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Cultivating mental health is foundational for human thriving and growth. Understanding the workings of our minds and the equilibrium of our emotional states is a process of lifetime growth—and we spend much of that lifetime working. Focusing on women’s mental health is key to addressing workplace mental health, because you can’t create a healthier overall work environment without confronting concerns that are unique to women.
If these issues aren’t grappled with and resolved, the workplace defaults to business as usual and reflects society at large, which is harmful to women.
A workplace where women thrive
There are obvious, practical, and monetary reasons for making women’s mental health a priority. This includes better productivity, less turnover, and fewer resources invested in short term employees. People who feel supported at work stick around and invest their uniquely individual intelligence, acquired knowledge, and skills into the company's flourishing. It’s a mutual relationship that can be highly beneficial to both sides, and develop a culture of growth and belonging.
People are not automatons. They don’t check their wider experience at the door when they arrive at work. They bring their entire lived experience with them every single day.
Taking this dynamic into account is crucial for building spaces where people can thrive, both professionally and personally.
To prioritize women’s mental health, start by asking and finding the answers to these questions:
- How do women experience the world?
- How do intersecting identities frame the way that women move through their day to day lives?
Discussing a large group of people is, by its nature, a generalizing practice. No two individuals are alike. We are each an amalgamation of our experiences, bodies, minds, and genetic inheritance, each completely unique in the history of humankind.
Within the broad, dynamic category of woman, there’s a complex interplay between systemic forces and individual experiences. Like all humans, women experience day-to-day life through this interplay of systemic structures and how those manifest in daily life.
Understanding the complexity
We know that women’s mental health has suffered disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic. The tremendous burden of care work, shouldered predominately by women, has become even heavier with remote schooling and the weight of navigating a deadly pandemic. Women suffering from poor mental health, both caused and exacerbated by systemic inequality, often struggle in isolation. They can feel alone, with no one willing or able to help them. Considering that people spend much of their life at work, it makes sense to build support networks centered in the workplace that address this isolation. A woman struggling to balance caring for her children, working, and also finding childcare so she’s able to work, may be at her wit’s end and also afraid to be seen as weak or unable to do her job. This can be both a demoralizing and isolating experience.
What if this woman is also facing some of the other burdens marginalized groups face? What if she’s one of the one in three women who are dealing with the trauma of sexual assault or domestic violence? What if she’s a person of color living in a society rampant with systemic racism? Racial disparities exist at every level of society and the workplace is no exception. If HR leaders want to make changes that are people centric, they must acknowledge and advocate for policies and practices that take women’s varied identities and experiences into account.
That’s the good news—there are concrete ways to help women prosper at work.
Solutions for better mental health outcomes
Effectively addressing women’s mental health in the workplace must entail a nuanced and multi-component approach. Imagine a constellation of solutions addressing women’s experiences on both macroscopic and microscopic levels. Creating single point, piecemeal strategies to the issue of how women move through their daily lives at work cannot possibly address the larger social issues that also exist in the workplace.
Again, no one enters the workplace and leaves the larger world behind. Solutions require reorienting perspectives and worldviews around how women experience the world, and then taking those experiences seriously inside the workplace, on both a policy level and on the individual level. Only then can these issues be addressed in ways that create change.
Advocating for change through policy
On the policy level, HR leaders should consider advocating for changes that create better environments for women to thrive, including:
- Eliminating barriers to healthcare and mental health benefits. Access to therapists, doctors, and other forms of mental health help are paramount to addressing poor mental health outcomes for women.
- Better maternal leave. Longer leave gives women more time to learn how to shoulder the dual nature of working and raising children during the important, early stages of a child’s life.
- Creating a no tolerance culture around sexual harassment, which is still rampant in the workplace. Women cannot thrive when their safety is in jeopardy.
- Promoting women at rates equal to men. Women have made progress in representation, but there’s still a long way to go.
- Eliminating the gender pay gap. Paying women the same as men is the lowest possible bar to ensuring that women are flourishing in the workplace.
- Ensuring that BIPOC women are represented at all levels. The small gains made by women in the workplace have not translated to BIPOC women.
- Ongoing DEI training. Educating employees at all levels of a company in a way that is thorough and ongoing is one sure way to change company culture.
- Acknowledging the “second shift.” Recognize that women are often leaving the office to a second shift of childcare, which can negatively affect mental health.
Ways to create change on a personal level
Policies can take time to address, shape, and change. While you’re advocating for the changes above, here are some ways to impact your female employees on a more personal level:
- Listen, validate women’s feelings, and take their experiences seriously. Making women feel heard about how they experience their workplace is fundamental.
- Study and learn about systemic inequality. Understanding how large social systems function and play out in individuals’ lives is key to recognizing how marginalized groups experience the world.
- Notice how this plays out in the workplace. Systemic inequality is related to workplace dynamics. Learn the theory, and then listen to how women experience inequality—because it’s all connected.
- Understand intersectionality. Women are not one thing, and embody many identities. This goes for all humans, but women’s identities are often marginalized and rendered invisible.
Allowing employees to be their full selves at work
Giving people space to be themselves, and not mandating conformity to cookie cutter ideas about who belongs in work environments, is better for both the bottom line and human thriving. People who are allowed and encouraged to bring all their creativity and full selves to work will be happier and more productive. Without this understanding, HR departments can unknowingly police office culture in a way that reinforces and reinscribes social norms around whiteness, patriarchy, and heterosexuality. Black hair styles are still routinely punished in workplace settings, as is personal expression around tattoos, piercings, gender expression and clothing. Employees that have to shrink themselves to be more palatable when they walk into the door at work will not only find their mental health affected. Their productivity will be impacted as well.
The most critical work you can do
It’s so important for HR leaders to embody a sense of humility and acknowledgement around the complexity of taking into account the full humanity of each individual. While there may not be perfect answers to each specific scenario, HR departments can begin this work, and further it by foregrounding women’s mental health in the workplace—and taking their experiences seriously. This is the critical work required for healthy cultures, and also for the health of society at large. If we spend the majority of our lives working, then mental health in the workplace is foundational to overall health in the wider world. What could be more important?
Watch this panel discussion to learn more about the unique challenges women and non-binary people face in addressing their mental health.