More than ‘women’s issues’ | Creating a proactive mental health strategy for women at work

woman being comforted by colleague, mental ill health

Our report, coupled with our annual group income protection claims statement, revealed some interesting statistics on the differences between men and women when it comes to mental health in the workplace.

Under the age of 30, 12 percent of employed women reported experiencing mental health issues compared to seven percent of men, our claims statement reveals. Even more surprisingly, this gap increased, between the ages of 30-39 with 30 percent of women reporting mental health challenges compared to just four percent of men.

These figures suggest that women are more likely to suffer higher levels of anxiety earlier on in their careers.

Many companies are introducing strategies to combat mental health concerns – but how can we ensure they’re not ‘just a tick in the box’ and they fully benefit all staff – particularly younger female employees?

Overcome barriers to disclosure 

According to the World Health Organisation, gender stereotypes regarding women’s susceptibility to emotional problems, appear to reinforce social stigma and constrain them from seeking help.

Daniel and Jason Freeman, clinical psychologists at the University of Oxford, argue women are not only judged on their workplace performance but on other factors, not always applied to men. This includes how they look and how they manage their homes and families, which is likely to lower their self-esteem and increase levels of stress further.

Many of the fluctuating conditions, relating specifically to women such as endometriosis, infertility, pregnancy and menopause can cause both physical and psychological pain.

Sometimes friends, relatives and work colleagues may not take these conditions as seriously as others and it is views like this which can make it difficult for women to feel comfortable about withdrawing from activities to get some rest and might even stop women from seeking professional help or treatment.

Establish a mental health champions network at work to combat negative reactions and encourage open workplace dialogue. These are individuals who are available for informal chats with employees and can provide more detailed advice on the support available to those who might be struggling.

Be more flexible

No one person is the same and companies should try to give managers the latitude to shape mental health support according to the needs of their teams. Everyone reacts to stress and health issues differently, so a ‘blanket approach’ is just not going to cut it.

Side-effects can be unpredictable, so promoting more flexible work patterns, such as enabling women to take time off for hospital appointments or allowing remote working during difficult periods, or in the absence of childcare will mean they continue their roles effectively, being able to engage with work when in the right frame of mind to do so.

Companies can introduce Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPS) for women who may need more advanced forms of counselling. EAPS offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals with areas causing emotional distress, from family issues to work-related problems, addiction and mental illness.

Businesses should not only be able to adapt options on an employee case-by-case basis but on a location basis as well because different branches have different profiles and work patterns.

Create clearer policies to support female-centric conditions

Absences from work following events such as a miscarriage are difficult to manage in that there is no specific duration of leave recommended. Many women return to work, much earlier than they should as they worry about the security of their job, the workload on their return and in certain fields, client retention. This can delay emotional recovery and affect performance in the long term.

Companies need to work harder to create clearer maternity/paternity policies that clarify where issues such as miscarriage and still birth sit on leave calendars. Falling pregnant again can also become a trigger for anxiety for women, so businesses should implement support and advice on ‘elective treatments’ so women have more knowledge about the options available to them.

Managers can work with female employees to develop condition management plans, with regular reviews and decide together the best adjustments to workload and schedules as and when needed.

To create a positive environment supporting mental health for women in the workplace you need to build a general culture of health and openness surrounding female-centric conditions. There is no “silver bullet”, but the most important ingredient for success is a commitment from the top down to invest in physical and mental wellbeing and to implement clearer policies so women take the correct length of recovery time and seek the help they need.

Liz Walker Headshot

About the author

In her time at Unum, Liz has spearheaded work to remove the stigma of mental health in the workplace and actively works to help raise awareness of mental health as an asset and an integral part of a holistic health and wellbeing strategy.

Unum is a leading employee benefits provider offering Income Protection, Life insurance, Critical Illness, and dental cover through the workplace.

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