The Number One Health Risk for Successful Women


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Women with authority at work might appear to have it all, with their lofty positions, prestigious degrees and hefty paychecks. But a new study shows that corporate success can take a heavy mental toll on ladies in leadership roles.

Those who call the shots and have the ability to hire, fire, and influence pay, have significantly more symptoms of depression than women without this power, researchers have found.

A team from the University of Texas at Austin tracked 1,300 men and 1,500 women graduating from high schools in Wisconsin over the course of 50 years, surveying the population at four different points in their careers. After accounting for life changes and other factors that might have negative mental health outcomes, the study authors found that job authority decreases symptoms of depression in men, but significantly increases those symptoms in women. The study was published in the December edition of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Study co-author Tetyana Pudrovska, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, says these women should actually be uniquely positioned to be happier. “Job authority is typically considered a desirable workplace resource related to higher earnings, more prestigious occupations, flexibility, challenging work, and schedule control – all resources that should improve health,” Pudrovska told Yahoo Health.

Why aren’t we seeing that uptick in happiness for men and women? Pudrovska says that while men have the path of least resistance to achieve job authority, and a high-level position only secures their place atop the social hierarchy, women have to overcome long-held stereotypes and plenty of workplace slights to obtain the same position — and that psychological wear-and-tear can take its toll.

“Women in authority positions are evaluated more stringently compared to women without job authority and male co-workers,” Pudrovska says. “Higher-status women are often exposed to overt and subtle gender discrimination and harassment, and this contributes to chronic stress that can undermine or even reverse those health benefits of job authority.”

Pudrovska hopes this research raises awareness about the broader cultural and social forces in play for high-level women, and the unfavorable stereotypes that make leadership unnecessarily stressful. “We need to address the outdated cultural view that women are temperamentally not suited for leadership, or that they are not competent or legitimate leaders,” she says.

Despite recent positive changes for female equality, it’s still a man’s world in many respects — case in point, women currently hold just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions — and high-powered women won’t be able to control every gender-specific stressor in the office.

That said, you can make changes to immediately improve your well-being.

Kristen Carpenter, PhD., director of women’s behavioral health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says the most important strategy for curbing depression symptoms is to take care of physical and mental health — an area where many career women struggle. “An important piece of staving off anxiety is good self-care,” Carpenter told Yahoo Health. “Women with these positions often don’t take the time to exercise, eat right, and sleep well when they need to slow down, rest and unplug from their smartphones.”

Carpenter says even an extra hour or two a week to yourself can help — and she hopes this generation will be equipped to get that time and space. Since the new study tracked the careers of women during a time when there was less support in place to accommodate all the demands of career, kids, and relationships, there’s better opportunity for women to climb with their good health intact.

But if you do notice symptoms of early depression, particularly a loss of interest in activities you once liked or difficulty concentrating, scheduling a visit with a mental health professional is smart. “It doesn’t need to be a lifelong relationship,” says Carpenter. “Even two or three visits to get support and help manage these symptoms can help before it becomes a full-blown depressive episode.”

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