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Professional women are often expected to fill multiple roles at work and in the home. These many pressures can take their toll. A Cigna study showed that 87% of women 35 to 49 caring for children or elderly parents were stressed at work while trying to juggle these responsibilities.
One in five women in the United States experienced a mental health condition in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office on Women’s Health. Women also face unique mental health challenges and may experience mental illness differently than their male coworkers.
Knowledge about the mental health concerns women often face empowers organizations to better support women in the workplace. Read on for a primer on women's mental health and the workplace.
Women’s mental health: Facts and figures
The World Health Organization found that, while men and women experience mental illness at about the same rate, the patterns of these disorders are markedly different for women. For instance, conditions such as depression and anxiety may be more predominant in women.
Women face “gender-based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank and unremitting responsibility for the care of others,” according to the WHO.
Gender can also influence how an employee is treated medically, from diagnosis, to prescribing psychotropic drugs, to social stigmas that can affect how and when workers disclose their conditions to medical providers.
Related: Men’s mental health: Challenging stigma and myths
Women’s health stats from the WHO
- Depression, anxiety, psychological distress, sexual violence, domestic violence, and escalating rates of substance use affect women more substantially than men across the world.
- Depressive disorders make up nearly 41.9% of the disability from mental illnesses among women versus 29.3% among men.
- At least one in five women suffer rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.
- Lifetime prevalence rate of violence against women ranges from 16% to 50%.
- Roughly 80% of 50 million people affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disasters, and displacement are women and children.
Women of color, racism, and mental health
- Younger women of color in poverty receive mental health care at 1/3 the rate of white women under comparable economic conditions.
- Black and African American people with mental health conditions involving psychosis are more likely to be incarcerated than people of other races.
- Ethnic minority women are less likely to perceive a need for depression care.
- African American women experience depression twice as often a African American men.
- Institutional racism and sexism put African American women at risk for low-income jobs, multiple role strain, and health problems, which are risk factors for mental illness.
- Stigma is the number one reason African American women don’t seek mental health treatment.
Related: Breaking Down Barriers to Mental Health in the Black Community
Trans mental health
- 51.4% of transgender women experience depression, compared to 16.6% in the U.S. population as a whole.
- 40.4% of transgender women experience anxiety, compared to 28.8% in the U.S. population as a whole.
- 48% of transgender adults considered suicide in the past year.
- Stigma and discrimination increase the risk of mental illness and suicidality in transgender people.
- Transgender people face barriers to care, such as denial of coverage for gender transition, refused or subpar treatment, fear of mistreatment by doctors, and lack of medical resources for hormone therapy.
Major mental health problems that affect women
There are certain conditions that affect women differently than men. This is true in general but also in how society treats women as workers. For instance, a Columbia University study found the gender pay gap contributes to depression and anxiety rates in women in the workforce.
Women also experience factors such as sexual harassment or assault, gender discrimination, or workplace bullying.
Here are a few common mental health conditions that affect women.
Depression: Depression is the leading mental health issue among women. Approximately 12 million women in the United States experience clinical depression each year, according to Mental Health America. Developmental, hormonal, reproductive, genetic, and societal factors all contribute to depression in women.
There are also some types of depression unique to women. These include premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), perinatal depression, perimenopausal depression, and others.
Anxiety: Women develop anxiety disorders at twice the rate as men, according to HHS. Changes in estrogen levels throughout a woman’s life may play a role. However, Harvard Business Review found that workplace stress and anxiety can be caused by, among other factors, “stereotype threat.” Stereotype threat causes women to experience negative impacts from stereotypes that women should perform work tasks more poorly than men. Stereotype threats also impact minority women based on racist stereotypes.
Eating disorders: The National Eating Disorder Association found that twice as many women as men are affected by eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. These can be caused by poor body image, body shaming, chronic dieting, anxiety, and other factors.
PTSD: More than 50% of women will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime—most commonly sexual assault or child sexual abuse. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes that sexual assault against women leads to symptoms similar to those of Veterans with combat-related PTSD.
Symptoms can vary in intensity, onset, and duration, including intrusive memories, avoidance, negative thoughts or mood, and changes in mental and physical reactions.
How to support women’s health
When HR leaders support women’s health, the entire workforce will prosper. Here are a few strategies to support women’s mental health in your office.
Address workplace harassment. Workplace harassment often impacts workers based on gender, race, and ethnicity. Finding ways to learn about and address these structural inequities can help achieve greater balance in how you handle harassment claims and encourage employees to feel comfortable coming forward to report incidents of racism, misogyny, harassment, or assault, and seek mental health treatment.
Cultural diversity training. While it’s likely your company already incorporates some form of cultural diversity training, it’s a good idea to review your approach to this type of training and assess its accuracy and effectiveness. How often do team leaders and workers meet expectations set by past trainings? How do team members feel about the impact of these trainings when surveyed? What has been the measurable impact? Effective diversity training can lead to a more equitable environment for all workers.
Attack the pay gap. Measure the pay gap between men and women in your company and address this gap where it exists. Studies show Black or African American and Hispanic women face the largest pay gap in the U.S. versus white men. SHRM suggests doing an annual “pay audit” for how women are paid compared to men for similar work. You can audit for various factors such as education, experience, and performance, and correct disparities as they arise.
Mental health tools for employees. For women, people of color, and trans employees, the barriers to mental health treatment are often difficult to overcome. Giving employees the right tools can help lower some of those barriers, whether it’s access to educational materials and trainings, fostering mental health communication in the workplace, or diagnostic tools that can help target optimal treatments.
Read this blog to learn how HR leaders can advocate for change through policy, and create a work environment where all women can thrive.