, easy-to-read summary that explains FMLA, STD, and other policies. Getting pre-leave right takes a lot of knowledge and planning. That’s why Ovia’s training programs help managers every step of the way.

2. Protect a calm and peaceful leave.

Once an employee is on maternity leave, support them by making sure they don’t receive work messages or feel pressure to keep working. Ask in advance if they’d like to share updates or photos with their team — and respect their wishes.

During leave, check in to be sure employees are receiving all of their benefits. And even though it’s not necessary, a new baby gift is always welcome. 

3. Make return-to-work as smooth — and flexible — as possible.

Returning to work after maternity leave is a huge adjustment. To ease the transition, consider offering a gradual return, with part-time or shorter hours for the first month or two. In addition to reduced hours, understand that new parents need flexibility to take children to doctor’s appointments or pick them up from daycare. You’ll take a huge step towards building a family-friendly culture if you make this kind of flexibility the standard, not a perk.

You can also ease the transition back by creating a project update and plans to help your employee catch up without feeling overwhelmed.

Mother’s rooms are another important part of return-to-work. Make sure the space you offer is private, comfortable, and reservable. Include a milk fridge, a comfy chair, and breastfeeding essentials, such as nutritious snacks and drinks. You can find more tips on mother’s room best practices here and here

Since new parents are at risk for postpartum depression, consider how you can help destigmatize mental healthcare. Include mental health resources in your benefits conversations and let employees know how to access them. Beyond mental health support, ask managers and HR teams to check in regularly to find out if employees have all the resources they need. For more tips on supporting mental health for your employees, check out this expert panel

While these best practices focus on new mothers who’ve just given birth, it’s also important to ensure that your policies are inclusive of new fathers and parents who adopt or use a surrogate.

Why now’s the time to address the Mother Load through mental health support and return-to-work — and where to start 

Working mothers are a huge percentage of the workforce, and we can’t afford to keep losing them — which is what happens when we ask them to choose between their careers and their children. It’s time to establish better return-to-work policies, along with mental health support, so moms can manage the Mother Load. When employers support mothers at those moments when they need it most, employees remember — even when other offers come their way.

Do you need help with your return-to-work program? Ovia Health offers guidance, manager training, workshops, and worksheets for a supportive, inclusive return-to-work process. We are also one of the nation’s largest perinatal mental health screeners, having delivered more than 3.6 million digital risk screeners in 2021 alone. Ovia also offers 1:1 benefits navigators and certified coaches who can help ease the Mother Load every step of the way, from conception through birth and parenting. 

1:  Forbes: 

2:  Institute for Women’s Policy Research: 

3:  Forbes: 

4:  Forbes: 

5:  Associated Press: 

6:  Associated Press: 

7:  Centers for Disease Control: 

8:  The Future of Family Friendly Report, Ovia Health: