Workplace Stress is Taking its Toll on Women’s Mental Health

Woman working at a laptop

Work-related stress has outgrown its status as the snoozing elephant in the room. The health problems that it creates, both mental and physical, creeps into the cracks of our workplaces up and down the UK. It drags itself over every desk in the country, casting its shadow over us all; experienced veterans of the break room, juniors with their shiny new door passes, seasoned professionals, skilled workers, administrators, process workers at their stations, teachers, doctors, nurses, managers and directors. The low, insidious hum of burnout was felt by them all, the 526,000 men and women in Britain in 2016/2017 who according to the Health and Safety Executive are suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. That statistic is thought to be steadily rising.

Looking at the stats, it also seems that women are suffering the most. In England, women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders as men, according to the Mental Health Foundation. In a study conducted by the Health and Safety Executive, the average prevalence rate for work-related stress, depression or anxiety for males was 1,170 cases and 1,880 cases for females per 100,000 workers. But why is this? And has “burnout” become more of a danger than we first expected?

“More women suffer from imposter syndrome than men – it’s low self confidence, I think,” says Dr. Sandi Mann, clinical psychologist and senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire.

Dr. Mann’s research on workplace stress, boredom and health point towards a workforce that’s bubbling with emotional tension beneath the surface, and often her work specialises in suggesting ways to resolve these issues before they develop into more serious mental disorders.

“In the modern workplace I’m seeing too many people with too much to do and not enough time to do it in. Or at least not enough time to do it well.” Many of us have experienced dissatisfaction at work, and this often stems from being unable to create work we’re truly proud of.

“We have less time due to reduced workforces, which means fewer people doing more work,” she explains. “Plus, as a workforce we are having to cope with increased information channels, meetings and bureaucracy.” In simpler terms, Dr. Mann suggests this is a new wave of work-based stress that often manifests as lethargy, which she calls “The Boredom Boom.

In her article about this phenomenon, she points out that “…the ever-burgeoning demands of meetings, paperwork, routinisation, information overload and bureaucracy within many job roles are creating a boom in the experience of workplace boredom – well beyond those mechanised jobs that have traditionally been identified as highly boredom-inducing. “And,” she adds over email for emphasis, “it is stressful.”

The combination of a bored mind and imposter syndrome — the belief that you are a fraud on the cusp of having your ghost-costume sheet pulled from over your head — is toxic. It can easily poison healthy moods and make it much harder to cope with setbacks, especially when your belief in yourself is so low that the only way you can conceive that you’ve got this far is by luck. This leads to insecurity and stress, and the fear of being sacked often leads to working longer hours out of guilt, which in turn can lead to upsetting the delicate work-life balance. Bring a busy social life, a family or any of the other multitudinous emotional labour-intensive responsibilities that rest on a working woman’s shoulders into play and you’re asking, not very politely, for something to give.

“In 2016/2017 there were 12.5 million working days lost to work-related stress, anxiety or depression.”

Also, perhaps it’s got something to do with the types of work that women are traditionally more likely to be employed in. In findings by the Health and Safety Executive, the Professional Occupations carry a significantly higher rate of work-related stress, depression or anxiety than any other in the survey.

It’s useful to split out the “Professional” category so we know exactly what we’re dealing with. In this case, it includes nursing and midwifery professionals, anyone employed in the teaching and education sector, welfare professionals, legal professionals and business and administrative professionals are all included. Plus, surprise, they all have statistically significantly higher rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety than the rate for all other occupational groups in the study combined. More than 90% of the UK’s nurses are women. 73% of all FTE teaching staff were women at the Department for Education’s last count. Men make up only 1% of the International Association of Administrative Professionals. That’s a lot of stressed, anxious, bored and burned out women.

It’s clearly important to employers to keep on top of this silently-raging monster. It’s costing them. In 2016/2017 there were 12.5 million working days lost to work-related stress, anxiety or depression. There’s a desperate need within the leadership ranks to curb work-related stress and improve the mental health of workers, but inside all of the scientifically-precise documents constructed on the matter, there is little to show. Talking therapies. Healthy lifestyles. Rest. Mindfulness. All proven to relieve the symptoms of most common mental disorders and in the clear light of a spotlit conclusion, it’s all so far, so manageable.

Sadly, these incredibly simple options are beyond the reach of many in the grip of workplace burn-out. It’s a deep-rooted anxiety that thrives on denial and paranoia. To request help is impossible for many. To those who do manage to speak up, to be presented with techniques aimed at bettering yourself, rather than helping solve the issues at hand — overwork, boredom, depression — can be deeply unhelpful or even destructive. It isn’t fair or feasible to constantly put the onus of better mental health on the individual. Structural change needs to occur in our working practices, to fix the foundations rather than paper over the cracks.

“Believe that you deserve to be heard and supported, and that mental health problems do not affect your worth as a person or as an employee.”

Workplace burnout was covered sensitively and starkly in a recent Guardian article, detailing the personal experiences of two sufferers whose lives changed dramatically through living with stress for prolonged months and years. Pointing out the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases’ definition of the disorder- “A state of vital exhaustion” is eye-opening. It underlines its very real status as a debilitating illness.

In that Guardian article, sufferer Sara Cox shares her experiences of lying awake at night, jaw clenched, waiting for another day of unbearable but indescribable stress. Also sharing experiences was Adam, whose worryingly severe symptoms included a sharp pain in his stomach and “blurred vision, like a fog hovering over me.” Often when stress is mentioned in popular culture, it’s shown as the extreme effects of a nervous breakdown, and it’s easy to distance ourselves. How much more relatable is burnout? And in that respect, what size of an epidemic are we actually looking at here?

“I’ve seen a definite increase in the number of people coming to my clinic with work-related mental health problems,” says Dr. Mann. “Too much pressure, impossible demands, relationship problems with managers and other colleagues all seem to be increasing.”

Mann’s findings chime with official data gathered by the Health and Safety Executive, who revealed the main causes of work-related stress to be: workload, lack of managerial support and organisational change. All unavoidable in a work culture that pushes us to be more effective and more efficient than ever. What is avoidable, however, is how we deal with stress in the workplace. To overcome it, we need to learn how to recognise the symptoms in ourselves and in others, and to ask for or offer support when it’s needed. One of the main reasons that sufferers don’t ask for help — help that employers are required to offer by law — is the fear of failure. To admit a shortcoming. To appear weak. These attitudes around mental health need to change. Believe that you deserve to be heard and supported, and that mental health problems do not affect your worth as a person or as an employee.

“Remember that you can only do what you can do,” says Dr. Mann. “Keep notes of what you are spending your time on so you can justify and explain if the workload is unreasonable. Take your leave no matter what, and force yourself to take time off away from working. Stop thinking about work during your evenings and on your days off. And most importantly, talk to someone about your stress.”

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