One Hidden Hurdle Facing Women in the Workplace

I have two daughters who are early in their careers. Offering them advice has caused me to reflect on my own start as a professional more than three decades ago – and to consider what has enabled me to succeed as a female executive for more than 20 years, despite roadblocks along the way.

While I contemplate my daughters’ futures as working women, I am all too aware that as far as we’ve come, we have a long way to go to create a working environment that treats women as true equals and allows us to maximize our potential. This truly matters – not only for women but for all of us.

Despite major gains over the last 50 years, women continue to face obstacles at work. According to the “Women in the Workplace 2016” study by Lean In and McKinsey & Co.,women still get less access to senior leaders, are less likely to receive feedback, are more likely than male colleagues to be punished for negotiating salary or promotions, are less likely than men to receive the first key promotion to manager that sets them on a path to leadership, and have scant opportunity to advance to C-suite positions, to name a few. And sadly, lots of evidence reflects continuing pay gaps that numerous studies link to motherhood.

As if women don’t face enough challenges in the workplace, one that is too often ignored is the vicious role depression plays for many individuals. While not an inherently female trait, depression is twice as likely to impact women than men – which poses yet one more hill to climb for so many women on their quest to succeed in the workplace.

Depression interferes with work in a number of ways – motivation, concentration and focus among them – and due to stigma, women experience unique pressure to hide their condition from others. One survey showed 83% of women find depression to be a top barrier to workplace success, ranking it ahead of child- and elder-care responsibilities, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination. A University of Texas study showed that women who have power over hiring, firing, and paychecks experience higher levels of depression than men.

This is one barrier to women’s success that we can – and should – take on. The time has come to start talking openly about depression in the workplace, knowing that people who seek help will do better at work. Tomorrow, Oct. 10th, is World Mental Health Day, which is focused squarely on “mental health in the workplace.” I have personally and passionately been devoting my time to this issue because I believe that creating mentally healthier workplaces is not only good for individuals, it is good for business. The economic burden of depression alone in the U.S. is estimated to be $210 billion, half of which stems from lost productivity in the workplace.

At Lundbeck where I work, mental health is a core focus. We have been researching and developing treatments for depression and other mental illnesses for more than 70 years. But we also work hard to help create mentally healthy communities, including workplace communities. We began years back by supporting Right Direction, an initiative designed to change how depression is addressed in the workplace. We are now turning our focus toward the special needs of women with depression as we form a working group of companies aimed to help empower working women struggling with depression to reach their optimal selves while on the job.

While I am proud of the progress that’s been made to even the playing field for women in the workplace, we have such a long way to go. As my two daughters actively build their careers, I hope that over the coming decades they find work environments radically improved beyond what exists today – including one that allows women to be open and honest with their employers about both their physical and mental health.


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