Stereotypes and women’s mental health

This week the Oxford Professor of Clinical Psychology, Daniel Freeman, has been in the news commenting on his research into the difference between mental health in men and women. The results are surprising – according to Daniel’s figures, mental health problems are around 20 to 40 percent more common in women than in men, with anxiety and depression being particular problem areas.

We must be careful with figures like these – they are backed up by good data but it’s hard to account for differences between the sexes. For example, how many men are suffering with a problem but are too reluctant to report it? But, in the context of mental well-being at work, these findings do fit with the data that we’ve collected at Robertson Cooper over the past six months. Our research shows that women are nearly 10% more likely to feel ‘stressed’ about a number of issues, and it’s this stress that can contribute to conditions like anxiety and depression.

So what’s the explanation for the gender difference in stress levels? It’s complex, but Professor Freeman has said that if he was to pick one major cause it would be the multiple roles that many women feel pressure to fulfil – they are more likely to have parental and care commitments than men, and even if they can manage the balancing act, women are also more likely to be judged by others for it, which can lead to problems of self-worth.

These ideas are not new. We know that a culture problem exists for women who seek a successful career and a family life, and it’s part of the reason the government launched their Women on Boards scheme and have done a great deal to tackle gender stereotypes, including new parental leave legislation. There are also practical measures that employers should use to help ease sources of stress at work – like the option to work flexibly or remotely which can help everybody, not just women, to manage the demands of a healthy work-life balance.

This new research adds weight to the case for change, in society and at work. Outdated gender roles and a lack of support or acknowledgement of the pressures facing women is one contributing factor to an increased chance of mental health problems. Whilst many have considered gender inequality to be a cultural issue, this new link to mental health problems should make employers sit up and take notice. Providing a supportive environment and proactively measuring stress levels at work isn’t just about employee satisfaction, it can have a tangible effect on mental health too.

*Cary Cooper is Distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University and co-founder of Robertson Cooper, a company set up to promote the benefits of employee wellbeing. Read more about their work on their Good Day at Work site.




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