With depression and anxiety creating a barrier to career success for women, Dr Emily Handley looks at what you can do to take control of your mental health in the workplace.
Women who work over 55 hours in a week are at a higher risk of a depression diagnosis – but this isn’t the case for men. One in five working women report depression or anxiety, and many women say their mental health is a major barrier to career success.
The disruption caused by the COVID pandemic has created a new normal that seems to be taking a much heavier toll on women, with burnout reaching alarming levels. While there are benefits to a shift in the workplace, the burden women face in unpaid work has yet to catch up, leaving those balancing family and careers also facing poor mental health.
This further makes it difficult to identify symptoms of depression and anxiety, exacerbating the whole issue. So how can you empower not only yourself, but your network to support you? And what can you push for within the workplace to combat depression and anxiety?
Are women really more susceptible to anxiety and depression in the workplace?
Research – and lived experience – tells us that women face a double burden of hours in the work place plus the bulk of domestic chores and child-rearing. Women who work over 55 hours a week have a 7.3 per cent increased likelihood of depressive symptoms, and are more likely than men to display debilitating low moods on the weekend. Since the COVID pandemic, the levels of depression for working women have increased by 83 per cent compared to men, which increased by a comparatively meagre 36 per cent. That’s not all; anxiety levels for women have shot up by 52 per cent, while their male counterparts are only at a 29 per cent increase. And while mental health problems affect both men and women in the workplace, it is clear this is not in equal measure.
This gender gap is influenced by a whole mess of factors – women take on the bulk of the ‘care’ workload both at home and in the workplace, find themselves shouldering organisational responsibilities across both spheres, and are at predisposition to some depressive and anxiety disorders due to hormonal fluctuations over the life-course. But when does it become apparent that
What does depression and anxiety look like in a work environment?
Many women state depressive symptoms and anxiety as the top barrier to success in the workplace – indicating that these disorders lead to avoiding interactions and discourse with co-workers, skipping out on work-related social events, low motivation and even avoiding work all together.
Depressive disorders are generally characterised by diminished interest in the things you’d normally enjoy or care about; an inability to feel pleasure; impaired problem-solving abilities; a loss of energy; and disturbed sleep and appetite. Conversely, anxiety disorders – encompassing panic disorders, generalised anxiety and specific phobias – can present as enduring and excessive fear, avoiding a perceived threat, and can physically manifest as panic attacks.
In the workplace, those with depression or anxiety often avoid treatment, fearing the effect a mental health diagnosis may have on their job. They may worry they’ll be treated unfairly; be demoted; lose opportunities; or in the worst case, have their employment terminated. But avoiding support at work when you feel you may be experiencing symptoms of poor mental health in the workplace has a domino effect, where it becomes increasingly difficult to complete your daily tasks – then potentially leading to the outcomes mentioned above. If you find you’re keeping to yourself more often at work, coming late to meetings or avoiding the workplace all together, it may be time to delve deeper. Are these signs of unhappiness in your job? Or is it something more encompassing in your day to day life?
Feeling nervous, uneasy or tense about work could be triggered by job performance, interactions with colleagues, sharing your work and public speaking. Workplace anxiety is more common than depression, but it’s important to be aware of when a ‘normal’ amount of tension at work on a busy day becomes something more insidious. Someone with workplace anxiety may panic when driving to work; begin to unduly stress about finances; over-analyse interaction with colleagues; be highly strung during meetings; react poorly to any kind of constructive feedback; and struggle to meet deadlines. All of this can lead to forgetfulness, issues in concentration and drive, lost productivity, and even issues like headaches and an upset stomach.
The symptoms of depression and anxiety, particularly in the workplace, lend themselves to making it difficult to seek out help, or know when to intervene for a colleague or loved one. So what can the workplace do for those suffering from poor mental health?
Mending the gaps in workplace mental health systems
Before broaching systemic issues and solutions, it’s important to recognize what you can do to take control of your mental health in the workplace. This can include building up a support network; finding safe spaces; and evaluating whether these symptoms are triggered by the workplace itself, or in your life outside of work. First, it’s important to reflect on the experience of your mental health challenges and how they might be impacting your work performance. Are these symptoms one-off events? Are they linked to one specific factor at work or situation? Or are these a chronic experience, dogging your steps regardless of the circumstance? Also be ready to consider whether these issues are gendered – is the burden of domestic work sending you over the edge? Talking with someone you trust or a therapist can help you gain perspective on why depressive and anxiety symptoms may be rearing their head for you at work.
Once you have a clearer idea of your situation, it may be time to take your concerns to your manager or to your HR department. There’s no shame in seeing if you can seek accommodations for your mental health, as frightening as broaching the subject may be. Women find it more difficult to do so, with power dynamics often at play alongside the ever-present glass ceiling and a fear of being seen as typically ‘female’. But remember: you control who you choose to share your issues with and how much you share.
This goes for your working habits as well – know your limits, work within them, and try to communicate your needs as best as possible to those that have power of your working habits. Having a trusted mentor or supervisor prioritise your tasks can help you to focus on one thing at a time, avoiding the panic spiral that comes with focusing on too many things at once. Finding activities that help you relax and re-centre can also help with an impending feeling of panic, or a lack of motivation. Listen to music to block out too much noise or activity around you, or even set aside five minutes to sit alone and practice meditation or breathing exercises. Seeking out incidental exercise is also a plus, boosting motivating and mood regulating hormones in the brain – this can be a short walk, taking the stairs, or even finding ten minutes to go through some stretching exercises. In a pinch, going outside, a short chat with a colleague, watching a funny video, or focusing on breathing can be small ways to stop symptoms of anxiety and depression in their tracks.
If you’re still finding that you can’t cope at work, seeking help from a mental health professional is a must. It’s better to seek help before you get too deep and irrevocably impact your employment and quality of life. A diagnosis can also empower you to discuss altered working habits to accommodate your mental health challenges in the workplace, and to even push for systemic change that may benefit all employed. Every organisation needs to be actively working towards a healthy workplace – this can take the form of educational seminars, having a therapist employed, making sure everyone has a list of helpful contacts and phone numbers, and even having a designated ombudsman for situations that require conflict resolution. If you’re in a position of power in the workplace, consider sending out an anonymous survey to see if employees know how to access resources, and if they are even aware that certain resources exist. Finding out too what aspects of the workplace may be creating a toxic work environment can also help guide targeted strategies to help workplace anxiety and depression.
For women in particular, the most important thing is representation: have women in positions of leadership, management and mentorship. A fear of coming across as ‘womanly’ when struggling with mental health issues is a major barrier to seeking help. Having other women that you can build a support network with is key to identifying potential mental health issues, finding help, and modifying your workplace to support you best.
Moving forward in the workplace
Treating workplace related depression and anxiety can have a flow on effect, where struggles in your motivation and engagement are alleviated and in turn, ease the burden of mental health issues. The first step is identifying how and when you experience these symptoms; whether they’re only linked to the workplace, or are ever-present; and who you can share these thoughts with to continue supporting you in the workplace. With treatment, most people see significant improvements in their quality of life, and bringing up the topic of mental health in the workplace can benefit all employees. Remember not to burden yourself with changing a whole culture though if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety – one person can make a change, but it’s critical to put yourself and your mental health first.
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Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your physical or mental health, seek immediate medical attention.