Depression and anxiety are highly stigmatized in the boardroom and top executives have become masters at keeping it locked down, going to extreme lengths to hide such problems.
In the fast-paced corporate world, if you are falling apart, you dare not show it. But is that a good thing?
Recent research has shown many successful women are victims of stress as they strive to balance work and family. But even as children and careers collide, women need to prioritize their wellbeing.
Take 40-year-old successful corporate woman and mother of two, Nicci (surname withheld for confidentiality), who says she experienced “a ridiculously heightened sense of anxiety” possibly linked to post-natal depression after the birth of her first child.
“I was 36, I was trying to run a business, a home and look after my baby. I remember feeling isolated, alone and incompetent, and being an established business woman, that was a terrible feeling,” she says, echoing the thoughts of many like her.
“I have learned there is no such thing as the perfect balance between a career and motherhood. This is a myth propagated by the media and there is no way women are achieving this holy grail. There are times when you have more time for your career, then something happens and bang, you have to pay more attention to your family. It’s also important to note that a man who has a successful wife often simply assumes he will also have the perfect wife and mother and it is our complicity in this which adds to the pressure. We, as women, try and do it all,” says Nicci.
Dr Colinda Linde, Chair of the Advisory Board at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), and a practicing clinical psychologist, feels modern working women have no role models when it comes to managing the demands of a career and family life.
“Even if our mothers worked, few had careers which resembled those of today and the demands of parenting have also changed, with children’s schedules often as busy as those of their parents. In a dual income household, it mainly still falls to the woman to run the home. This leads to feeling divided and not really being present in the moment – when you are at a school event, your phone is still beeping and when you are at work, your home or issues with your children may also be on your mind,” says Linde.
Over time, this leads to stress and burnout. She says while women learn to rely on other women such as housekeepers or mothers to help with child-rearing, they tend not to expect their partners to take on domestic responsibilities.
“There is a trend emerging where men are doing more to help in the home than their fathers did, by a significant amount, but it is still a relatively small part compared to the typical female portfolio of duties,” says Linde.
Falling Off The Cliff
Richard Hawkey from Equilibrium Solutions, who has worked with Linde and has conducted substantial research, reveals findings where anxiety, depression or burnout, while highly stigmatized as a sign of weakness, are more than common, with women more affected than men.
Hawkey, who calls himself ‘the recovering banker’, says he slipped into severe clinical depression in 2010 after 15 years in a top position in the finance sector.
“As a senior manager, I had no idea how damaging stress was, or that if you are a Type-A personality (achiever, driver, controller), there isn’t necessarily a slow decline to warn you the cliff is approaching – you simply fall off the end one day. I was happily married, with great children and a house in the suburbs, along with all the trappings of success, so how could I have a breakdown and become depressed?”
Since then, he has recovered and is finishing a Master’s degree in Applied Psychology, and also set up his company Equilibrium Solutions, which in partnership with several doctors, has designed Vitals Software, a confidential online stress self-awareness and management tool.
He gathered and analyzed data from 2,500 respondents surveyed via this online resource. Most were white-collar workers, 98% from South Africa.
Hawkey says key findings, such as 37% complaining of unexplained chest pains were “worryingly high”, as was the 50% of respondents ‘living for Fridays’, highlighting high levels of apathy
He adds women consistently scored higher than men in the manifestation of various symptoms.
Hawkey says the situation may well be worse than indicated by the findings, as anecdotal evidence reveals executives are self-medicating, won’t use Employee Assistance Programs and will take two weeks of leave pretending they are ‘going on holiday’, but in fact are booking into a psychiatric unit.
“This anecdotal evidence is quite terrifying. Executives will pay for such treatment with cash and will not use their medical aid in order to keep the problem hidden,” he says.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 350 million people across the globe suffer from depression, with less than half receiving treatment due to a number of barriers, a prime one being the social stigma attached to mental disorders.
More Pressure For The Top Brass
While women trying to balance a career and family are expected not to show any weakness, Hawkey adds that women in the upper echelons of management are particularly under pressure, as they have to appear tough and if from a historically-disadvantaged background, have to prove themselves beyond tokenism, while at the same time shoulder the burden of family.
“My advice to women who are feeling overwhelmed is to speak to someone you trust. It’s important to know you are not alone,” he says.