Workplace Wellbeing

The Links Between Physical and Mental Health Shape Women’s Experiences in the Workplace. Let’s Unpack What That Means.

When women are supported holistically, they bring renewed energy, creativity, and commitment, elevating the entire organization.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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A women peacefully closes her eyes with her hand on her chest

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    Have you ever noticed how physical exhaustion can drastically affect your mood? Or how anxiety makes your body uncomfortable? Those feelings highlight the mind-body feedback loop, showing how deeply our minds and bodies connect.

    We'll be investigating these connections in more detail, but first, let's consider why this link is so important for women's health—especially in the workplace.

    A holistic view of women’s health

    Women spend 25% more of their lives in poor health and with disabilities than men, averaging nine years of poor health. Over half of this health gap occurs during women's working years, accounting for about 80% of the estimated economic impact of poor health in women.

    Understanding health holistically is crucial when addressing these disparities. Health is not just physical. It also includes mental, spiritual, and social well-being.

    For example, think about two female employees with anxiety. One of them may also be experiencing domestic violence at home, have a physical health condition, and lack access to mental healthcare.

    The second woman may also be experiencing anxiety at work, but is struggling to pay her rent and put food on the table for her kids, and makes less money than her male coworkers. 

    When we’re looking at women's health in relation to work, it’s essential to acknowledge the many other connection points that complete the full picture.

    The mind-body feedback loop at work

    Research suggests that health conditions like diabetes or heart disease can cause changes in the brain, leading to mood disorders. At the same time, mental health conditions can lead to heart disease or worsened diabetes.

    So, with the understanding that mental health includes pathways that interact with physical health and vice versa, let’s consider women’s specific mental health challenges and how they relate to work.

    Close to half of women's health burden stems from conditions that affect them disproportionately, such as depression. Globally, women experience depression at double the rate of men. This gap is similar to anxiety disorders.

    A recent report including over 30,000 employees across 30 countries shows that female employees are more exhausted, have worse spiritual and mental health than men, and are at a higher risk of burnout. 

    Work-related stressors

    Again, to frame this conversation in the context of a holistic view of women’s health, let’s consider a couple of examples of how gender impacts women’s health at work. 

    Working women are more likely to have caregiver roles at home and much more likely to be caregivers for someone with a mental or physical health challenge. These responsibilities often constitute a double shift and can impact physical and mental health.

    In the workplace, women are twice as likely to hear comments about their emotional state, be interrupted, or experience other demeaning or dismissive behavior. They are also three times as likely to consider quitting their jobs and four times more likely to feel burned out.

    The physical health factor

    Next, let’s consider physical health and its impact on work performance. This seems pretty obvious, right? 

    Someone with physical health challenges will likely struggle more at work. And yet, there are quite a few nuances when it comes to how women experience work in relation to their physical and mental health.

    Women’s health is still stigmatized

    A recent research paper about gynecological health in the workplace surveyed employees and found that 63% were not comfortable discussing this topic at work due to stigma. 

    There are currently almost 2 billion women of reproductive age working in a vast variety of industries, facing different health-related stressors such as

    • Exposure to chemicals in manufacturing settings
    • A higher frequency of work-related cases of musculoskeletal injury
    • Double the amount of work-related stress compared to men

    Another common example involves endometriosis, a chronic disease involving the uterus that can cause significant, life-impacting pain. This affects about 10% of women globally.

    Many employees are dealing with this pain at work, knowing it’s taboo to discuss with their male manager. This illustrates not only a physical health burden, but the mental health impact of silently ensuring pain while working.

    The link between physical and mental health goes deep

    Researchers recently discovered that specific emotion-related factors are linked to microbiome diversity in the stomach. In other words, our gut microbiome directly impacts our emotional health.

    Another recent study found connections between the stomach, physical health, and emotional states in pregnant individuals. The authors proposed that personalized mental and physical health interventions are needed to strengthen overall health, further illustrating the impact of these mind-body connections.

    Why is this important for workplace leaders to be aware of?

    Not only is there a moral imperative for workplaces to act on their duty of care towards employees—who spend a significant amount of their time, emotional, and physical energy on their job—but there’s also a critical economic imperative. 

    The business case for holistic health support

    Let’s return to our starting image—the mind-body feedback loop. An individual’s mental health is deeply intertwined with their physical health, and the converse is also true—it’s not a simple back-and-forth relationship, but more of a circle.

    In light of this dynamic, workplace support systems are most effective when they consider the whole person. Solely focusing on physical health benefits or offering therapy without considering the body doesn’t fully address the entirety of an individual’s being.

    Holistic health supports works

    At this point, it’s natural to wonder what kind of results organizations are seeing after investing in a comprehensive, holistically-oriented mental health solution.

    Spring Health recently underwent a multi-year process of independent, external validation for its employee mental health solution through the Validation Institute. 

    Their review of Spring Health’s results showed that customers:

    • Reduced physical health spending, especially for members with high-cost, chronic medical conditions:
      • $5,226 savings for those with diabetes and $5,040 for those with hypertension
      • Customers also experienced $6,930 in savings for members who had cancer
    • Lowered health plan spend by $2,430 per member within the first six months of engagement
    • Reduced turnover by 22% and absenteeism by 12%

    Given the evidence that treating employee well-being holistically works, how might an organization tailor workplace support to women’s specific mental and physical health needs? 

    Addressing the mind-body feedback loop

    It’s important to start from a position where women are deeply involved in designing support initiatives and benefits that address women’s needs.

    Furthermore, thinking holistically, workplace support could include:

    Comprehensive mental health support: Including coaching for caregivers, therapists who specialize in women’s reproductive issues, and trauma-informed support for domestic violence survivors.

    Flexible schedules: While many employees seek workplace flexibility, there’s more of an impact for women. Women who can work from their preferred location show a 15% increase in mental health, are 19% less exhausted, and experience better spiritual health.

    Training and education: This could be specific to women’s health issues and might encompass topics like domestic violence, reproductive health, and/or stress management for caregivers.

    Addressing the social determinants of health for women: This might look like caregiver support, healthcare access, child care assistance, and/or community support such as ERGs

    Physical health benefits: Support for maternity and family planning, exercise benefits, and access to healthy food at work.

    These are examples meant to start the conversation. The key is to investigate the specific needs of an employee population and tailor interventions to meet those needs.

    Bringing it all together

    After deciding on specific strategies and initiatives, there’s more important follow-up work to be done, including: 

    Continuing education about benefit offerings. Benefits education and awareness often stop after onboarding. It can be helpful to continue communicating with employees about benefits options and provide specific examples of how benefits can be used, as their life circumstances will likely change over time.

    Manager and leader training is key to supporting women’s health in the workplace. Managers can have as much impact on their employees’ mental health as spouses and more than doctors or therapists.

    Analyzing the success of these initiatives through employee feedback, health outcomes, and ROI measures. Leaders can adapt their strategies to the findings to ensure resources are being invested wisely.

    While every workforce is unique, truly understanding and addressing the mental and physical health needs of female employees is more than just the right thing to do. When women are supported holistically, they bring renewed energy, creativity, and commitment, elevating the entire organization.

    Uncover six powerful strategies to enhance women’s mental health globally, transforming workplace culture and driving positive ROI.  

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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