The second instalment in the annual UK Chief Medical Officer's Report has declared that employment is good for mental health. On the whole I am in agreement - I have suggested that we should learn to accept our working situations in this column previously and welcomed proposals to encourage flexible hours for all.
I started my first job in my native Argentina, at a time when rampant inflation would see the cost of food rise by the hour; I learnt at a young age the importance of being able to support oneself financially and the confidence and friendships that could be gained even when completing the most mundane of tasks. To this day I am grateful to now live and work in a country where there are comparatively more opportunities for all.
The Mental Health Foundation has today also spoken in support of the Chief Medical Officer's recommendations about the emotional stability that work can provide. However, having looked at the charity's own research it's clear that there is still gender inequality when it comes to experiencing wellbeing at work. While one third of respondents to the charity's survey admitted feeling unhappy with their working lives, 42% of women said they had felt this way, compared to only 29% of men.
While this could simply reflect the fact that women may be more open to discussing their emotions, the charity has a different - and more worrying - view, that women are unhappy at work because of self-imposed pressure.
The Mental Health Foundation suggests that responsibilities towards partners, children and other dependants increases the likelihood that a woman will experience depression and anxiety. In its guidelines it indicates that "women in mid-life may be juggling caring commitments for children and older relatives as well as doing paid work and facing physical health problems." Quite simply, we are trying to balance "competing life roles". How do we combat this? The organisation suggests it's as simple as separating work and leisure time, but it's also about speaking up at work and at home when we feel that things are becoming too demanding. Work-related stress already costs employers 10.4 million working days per year and so recognising (and voicing) ways to improve wellbeing shouldn't be seen as a negative action.
The other interesting point raised by The Mental Health Foundation's studies is the fact that "financial difficulty [arising from] lifelong lower pay can increase risk of experiencing mental distress". We are already aware of the pay gap that some women experience in certain professions, yet sometimes it is because we are not prepared to raise the issue.
The weird thing is that while women are more likely to experience stress and depression, we actually have the protective factors on our side - women typically have the social support networks in place to counter their distress and are typically more emotionally aware of problems that might need treatment because of their traditional role as 'guardians of health' within the family. All in all, we don't need to be feeling the way we do. It's time to ask ourselves, what conversations are we avoiding?