By Lydia Hartland-Rowe, Clinical Lead for Add I Wellbeing
There is a pose for the themed ‘BREAKTHEBIAS’ International Women’s Day this year; arms crossed in front of the body, a kind of human ‘no discriminating’ sign. It’s an interesting gesture – looks a bit like getting ready for a karate chop, or a firm protective line on what’s ok, and what’s not. But whatever it is, it is a collective sign of action, an outward demonstration of strong feeling and belief as part of a powerful group. This feels like good news in terms of women’s experiences of mental health, where on the whole we tend to internalise psychological pain, expressing it through anxiety and depression, in isolation.
If a bias gets seen and recognised, there’s at least a chance it can get broken down. If it doesn’t, the impact on those at the receiving end is further isolation, helplessness and suppressed anger – none of them a recipe for mental health and wellbeing.
So how can organisations tackle biases in the workplace and make a difference to mental health for women at work? Policies about the issues that affect women are of course important (parental leave, flexible working, menopause, equal pay), but they mean little if the actual experiences of women in the workplace are too divorced from the organisation’s view of itself. So there also need to be conversations led by senior leaders, looking properly and listening carefully, facing up to what is seen and heard in the actual experience of women in your workplace.
What can your organisation do to ‘break the bias’ in relation to women’s mental health in the workplace? We posed these questions about the menopause a while ago but feel they bear repeating. Menopause is absolutely not a mental health condition but it has the potential to be the source of enormous stress for women if they are in a workplace that lacks understanding or interest in the impact of this stage of development. So these questions are a way to begin a conversation that could make it possible to see the bias in one aspect of workplace life for women.
- What percentage of staff in your business/organisation are women?
- What percentage of them do you think could be approaching/experiencing menopause?
- Are there conversations about menopause in your workplace? And if so, what’s the ‘tone’ – jokey, dismissive, neutral, business-like…
- Think of words to describe how you feel about the older men in your workplace?
- Think of words to describe how you feel about the older women in your workplace?
Getting conversations like these going on different aspects of working life for women where bias might be influencing our mental health is an important start. It might be a painful process for your organisation – but the only way to break bias is first to recognise and own it, together.