How often do you have thoughts and bursts of excitement and confidence about the great things you can achieve but are suddenly crippled by negative thoughts, a lack of enthusiasm, unexplained tiredness or an overwhelming sense of defeat even before you have a chance to execute your thoughts? Welcome to a day in the life of a person battling with mental health issues.
A recent Women’s Health survey in Australia showed that hormonal changes in women, among other factors, make them twice as likely as men to suffer mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and somatic complaints. In the UK, where a record number of women have entered the workforce within the last 10 years, studies have revealed that a distressing number of these women are silently struggling mentally and emotionally with the strain of balancing work life and caring for their children. The research further detailed that one in every three working mothers in the UK is barely coping with this constant juggle of being a mother and maintaining a career. The study describes this as navigating ‘unmanageable’ levels of stress and anxiety.
In Canada, a 2018/2019 survey on maternal mental health also reported that 23% of women who recently gave birth suffered depression, anxiety or some other form of mental health disorder. Mental health disorders in pregnant women and new mothers are more common than most realize. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that women everywhere are at risk of experiencing this. For working mothers, this “biological curse” does not only pose a risk to their health and that of their children but also places a huge toll on their work and family life balance.
A study conducted by Engage Africa Foundation also revealed that about 5% of the African population suffer from one form of mental health disorder or another, with an expected rise of this statistic to 15% by 2030. Ironically, in many African societies, mental health conditions are not even considered a health concern at all. A person’s mental and emotional capacity could be deteriorating and for some reason, that person would easily be tagged as weak or lazy or good for nothing. Additionally, women who suffer postpartum depression in some African countries are often tagged as witches for not being able to handle their role. This forces people suffering from conditions like depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorders to hide their condition for fear of being ridiculed. In these same societies where women are held to relentless, uncompromising social expectations as home makers and nurturers, they are judge even harsher when they come out with their mental health concerns. It is no surprise that a lot of women deal with their mental health concerns in isolation.
Unfortunately, there are many other societies that understate mental health problems simply to mean hallucinations or complete madness. On the contrary, positive mental health describes a complete and comprehensive state of physical, mental and emotional wellness. It describes the individual and collective ability to feel, think, connect with others and make rational choices. It describes the ability to earn a living and manage stress in the healthiest ways. For working mothers, this includes finding and sustaining a reasonable balance between doing productive work and caring for children.
In the workplace, poor mental health of mothers could manifest in many forms, such as loss of motivation and commitment towards work, burn out, increased errors, poor decision making, regular sickness and absenteeism, poor relationship with clients, and increased tension and conflict among colleagues, to name a few. These consequences affect more than just the productivity of the individual working mother. They could lead to a hostile work environment and retard the output and productivity of an entire organization. Fortunately, common mental health conditions like chronic stress, depression and anxiety related disorders are often treatable.
The WHO (2000) describes a comprehensive workplace mental health policy as an encompassing assessment of the mental health of the organization and its employees. Few companies recognize the potentially disruptive consequences that mental health disorders, if left untreated, can have on the output and productivity of their workers. In response, they have introduced certain workplace policies to mitigate the stress associated with the nature of their work and the work environment. These measures include policies to protect persons against sexual harassment and misconduct, discrimination, job insecurity, unrealistic deadlines and other factors that influence employees’ mental health in the workplace. Some of these employers additionally conduct regular training sessions to increase mental health awareness and create avenues for employees to seek help with their mental health concerns. The model Work, Health and Safety (WHS) Act of Australia for instance, requires employers to protect employees from mental health risks, develop mental health strategies and ensure that the workplace is safe for an employee who is returning to work after injury or illness.
It is however disheartening to discover that irrespective of the existing WHO guidelines on Mental Health in the Workplace, the implementation is at a very slow pace in many countries. Overall, this raises questions on the practical steps being taken by governments to address the increase in mental health disorders of workers and why there are no specific policies targeting the mental health of women, since they are at a higher risk. How are employers prioritizing the mental wellbeing of their employees, especially mothers? What can governments do to reinforce the efforts of employers to protect the mental health of employees?
Undoubtedly, the failure of policy makers and organizations to treat women’s mental health concerns as a priority would eventually result in damaging social and economic consequences. This isn’t only due to the contribution of women to economic growth but also due to their role in the family as nurturers, especially with regards to the upbringing of children. In essence, it becomes difficult for a mother whose mental health has long been neglected to provide the best care for her family when she herself needs to be cared for. It ultimately compromises the quality of care received in the family.
Researched by: CSMR Africa and COAWM
Analysed and Written by: CSMR Africa for COAWM