Piling on the pressure - women in the workplace

Judith Mohring

Dr Judith Mohring

Judith Mohring, Consultant Rehabilitation and General Adult Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Fenchurch Street and The Priory Hospital Ticehurst, discusses the added pressures for women in the workplace.

December brings for me, and many other women, a sense of both excitement and dread. Excitement at the thought of a fun day with family and a break from work and dread at the thought of everything there is to do this month. Cards, presents, nativity costumes, secret Santa gifts, relatives to see, elderly neighbours to invite over… the list goes on. And with that list comes a rising sense of panic. How will I get everything done? 

Women at work and in the home

In professional terms women’s place in the world has been transformed over the last 50 years. We now achieve all that men can, and usually for the same rewards. Perhaps what we haven’t managed so well is to transfer responsibility for some of the more traditional women’s roles. So while we might excel at work, we’ll usually pile the pressure on at home too; and that can lead to major stress.  

Women with children will know all too well the tension between being a hands-on mum and managing a busy job. But it’s not just mothers who can feel they fail to live up to an imaginary feminine ideal. Women have so many arenas in which they can compete: how we look, the quality of our friendships, our ‘beautiful home’ and, of course, the work we produce. Sometimes it can feel that there are just too many ways to fail. And that’s when self doubt, low self esteem and self-criticism can come to the fore.

High achieving women tend to have a number of traits in common: 

  • Perfectionism
  • A strong inner critic
  • A desire to be approved of by others

All of these traits make for excellent, diligent employees; self- motivated, reflective and naturally seeking high standards. But they often go hand in hand with being sensitive and a tendency to lack self-confidence, which can tip over into a mood problem.

Seeking help for mental health problems

Women are more likely than men to seek treatment for a mental health problem. We are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and 2.5 times as likely to develop depression.  The reasons for these gender differences are complex, but include elements of role strain and a tendency to internalise negative feelings. Overall about 1 in 5 women will develop depression during their lives. 

The onset of depression can be subtle as symptoms tend to develop over time. They usually affect three areas: your mood, how you feel physically and how you think, or your ‘inner voice’. 

In your mood you may notice:

  • You lack of pleasure in normally enjoyable things
  • Your mood is less stable than usual
  • You’re more easily irritated or angry than usual

Physically: 

  • You may lack energy - normal exercise becomes exhausting
  • You don’t sleep well, or wake early feeling anxious
  • You notice a change in your appetite
  • You lose interest in sex

Changes in thinking include:

  • Poor concentration or memory
  • Problems making decisions
  • Being excessively self critical

When you’re down minor problems become catastrophes. One small personal failing seems emblematic of being a total failure. Your inner voice goes into critical overdrive and it can be impossible to get a sense of perspective. You may even blame yourself for being depressed.

Hand-in-hand with lowered mood, anxiety is a common problem. Panic attacks, a general sense of unease or even episodes of feeling suddenly distant from the world can all occur alongside depression.

Coping mechanisms

With all of this going on it’s not surprising that alcohol can become a coping mechanism. Unfortunately it can actually worsen low mood and anxiety. Another strategy is to avoid the things that make us feel bad, but again this reinforces anxiety symptoms.

Women who normally pride themselves on keeping all the balls in the air, or who are the trusted confidante of others, can find it particularly hard to reach out for help. It is difficult to let the mask slip and admit that you’re not coping, but it’s the first step to feeling better.

Women are more likely than men to speak to friends about their feelings and this can be a good place to start. But our tendency not to want to burden others with our problems means we may not really open up. Coming to a professional means not having to feel guilty about taking up someone else’s time, and not having to apologise for being emotional or having a good cry. That’s what we’re here for. Both depression and anxiety are surprisingly treatable. There are psychological, pharmacological and lifestyle approaches to treatment, and we offer all three.

Often the people I work with are frightened that if they open up and share their feelings they may fall apart. What I have found is that the opposite is true. The process of sharing your emotions with someone you trust actually builds your inner strength and emotional resilience, giving you tools to cope better in future.

Five top tips for mental wellbeing:

  1. Take something off your list - if it isn’t essential, don’t do it
  2. Find time, even if only five minutes, to do something for yourself each day. Read the paper, have a bath, go for a walk, watch a DVD
  3. Be mindful - download a mindfulness app and give it a try. 
  4. Be appreciative - think of five things you are grateful for. Do it now, then do it every day.
  5. Exercise - even a 10 minute walk in the fresh air can lift your mood, you can fit this in during nearly any commute.

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