The three key reasons women leaders are struggling with their mental health

Working with organizations on workforce mental wellness over the past year and a half has been enlightening and relieving. After decades of efforts, the opportunity for mental health conversations at work have finally taken hold, and my hope is that this is just the beginning.

Not surprisingly, leaders — particularly those who are women — are recognizing how crucial these initiatives are and want to put in place education, resources, and support for the people who work for them. But, also not surprisingly, the women identifying the gaps are in many cases the ones wo most need the support themselves.

The data bear this out. Women leaders and those with influence (as defined by having hiring, firing, and pay decisions) are among the most likely to experience depressive symptoms. They are more vulnerable to mental health challenges and, in our current age of Covid-19, are actually faring worse than most others.

Interestingly, increases in power and authority are not automatically associated with these declines in mental health. Male leaders tend to have better mental health than employees with less influence.

So why are women leaders more vulnerable to these challenges? And what about our current circumstances is escalating that risk even further?

The answers are, of course, complex, and likely have to do with everything from some of the traits required of women to establish leadership in more challenging environments to the toll of systemic oppression over time. Here are three specific reasons that women leaders today are experiencing the struggle of mental health.

Collaborative leadership is taxing

Women have historically engaged in more participatory styles of leadership. This means that they tend to engage more stakeholders in decision-making and take an active and collaborative approach to their authority. This leadership style is particularly well-suited when employee engagement is important and long-term relationships and results are prioritizes. It can be incredibly effective.

The challenge with participatory leadership is that it can be incredibly taxing on the leader. And in the age of Covid, being a collaborative and engaged is more difficult than ever. With teams spread out and divisiveness high, creating cohesion and shared decision-making is labor-intensive.

Emotional labor demands are greater

When the recent transplant from out of state lands in isolation for months or the single mother of three is trying desperately to navigate homeschooling while working, it has disproportionately been women managers and leaders that have been holding the pain and stress of these struggles. From trying to come up with creative solutions to simply taking on the grief-ridden feelings, women have been the emotional weight-lifters of the pandemic.

 Even some women want and value this role (and to be clear, not all do), it requires a great deal of energy and capacity, and it makes women vulnerable to vicarious trauma.

The mental load of hybrid work environments

Finally, the advent of the hybrid work environment means that women are taking on an even greater mental load than previously, stretching their cognitive capacity to the brink.

The mental load is comprised of all the non-tangible tasks that are required to make a system function. It’s most commonly used to describe the mental work that mothers do at home, in additional to the physical and logistical tasks they complete. At home, it’s the remembering birthday parties, coordinating doctors’ appointments, keeping in mind which toothpaste our kids will tolerate, and the thousands of other pieces of information that swirl in our brains.

Even prior to the pandemic, women also tended to take on more of the mental load at work — remembering birthdays, book conference rooms, taking notes in meetings, checking in on statuses, and doing other things to create and maintain a culture. Many organizational researchers have noted how much more labor intensive this mental load becomes in the context of a hybrid environment. We don’t have as many cues for things, and so we hold more in our memories. We have fewer people to delegate easily too. And we have to constantly toggle between physical and digital spaces. It’s exhausting.

When you consider these factors couples with the immense demands being placed on women outside of the work environment, it’s clear why mental and emotional wellness is breaking down. We have an opportunity, however, to use this crisis to create solutions that last not just through the pandemic, but in the new world we are co-creating.

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