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The importance of supporting women in the workplace

Women in full-time employment are almost twice as likely to have a mental health problem as their male counterparts - 19.8% vs 10.9%.

This shocking statistic from the Mental Health Foundation raises difficult questions and places a heavy emphasis on employers and the steps they are taking – or not taking – to support their female workforce.

It’s fair to say that the majority of right-thinking people believe that women are entitled to equality in the workplace, in terms of financial remuneration for their work, professional recognition and opportunities to grow and lead businesses. However, the fact remains that men and women are entirely different species, with different needs that arise from the one aspect of humanity that simply cannot be changed – biology.

The Mental Health Foundation also tells us that 10% of mothers in the UK have mental health problems at any given time. Women who choose to have children and continue to work almost unanimously relate a struggle at some level to achieve a happy work-life balance. Sadly there remains a reluctance in the corporate world to accept that to retain and nurture female staff, supporting their needs is imperative. A proactive approach is essential to helping women facing mental health challenges and concerted efforts are vital to ensuring that successful flexible working can be achieved. When this ethos is embraced, the results are phenomenal. An improved bottom line, and more importantly, a happy and productive workforce.

Although we’re working towards achieving this cultural change, the road is long and there is a huge amount of work to be done.

In 2018 The Institute for fiscal studies published a report called ‘The rise and rise of women’s employment in the UK’. Key findings show that over the past 40 years, the UK has seen an almost continual rise in the proportion of women in employment. The employment rate among women of ‘prime working age’ (25-54) is up from 57% in 1975 to a record high of 78% in 2017.

These changes reflect the altered working patterns of women at specific points in their life cycle, with far more women in employment over the course of their mid-to-late 20s and early 30s. They reflect the growing number of women choosing to have children later in life or never, combined with the fact that women are now much less likely to drop out of the labour market when they have their first child.

These societal changes have necessitated enormous cultural shifts in corporate leadership, yet some senior managers are struggling to keep up.

Another set of fascinating figures are highlighted by The Wise Campaign, who regularly analyse the number of women in STEM industries. In 2018 they found a significant increase to 25% women in STEM industries from previous years. There was a 25% increase in the number of professional women engineers in 5 years, taking the number to 58,000, more than double the number in 2013.

This is a traditionally male-dominated sphere and the dramatic influx of women has required significant transformation of management strategies.

Employers must adapt to the changing face of their workforce by engaging vital strategies to help retain and nurture female staff and to support their need for flexible working. Without the backing of employers women will continue to face challenges and the appalling mental health figures will not improve. Leaders must strive to help women stay in, or return to work, and improve opportunities through greater flexibility.

With considerable effort, next year’s statistics may paint a happier picture for women in the workplace.

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This Can Happen was a game changer for me. I left feeling inspired and energised, armed with practical advice and best-in-class case studies about how to create mentally healthy workplaces.

Nick Jemetta, Chair – Mental Health & Wellbeing Group, Sainsburys