How is the Involvement or Non-Involvement of Women in the Workplace Impacting Their Mental Health?

The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 and explored the reasons why women were unhappy despite living in material comfort and being married with children. Over the last two centuries women have increased their participation in the formal labor workforce and have expanded their roles beyond that of a housewife. Yet, when compared to men, women predominantly experience common mental disorders including depression, anxiety and somatic complaints. In this research article I will be:

  • exploring how employment status in combination with marital status may have an impact on the mental health of women.

This article has been compiled after researching findings of multiple reports and studies, and evaluating the changing roles of women across the years. Two Mental Health Professionals were also interviewed to gain their insights including Dr Zara Israr, PhD, Clinical Psychology (Institute of Clinical Psychology, University of Karachi) and Usman Mujtaba, Project Coordinator, BasicNeeds Pakistan.

Women in the Workforce over the Years

The changes in women’s roles since the last two centuries have been becoming more comprehensive, as women decided to engage in the formal labor market. Women began working in the late 19th century. These were primarily uneducated, single women, who exited the workforce once they got married.

It was during the 1930s to the 1950s that married women started to enter the workforce, with numbers significantly increasing each year. The sudden influx of married women was attributed to the “rise of offices requiring clerical workers and new information technologies, along with tremendous growth in the number of women attending high school in the early 20th century”. During this time, the Great Depression drove women to find work with a renewed sense of urgency as thousands of men who were once family breadwinners, lost their jobs.

However, as economies started to recover, married women still continued working (despite decreased pay scales) even though their husbands had reinstated their position as the primary breadwinner. This was facilitated by the growing availability of scheduled part-time employment. In addition, societal barriers, and in some case legal barriers, for married women continuing to work were dropping.

From the late 1970s up to the 21st century, women’s labor force participation peaked due to the increased demand for labor.

The rise in women’s labor force participation was driven majorly by married women (as the proportion of single women in the labor force has remained considerably static and their relative percentage has not changed significantly since 1950).

During the 1970s young women in their late teens decided to invest in their education and prepared to go to college to help them procure better job prospects. They now anticipated long, continuous careers that would not be cut short by marriage and children. This trend has continued till date.

Working Married Women and Their Mental Health

According to Dr Rena Repetti, PhD, Professor of Clinical Health Psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), employed women are less likely to report depression, at least partly because healthier women are more likely to find work and keep it.

Women who work for pay are typically less depressed and anxious and have fewer illnesses than women who are full time homemakers. Multiple studies have shown that women who work benefit emotionally, physically and mentally from participation in the labor force. According to Eve Wood, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona and author of the book, “10 Steps to Take Charge of Your Emotional Life: Overcoming Anxiety, Distress, and Depression Through Whole-Person Healing”, working outside the home can provide a buffer against depression. Agreeing with this notion, Dr Repetti cites that being an employee and co-worker may also increase a woman’s contact with people who can provide social support, as well as opportunities for enhancing self-esteem and a sense of control.

According to a psycho-social survey that was conducted among married working women residing in Bhubaneswar City, India, a conducive atmosphere at workplace, favorable attitude of colleagues and husband/in-laws, and sharing their own problems with husband have significant positive impact on mental health outcomes of married working women.

However, employed women are less anxious and depressed than non-employed women, only if their husbands contribute significantly to childcare or housework.

Over the years, a woman’s role has expanded and incorporated dimensions of economic independence and support responsibilities, those that exclusively were considered a man’s role. Now, working women also share the financial burden of running a household. This transformation though, has hardly been accompanied by new patterns in the gender distribution of housework and care, given the rather limited changes in sharing unpaid work among women and men in most countries

The “Double Duty”

Changes in women’s role have been more comprehensive, whereas in most countries the transformation of the male role has barely started. This means that a considerable number of married working women are not only attending to the tasks assigned to them at the workplace, but are also carrying out duties and responsibilities at home as well.

This culminates into a “double day”, where women “work” more hours than do their husbands given their widely diverse economic and household responsibilities. Overwork may lead to exhaustion and stress.

Commenting on this Dr Zara says that, “time management is seen to be more stress inducing for married women/mothers. There is a constant struggle to manage work and home duties, in addition to subsequent guilt and remorse in case of imbalance or lack of management. In some cases, the idea of a “me time” leads to more blame then bringing relief. In case of mothers, this stress goes up a notch”.

Although an increasing number of women are significantly carrying the financial burden of their families, there is still a deep and often unconscious belief that women’s earnings are not central to their families’ economic security. In addition, the attitude towards women, especially married women and their role in the family has remained the same, as even today taking care of the family and children is considered as their primary responsibility. According to subjects as part of a study, family members of a working woman expect them to do the same work as nonworking women.

Observing the women that he has worked with, and listening to multiple accounts of female colleagues, Usman Mujtaba says that, “women are expected to be completely at work and completely at home, both at the same time. Women are in a constant state of work-mode and as soon as they reach home, they are expected to pick up where they left. Besides tending to the family and household, women need to prepare for the next day as well. and all these little things add up to an additional pressure. Women need to go the extra mile to prove that even though they are working full-time, they are not neglecting their family. Because they know a simple mistake will consequently tarnish their efforts of balancing their house and work.”

Therefore, women still carry the brunt of unpaid work within the home and spend more time caring for children and performing household labor than men with similar demographic characteristics and parental status. This double duty over-strains a married working woman, thereby leading to various psychological problems like role conflict, job strain, mental fatigue, stress, anxiety, frustration, depression, anger, phobias, and other social and emotional distress. All of these problems can interactively affect the mental well-being of working women and more so in married working women.

This is also at times accompanied by the “parental role strain”, where women may view their parental role as highly important to their identity and therefore get caught in a conflict between prioritizing their career or family.

Compared to their older counterparts, younger married working women experience relatively poor mental health. This could be due to the reason that younger women might be starting to handle new additional responsibilities after marriage.

Workplace Stress

In the UK, 79% of women report workplace stress compared with 66% of men. The top three stressors for working women are heavy workloads (17%), personal health (13%) and financial concerns (13%). The Gender Identity Report, from SuperFriend’s annual Indicators of a Thriving Workplace survey of more than 5000 Australian workers, found that women experience higher incidences of workplace mental health issues including bullying (26%), work-related insomnia (23%) and a lack of flexible work arrangements when required (23%). Moreover, the report found that women were feeling less positive than men about their workplace.

Dr Judith Mohring, Lead Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in the City of London, said women were under constant, intense pressure citing one of the reasons as lack of managerial support.

According to Dr Zara, the factors contributing to workplace stress for women include, “inequality in role distribution, varied salary structure, job security, a pressing need to prove one’s worth as compared to male counterparts and the society’s general attitude of nonchalance towards a progressive career. Workplace harassment is another unfortunate occurrence, and most times goes unreported due to fear of losing one’s job, or just to avoid an altercation”.

Women face additional workplace pressures because they know they need to contend with a stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when a woman is aware of a stereotype that women perform poorly compared to men at a given task, as a result of which she fails to perform up to her ability. The need to then having to prove that they are as good as men, to be valued or promoted, and paid equally, adds an additional stressor.

Usman Mujtaba agrees and says that, “women at the workplace are contending with ‘masculine traits’, which apparently seem appropriate when exhibited by a man, but may result in a backlash for a woman. Women are then referred to with derogatory terms including as being too bossy or a bitch”.

In comparison to women, men occupy leadership positions more often. Women, are promoted to managerial positions less often, and therefore largely occupy the lower level positions. High-status individuals (largely men) have more control, which leads to less experienced stress, whereas lower-status individuals experience more stress and use less efficient coping strategies.

Working Unmarried Women and Their Mental Health

Unmarried working women experience lowered levels of stress because they are less affected by job stress (as they face less work and home conflict) and have better emotional health than married working women. However, this comparison is in terms of the stress associated with job only.

For unmarried women, there is pressure to find a partner, get married or even have children. The pressure can be linked to culture, religion and gender roles. Surveys have shown that millennials are 177 per cent more likely to feel the pressure to get married, compared to other generations. This is due to a range of reasons, including wanting a family and kids to pleasing their parents. This pressure often manifests itself as frustration, from the lack of control over the situation.

According to Dr Zara, “for career-oriented women, the pressure to get married adds to the stress. There is a general attitude prevailing in the Pakistani society that women who are maintaining careers may not be ideal for marriage. In some instances, the independence (including financial) a working woman may have is frowned upon and considered a short coming when it comes to partnering up”.

This is a paradoxical situation for such women because according to Dr Zara, “organizations prefer to hire an unmarried woman over a married woman (or a mother) because of the belief that the former may be able to work more efficiently due to less personal commitments”.

Despite the assumption that marriage enhances psychological well-being, little evidence exists that the social role of marriage accounts for the benefits of marriage. People who get married (or move in together) are less depressed initially. But then, after a few years (typically 3), they are no less depressed than they were when they were single. They are also no happier and no healthier, and their self-esteem is no higher.

Although, according to a study, young adults who get and stay married do have higher levels of well-being than those who remain single.

A field study on a sample of unmarried women in Algeria revealed that the most common problems faced by unmarried women are of an emotional nature. Of the 200 women who were sampled for the study, 17% indicated the presence of depressive symptoms.

However, voluntary single young adults report higher level of positive mental health and lower level of mental health illness. This positive view of voluntary single-hood may be related to the fact that nowadays single-hood is often assumed to be an expression of individualization and individualistic attitudes and the expanded freedom of people’s choice.

Between single men and women, factors suggest that without marriage men, more than women, have a tendency to become socially isolated and antisocial.

Non-Working Married Women and Their Mental Health

According to a “Comparative Study of Mental Health and Depression Among Working and Non-Working Women”, non-working women possess better mental health than working women, who experience higher levels of depression in comparison. Some other studies have also shown similar patterns. However, this does not mean that non-working married women do not experience poor health when compared to men.

When compared to men, women experience more chronic stressors. Chronic stress can lead to depression, which explains why unipolar depression is twice as common in women as men. For non-working mothers lack of social life is the chief stressor. If inter-personal relationships are limited, depression among non-working women becomes more dependent on their level of marital satisfaction. In an analysis of data from national surveys involving over 1600 women, it was reported that marital happiness is a stronger predictor of overall happiness for housewives than for employed women. This is because female identity is seen to be less connected with employment and the female income as a secondary income in the family.

Over the years there have been a substantial number of studies that seem to support the idea that women suffer less from the unemployment experience than men. However, this is true only for women who have never worked.

A labor market where female participation is discouraged, and female engagement in housework encouraged, could reduce the normative pressure to take up employment and thus the psycho-social need for employment in women as compared to men.

For women who were once employed, studies in recent decades indicate that unemployed women miss employment as much as men do and as a consequence suffer to the same degree as unemployed men.

Psychological distress is specially linked to the employment status in women who previously had more qualified occupations. Even after a birth, when women are very much involved in their maternal role, those seeking a job have worse mental health than those in a stable situation, either employed or housewives.

Education provides greater resources that ease parental anxiety, but also leads to greater perceived demands of having a successful career, which contribute to more role captivity and less new life meaning from parenting.

Explaining this further, Dr Zara comments that, “in some cases, the transition from working to non-working is difficult, with concerns of having too much time on one’s hand or the complaint of not being substantially productive. The ‘guilt’ of wasting one’s academic gains may also lead to depression”.

Economic and Financial Strain

Married women, regardless of their employment status, seemingly have the security of their husband’s income. This by no means implies that they are not exposed to economic and financial strain. Even if women are not earning (or earning lower than their spouse), they are still mostly responsible for budgeting and allocating the limited financial resources across the maintenance of the household and child rearing.

Usman Mujtaba agrees and says that, “this strain is pronounced especially amongst women belonging to lower socio-economic classes”.

He added that during his engagement in the Mental Health Program (which was targeted towards families living below the poverty line), he witnessed that it were the women of these poverty stricken families who were single-handedly struggling to keep the family financially afloat, without having any financial autonomy and with a single income stream (provided by the husband).

Social Standing of a Housewife

A study conducted in the late 1980s suggested that for women marriage is not a protective institution as far as mental health is concerned. As a housewife, women are restricted to a single occupational and social role. This is an exclusively domestic role that is frustrating because it requires little skill, is low in social prestige, often goes unnoticed and offers few rewards.

Commenting on the status of a housewife, Dr Zara says that, “I believe that at a certain point in life, the monotony of routine takes a mental toll on stay-at-home women. The mundane day to day tasks tend to become tiring, eventually leading to physical and mental exhaustion. In my clinical practice I have come across women who complain that they feel less empowered, socially inept and question their worth. These women report feelings of low self-esteem”.

It is reasonable to assume that a large number of married women may find their role of maintaining a household and family as frustrating, since women, educated or not, seem to be capable of becoming competent housewives. The apparently low status assigned to a housewife (despite the significant labor associated with it) may prove to be a potent mental health risk. For women in this role, experiences of self-worth and competence, which are essential to good mental health, are systematically denied.

Caregiver Health Effect

As part of their social role and feminine qualities, women are expected to engage in caregiving responsibilities. Women report higher levels of stress than men across all caregiving relationships. This extends to caring for a spouse or children, which is more stressful and detrimental to mental health than caring for one’s own parents or others.

Measures of psychological well-being such as depression and stress, have been the most frequently studied consequences of caregiving.

Non-Working Unmarried Women and Their Mental Health

Women are adaptive and find ways to fulfill their social needs to receive emotional support from friends, regardless of their marital status. Therefore, women who are not married may not succumb to feelings of depression (owing to a lack of partner), as long as they have a social network to exploit.

Dr James Rohrer, PhD, of Mayo Clinic’s Department of Family Medicine and lead author of the study, “Rural, Unmarried Women At Higher Risk For Depression”, says that, “being single may be associated with a greater degree of separation from usual health care, as many women gain insurance through a spouse or a former spouse. Lack of social support also may contribute to poor health among some single women.”

Unmarried women, who are not working may become economically depressed if their financial needs are not met. Unless they are supported by family members, unmarried women face significant rates of financial stress, and they frequently do not have a partner to rely on during times of economic distress. Many unmarried women also struggle with unemployment spells lasting longer than six months. More than 4 in 10 (43.2%) never-married unemployed women have been out of work and searching for a new job for at least six months, while nearly half (46.5%) of previously married women are among these “long-term unemployed”.

Summary

The changes in women’s roles since the last two centuries have been becoming more comprehensive, as women decided to engage in the formal labor market. Women who work for pay are typically less depressed and anxious, and have fewer illnesses than women who are full time homemakers. However, in addition to workplace stress, they also experience anxiety associated with performing the “second shift” once they come back home.

Unmarried working women experience lowered levels of anxiety because they are less affected by job stress (as they face less work and home conflict) and have better emotional health than married working women. Nevertheless, they face the pressures to get married which may contribute to their anxiety levels. This is not true for women who choose to stay single voluntarily.

Non-working married women tie their mental prosperity to their marital success. For such women their employment status is not the chief determinant of their mental health, unless they were previously working, occupied qualified occupations or have specialized education.

For non-working unmarried women, financial security may be the primary stressor, as they lack a partner whose income stream they can rely on.

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