HomeCARTA FellowsSexism at work affects the mental health of women

Sexism at work affects the mental health of women

The World Mental Health Day is marked annually on 10 October as the day to increase awareness, education and advocacy on mental illness. It is a day of solidarity and support for individuals living with mental illness. This year’s theme, “mental health in the workplace,” speaks to the need to promote well-being in work settings. CARTA cohort 4 fellow Boladale Mapayi discusses how sexism in the workplace is linked to depression, psychological distress and anxiety symptoms in women.  

“That female boss is so mean” quipped one of my male colleagues, “I wonder how her husband copes with her at home”.

“What happened” I asked the colleague, cringing within me as I was almost certain I would hear the repertoire of sexist rhetoric that besiege female leaders. Sure enough, the response was that she was too stern, “she behaves like a man” he added, “women are supposed to be nurturing”.

Females in the formal work sector are often faced with sexism and a lot of negative stereotypes. The unfortunate thing is that women often do not recognize this as wrong, unwittingly even sometimes promote it. Sexism originated in November 1965 (Shapiro) and was coined to rhyme with “Racism”. Originally applicable to the more common female’s discrimination but currently expanded to include any sex (intersex, males). Extreme form of sexism is misogyny meaning hatred for women. It can be defined as prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex or gender.

Sexism is usually culturally and religiously sanctioned. Women in positions of authority are reported as being more vulnerable as they have to conform to certain ideal image. I live and work in Nigeria, a country that is largely patriarchal and working within the formal sector for most of my adult life, I have faced my share of sexism. I recently became the president of the Medical Women’s Association in my state and I came face to face with institutionally sanctioned sexism against female colleagues. Such as being asked to undergo a pregnancy test before receiving a letter of appointment or not being eligible for maternity leave because they were not married. For those who proceed with maternity leave, their salaries are cut.

The activist in me rose up and we have tackled these issues and more with the management. But, my interest was piqued and I wondered how this would affect females medical doctors within the hospital. So, we (my team of female colleagues in mental health) set out to undertake a study to find out if female medical doctors self-perceived sexism in the work place and how this affected their mental health. We found that depression increased as perceived workplace sexism increased among our respondents. Sexism in the workplace has been linked to depression, psychological distress and anxiety symptoms in women (Elwér et al, 2013).

Depression is a common mental disorder that has great impact on an individual’s ability to work productively. Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, the leading cause of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Depression in the workplace is a leading cause of lost work productivity, sick leave and early retirement.  Studies show that absence, disability and lost productivity as a result of depression cost employers more than four times the cost of medical treatment for an employee (Bendt et al, 1998) which shows that treatment is cheaper for the establishment too.

Some respondents reiterated comments that they felt signified sexism from the people around them.

This year’s World Mental Health Day theme on mental health addresses the need to promote well-being in work settings.  Work is good for mental health but a negative working environment can lead to physical and mental health problems. It is thus important to create a working environment that is devoid of discrimination of every form, embracing diversity and inclusion. Depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact (FWMH, 2017). Sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination in the workplace often place the people at the receiving end under great psychological distress. Sexism in the workplace has been linked to depression, anxiety, psychoactive substance use problems, personality change and sleep disorders (Watson et al, 2015).

To achieve a healthy workplace, it is important to develop government legislation, strategies and polices. The World Economic Forum gives a guide on a 3-pronged approach to interventions:

  1. Protect mental health by reducing work–related risk factors. This will include gender sensitive laws that dissuade sexism. It includes training the workforce to recognize and shy away from discrimination. It must also include strategies to build resilience among the workforce, teaching techniques of coping with stress and burn out and providing avenues for help seeking without penalty.
  2. Promote mental health by developing the positive aspects of work and the strengths of employees. This includes creating an atmosphere where good work is recognized and celebrated regardless of gender, age, sex, sexual orientation, race or creed.
  3. Address mental health problems regardless of cause. This will definitely help to combat the stigma usually associated with mental illnesses, enabling people to seek and get treatment with dignity. This will definitely improve well-being and productivity.

Practical tips to take care of your mental health

To take care of your mental health, you must remember to be more self-aware, improving your ability to know if you are mentally healthy or not. You should make out time for exercise and leisure and watch your stress levels. It is also important to maintain and enhance social networks and create a healthy and dynamic balance between work and family life (Gray-Stanley & Muramatsu, 2011; Sanchez-Reilly, 2013; Shanafelt, 2012).

Practical tips for employers and organization

Employers and organisations can improve mental health in their spaces by creating a supportive environment that shows appreciation to employees. Identifying early signs of burnout and making resources available for dealing with stress. It is important to have effective policies that discourage victimization, discrimination, harassment and bullying in every form (Allen et al, 2015; Maslach& Leiter, 2008; NICE, 2015).


Allen, B.C., Holland, P., Reynolds, R. (2015). The effect of bullying on burnout in nurses: the moderating role of psychological detachment. Journal of Advanced Nursing, Feb; 71(2):381-90.

Bendt ER et al. Workplace performance effects from chronic depression and its treatment. Journal of Health Economics. October 1998, pp. 511-535.

Gray-Stanley, J.A., Muramatsu, N. (2011). Work stress, burnout, and social and personal resources among direct care workers. Research in Developmental Disabilities, May-Jun; 32(3), 1065-1074.

Maslach, Ch., Leiter, M.P. (2008). Early predictors of job burnout and engagement. The Journal of  Applied Psychology, 93, 498-512.

NICE- National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2015). Workplace health: management practices. 1837269751237 (Accessed 21.4.17).

Sanchez-Reilly, S., Morrison, L.J., Carey, E. et al. (2013). Caring for oneself to care for others: physicians and their self-care. The Journal of Supportive Oncology, Jun; 11(2): 75-81.

Shanafelt, T.D. MD; Boone, S., Tan, L. et al. (2012). Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Balance Among US Physicians Relative to the General US Population. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172(18):1377-1385.

Sofia Elwér  Lisa Harryson* Malin Bolin and Anne Hammarström.  Patterns of gender equality at workplaces and psychological distress2013 8(1): e53246. published online 2013 Jan 9. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0053246 pmcid: pmc3541387

Watson B.L; Marszalek J.M; Dispenza F; DavidsC.M; (2015); Understanding the Relationship Among White and African American Women’s Sexual Objectification Experiences, Physical Safety, Anxiety and Psychological Distress. Sex Roles; Volume 72, Issue 3, pp 91-104

WHO Global Plan of Action on Worker’s Health (2008-2017)

World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Mental Health 2014-2016 – Seven actions towards a mentally healthy organization

Related articles 2017 report.

Scaling-up treatment of depression and anxiety: a global return on investment analysis published in the Lancet Psychiatry, April 2016


Edited by Eunice Kilonzo, CARTA Communications Officer.

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