As such, it’s incumbent on company leaders to drive awareness and action on mental health. Women are 25% more likely than men to report feeling uncomfortable sharing their thoughts on sensitive issues or work-life challenges with coworkers. In a survey of U.S. employers, just 31% reported improving access to mental health resources as a priority. It is important to remember that while improving mental health is a personal journey, the process is influenced by structural factors, including the support provided by coworkers, supervisors, teams, and institutions. And Black women especially have long faced heightened challenges in the workplace — half of all Black women report being an “only” of their gender and race. Our research also shows that Black women are more likely than employees of other races and ethnicities to feel uncomfortable talking with colleagues about their own grief and loss, and they are less likely to say they can bring their whole selves to work. In addition, Black women are 1.7 times more likely to say they do not have strong allies on their team. Employers must work to foster a culture that invites judgment-free dialogue.
Employers must proactively place people and their mental wellness at the center of their business strategies. Admittedly, that is easier said than done and will require time, innovation, and long-term commitment. But the key is to get started. We recommend five actions that business leaders can take to advance women’s mental wellness in the workplace. Mothers are twice as likely as fathers to worry that their caregiving responsibilities will garner negative perceptions of their work performance. Women in senior-level jobs, who have long-reported feeling a need to work harder than men, are now burning out at a higher rate — 39% compared to 28% of men. And Black women — in addition to receiving less support from managers and experiencing both microaggressions and acute discrimination at work — are grappling with the toll of systemic and highly publicized violence toward the Black community in the United States and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black Americans.
Make mental health a priority. According to the most recent Women in the Workplace report, an annual study on women’s progress in the workforce from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, three groups reported distinct challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic that were driving them to consider downshifting or leaving their careers: mothers, senior-level women, and Black women. Some of the largest barriers were increased strains on mental health — particularly increased levels of anxiety, stress, and grief.
A sustainable pace of work is essential to helping working parents prevent burnout and transition back to the workplace. Companies should look for ways to reestablish work-life boundaries and communicate which workplace flexibilities will continue to be available. However, even when workplace flexibilities are available, some employees worry there may be a stigma attached to using them. By having senior management talk openly about their commitment to addressing employee mental health and backing up that talk with significant action, organizations can help employees feel more comfortable seeking the support they need. Better yet, leaders can model boundary-setting and self-care in their own lives, which sends a message to employees that it’s OK to prioritize support and sustainability. Covid-19 has made it much harder for employees to draw clear lines between work and home, and many employees feel like they are “always on.” This is particularly true for working mothers. In another recent survey, one in two respondents with children at home indicated returning to the workplace will have a negative impact on their mental health.
Reevaluate workplace norms. By having senior management talk openly about their commitment to addressing employee mental health and backing up that talk with significant action, organizations can help employees feel more comfortable seeking the support they need. And, just like any priority related to business or talent development, accountability is key. Companies who identify a senior leader to be accountable for employee well-being are more likely to have employees who are satisfied with their benefits. Similarly, much like annual physicals or performance reports, employers could encourage colleagues to conduct a mental health self-assessment once a year — a time for each employee to pause and evaluate their mental well-being with targeted resources to guide the process.
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