On a flight to Atlanta today, I couldn’t help but notice a familiar scene playing out a few rows ahead of me. There was a family of four—a mom, a dad, and two young children—who had purchased four seats in a row. The jet is divided into two sets of three seats, which meant that three of the seats were together and the fourth one was on the other side of the aisle. The children were both too small to be left alone, so the mother sat between them on one side while the father took the solo seat on the other. As you can imagine, his flight experience was much different than hers.
I probably only noticed this scene because I’ve lived it myself. My husband and I have two young daughters, and on most of the trips we’ve taken I’ve volunteered to sit between them and be the snack-and-toys-and-tantrum-wrangler. Part of this was desire, part of it was logistics -- I packed the bags, I know which snacks we have, I’m the one who’s breastfeeding. But part of it felt like obligation — that’s what good moms do, right?
But whatever motivated me, the truth is that many of those flights were stressful, and I often walked off them feeling overstimulated, over-touched, frustrated, and more than a little resentful…which is never the best recipe for starting or ending a family vacation, by the way.
So, I’m not entirely surprised to learn that recent surveys show women are struggling disproportionately when it comes to many aspects of their work experiences and overall mental health.
Women, Work, and Mental Health: Why Are Women More Stressed Out Than Men?
New research confirms work’s role in mental health
The topic of mental health has become mission-critical for both individuals and employers, as rates of loneliness, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse continue to increase at an alarming pace. UKG’s 2023 Megatrends research examined the true scope (and opportunity) of the crisis, pointing to a variety of global factors that seem to be driving chronic exhaustion, empathy fatigue, and learned hopelessness. Employers experienced the dangers of burnout firsthand, from the attraction and retention challenges of the Great Resignation to record-low rates of productivity that continue to plague businesses across industries.
At the same time, the rise of social media and a push for more authentic communication has led to more people — celebrities, famous athletes, influencers, business leaders, managers — sharing their personal struggles with mental health, destigmatizing the topic and setting clear calls-to-action for others who are suffering.
The Workforce Institute at UKG recently surveyed 3,400 people across 10 countries to spotlight the critical role our jobs, leadership, and managers play in supporting mental health in and outside of work. Many of the findings were shocking—for example, the fact that managers have as much as an impact on people’s mental health as their spouse does (both 69%), and even more of an impact than their doctor (51%) or therapist (41%). For the vast majority of employees around the world, their jobs are the single biggest factor influencing their mental health.
Are women suffering more from poor mental health?
I encourage you to dive into the full report, because the data are fascinating. But as a researcher specializing in the various factors driving the gender pay gap, one area that really stood out to me was the differences in how men and women were reporting their experiences within the U.S.
The data show that women are significantly more likely to rate their overall mental health as average, poor, or very poor; 43 percent of women responded this way, compared to just 15 percent of men! Nearly nine in ten women are experiencing work-related stress, and for 21 percent, work is negatively impacting their overall mental health (compared to 13 percent of men). Almost half of women reported working “overtime” at least once a week, and women were more than twice as likely as men to say that they “rarely, if ever, take time off.”
Based on this background, it’s not surprising that the study also uncovered gender differences in terms of job satisfaction and commitment. Just 27 percent of women felt energized by their work and passionate about their careers, compared to 40 percent of men. And women were twice as likely as men to feel completely checked out, defined as, “I dislike my work. I have had it with my job. If I had the choice, I would quit tomorrow.” Indeed, 61 percent of women (and 39 percent of C-level women!) agree with the statement, “If I could easily switch jobs, I would do so.”
There are, of course, a litany of factors that could be driving these gender differences. Women are stereotypically more comfortable sharing and talking about emotions, so it’s possible in these self-reported surveys women simply felt more comfortable than men rating themselves as having a poor or very poor mental health. There are many possibilities for these disparities.
I’d argue that some of them include the inequitable division of childcare and other domestic and caregiving responsibilities at home.
The work-life journey (i.e., it’s all connected)
In October 2022, medical journal The Lancet Public Health published a metanalysis of 19 different studies—including data from more than 70,000 individuals—which found that women in the U.S. spend nearly twice as much time on household and caregiving tasks than men do (4.5 vs. 2.8 hours each day, respectively). This study corroborates decades of similar research, many of which used time-stamped journal entries to both confirm inequity in the division of tasks as well as the fact that most men tend to overestimate the time they spent on caregiving and household duties. In some circles, this is known as the “Second Shift.” Women are overwhelmingly more likely to be “working” in the spaces before and after their traditional jobs. This is true even when both spouses work; it’s true even when the woman is the primary breadwinner.
There are also many studies that support the significant drain this unpaid, often unappreciated labor takes on mental health and burnout. This is likely why The Workforce Institute study found that 76 percent of caregivers would take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental health (compared to just 58 percent of non-caregivers).
The Workforce Institute study found that 76 percent of caregivers would take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental health (compared to just 58 percent of non-caregivers).
A phenomenon that’s resonated with me lately is the concept of “invisible labor”, which is essentially all the mental mind space (and time-suck!) required to remember and schedule doctor’s visits, homework assignments, meal planning, grocery list making, etc. With this background, it makes sense that women are more burnt out than men; that their mental health is suffering more than men; that they’re less likely to feel energized and passionate.
Bestselling author Eve Rodsky examines the research and proposes action plans to create more equality at home in her book Fair Play, which I’ve read and highly recommend if any of this is hitting home.
How employers can better support women (and men!)
While it’s true that the “life” portion of the “work-life journey” is largely out of employers’ control, here are five significant steps employers can take to ease the pressures on their employees and aim to provide more equity and support for all.
1. Offer paid paternity leave. I’ve been arguing for years that inequity starts from the beginning, when fathers are expected to return to work almost immediately while mothers are expected to stay home, at least for a short period of time, if possible. This not only takes precious bonding time away from the father, but it sets the precedent that the mother takes the baby to the doctor, the mother is the primary caregiver, the mother is responsible. This dynamic can be extremely challenging to change once it’s been established. Showing both your male and female employees that you value them and you value their families—and that you expect them to have equal opportunities and responsibilities when it comes to caregiving—can go a very long way.
2. Prioritize flexibility whenever possible. Flexibility has emerged as one of the most important factors for all employees, but women consistently rank flexibility as even more important than men do. For many women, flexibility is critical when you’re navigating sick children, other medical and education appointments, etc. Not having flexibility makes it incredibly challenging to succeed at work and home. Even in industries where remote work or flexible hours aren’t possible, flexibility itself usually is. Consider things like autonomous shift-swapping or staggered shifts to provide more comprehensive support.
3. Invest in returnship programs. Returnship programs are a relatively new phenomenon that describe recruiting programs targeted at bringing a specific group back into the civilian workforce. Many women leave the workforce for a short period of time when their children are young, and these women traditionally have a very hard time getting back into the workforce. When they do, they often never recover their previous status or salaries, even if they continue working for decades afterwards. Returnship programs targeted towards mothers or other caregivers returning to the workforce can be extremely beneficial for employers, who often gain highly motivated and loyal employees.
4. Invest in mentorship programs. Mentorship programs are highly successful because they enable people to learn from others who have either been through something similar, or to learn from people who have very different life experiences. Both are meaningful. When it comes to working women, particularly those who are navigating intensive caregiving responsibilities as well as a high-stress workload, meeting with and learning strategies from successful women who have navigated the same thing can be invaluable.
5. Measure what matters—and reward it. Let’s say Jane and John work in a similar role and are both being considered for a promotion. Jane works effectively, but she has to pick up and drop off her children, so she arrives on-time and leaves on-time, from 8:30 to 5:30. John is able to work longer hours, and he often does, staying at the office later than most and sometimes arriving early, too. This dedication impresses the higher-ups, and they’re tempted to promote John over Jane. If they are not tracking or paying attention to the truly meaningful KPIs (as in outcomes, not hours), this can lead to unfair promotion practices within the organization, where busyness and present-ness is rewarded above effectiveness and business success.
As employers continue to recognize the significant impact mental health has on the bottom line, we hope to see continued investment in areas that are truly driving the needle on mental health: reasonable workloads and project demands, a safe and inclusive culture, strong relationships at work, and leaders that promote a healthy work-life balance. I’m heartened that we continue to see research and meaningful discussions around establishing equity at work and at home.
And dads, take it from me: Even if she volunteers, take that middle seat in the airplane sometimes.
Want to further explore the topic of mental health in the workplace? In this on-demand webinar, Teresa Smith, Director of Human Insights at UKG, takes you on a journey to explore why understanding the whole employee beyond status and title is imperative to staying afloat in choppy waters. You’ll learn about the exchange relationship between the employee and the employer and the implications of that relationship. Additionally, you'll explore the concept of mental health and how organizations can break its stigma and make it an organizational initiative.