Supporting women’s mental health in the workplace

Posted on April 20, 2021

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Posted By Mary Lu Spagrud

Mary Lu Spagrud // Canadian Mental Health Association – Prince George/Quesnel Branch

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as, “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.”

Women are being impacted in the workplace. Many jobs that have been relentlessly altered by the pandemic, including service and hospitality, travel, and retail, which tend to have a higher number of women working in them. Professional women have also been taking on increased demands to accommodate childcare and homeschooling when cases are reported, or an outbreak is declared. 25% are considering leaving the workforce because it’s too difficult to juggle work and childcare effectively. (CAMH)

Facts about Women’s Mental Health*

  • Depressive disorders account for close to twice the diagnosis for women over men.
  • Women also experience higher rates of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), trauma, and anxiety disorders than men.
  • Many treatments used today have been overly tested on men and not equally trialed for women.
  • Women attempt suicide 3 to 4 times more often than men.
  • Women have three times the rate of health related serious injury rates across high-risk occupations than men.

*Facts from CMHA, CAMH and CCOHS.

Challenges that women face

There’s a struggle between the workplace and home. Historically women take on a higher proportion of the caregiver role for elderly parents and children and it can be very overwhelming for women trying to balance home and workplace demands. Studies have shown that women still typically represent about 80% of those in the primary caregiver role. WHO reports that “the inequity of the division of labour was the most important predictor of depressive symptoms rather than the absolute number of hours worked.”

Women also contend with harassment, lower incomes, insufficient benefits, and access to affordable childcare. Women deal with hormonal changes due to pregnancy and menopause, not to mention societal issues such as body image.

Consider gender based stereotypes that exist within workplaces and society. A women’s biology and reproductive factor into negative beliefs that women are more likely to be emotional and as a result have emotional problems. Society has conditioned the way we view femininity, and as such, women face greater instances of discrimination and disadvantages, such as less pay and the expectation to maintain a household and provide care to others.

The effect of COVID-19

The pandemic has resulted in a disproportionately negative effect on women. A survey conducted in October 2020 by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found that:

  • More women are experiencing loneliness than men (23.3% women to 17.3% men)
  • More women reported moderate to severe anxiety (24.3% women to 17.9% men)
  • More women fear getting the coronavirus (25.8% women to 20.3% men)

As women are often the primary caregiver to children, the closing and re-opening of schools and daycares and homeschooling are a significant cause of stress and worry. The decision to keep children home will likely result in more women leaving the workforce. With some day centres closing as well of the cost increasing, Statistics Canada reports that more than 33% of parents are concerned that daycare challenges will prevent or hinder their opportunity to continue working; for women with a child younger than six, the rate increases to 56%.

As noted above women tend to be in jobs that put them on the front lines of the pandemic. Between February and October 2020, 20,600 Canadian women left the labour force due to loss of job, are not temporarily laid off, and are not looking for work, which includes women who chose not to return to work shrinking the women’s labour force to levels not seen in 30 years – RBC.  This falling employment rate for women is resulting in a higher potential for worsening mental health issues.

What can be done to improve your mental health?

  • Be willing to talk to someone if you are struggling.
  • Stay connected socially – remember its physical not social distancing we need to maintain.
  • Take care of your physical health. Exercise, eat nourishing food, and get enough sleep.
  • Reduce stress and relaxing through meditation, yoga, or other mindfulness practises.
  • Consider professional resources such as a doctor, counsellor, or BounceBack. Check out CMHA of Northern BC for more resources.

What can you do in your workplace as an employee?

  • Ask your employer for accommodations within the workplace.
  • Inform your employer of your needs.
  • Provide information and answer questions about relevant restrictions or limitations.
  • Take part in discussing possible accommodation solutions.
  • Cooperate with experts who may be assisting with the stay at work or return to work process.
  • Continue to perform your essential duties.
  • Communicate openly and clearly.

What can you do as an employer?

  • Encourage open conversation about mental health and recognize these issues affect all employees.
  • Be mindful of not putting your agenda over the employee’s agenda. Implement strategies to help employees maintain a reasonable workload.
  • Work together to find solutions. Can the employee work from home? Consider flexibility of hours or start and stop times.
  • Be creative to find ways an employee can stay at or return to work.
  • Provide resources for support – consider an EAP program to assist with issues that may be occurring in the home. If possible, provide these services to employees who have lost or temporarily left their job.
  • Listen to employees with empathy, attention, and respect and ask them how you can develop a plan that works for them.
  • Provide mental health and well being training regularly for all levels of staff.
  • Have a conversation with your employees about childcare issues so together you can develop a suitable plan.
  • Ensure your workplace is committed to diversity, inclusion, and creating an environment in which all employees can thrive and be their best at work.

About the author: Mary Lu Spagrud is the Manager of Education & Projects for Canadian Mental Health Association – Prince George Branch. She presents on a wide variety of topics relating to wellness, mental health and hopes to increase understanding and acceptance of all aspects of mental health and wellness. Mary Lu holds a Bachelor’s degree in Recreation Studies from the University of Manitoba and is currently working towards a Master’s degree. She enjoys time spent with her family and friends, camping, enjoying the outdoors and a good glass of BC wine.