We have come a long way from our evolutionary past, going from actual jungles to corporate ones. Instead of physical threats from a primitive environment, our minds have started to recognize work, family, money, and health issues as the main stressors of anxiety-related behaviour. We’ve all noticed that a little pressure can be good as it helps us work harder or prepare better for challenges. However, if we face a rapid onslaught of stressors over a period, it could cause our anxiety levels to build up, often escalating to a point where it becomes unmanageable or debilitating.

People who have increased anxiety or full-blown anxiety attacks talk about experiencing a combination of various symptoms, like pounding heartbeat, sweating, trembling, dry mouth and blurry vision. This is coupled with overwhelming feelings of excessive worry, exaggerated startled reactions and jitteriness. Psychologists have confirmed that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders than men, and this is due to the way our minds are wired and the gender-based stressors in the work environment. According to a study by the psychiatric department of Andhra Medical College, 38% of urban working women in India suffer from either anxiety or depression.

Women often tend to take responsibility for other peoples’ happiness, especially their children’s and spouse’s. Traditional gender roles and an unequal division of domestic labour still prevail in our country, leaving women, particularly the mothers of young children, with higher levels of anxiety and stress. A study on anxiety amongst working women in Delhi shows that the average working woman spends 9 hours at the office, 3 hours on household chores, 2 hours commuting and are then left with 10 hours to eat, sleep and relax.

Every woman in the workforce today is aware of the false stereotype that “Women perform poorly compared to men at a given task—test, negotiation, presentation, competition". The problem with such negative gender stereotypes in the workplace is that by simply being aware of them, one becomes subconsciously apprehensive about confirming them, leading to reduced cognitive ability, impaired concentration and increased stress and anxiety. When combined with the fact that women tend to be more cognizant of their mistakes, this creates a cycle of anxiety that can be difficult to break.

Then there is the fact that women in the workplace have to constantly face the realities of the wage gap, harassment, reduced job security, and low chances of career progression. They also have the added pressure of worrying about how every action affects how they are perceived, valued or even promoted. In many situations, they find themselves facing criticism for behaviour which is valued in their male counterparts. For example, a man who takes charge is decisive, but a woman who does the same is “bossy". Mentally negotiating with these situations over a period of time can increase anxiety levels to a point where it becomes difficult to have a normal work life.

When it comes to providing a solution for this increased anxiety, there is a need for change in the cultural environment of the workplace as well as in the way women manage the stressors in their life. Employers must create a workplace where women can stop worrying about perception, the pay gap, gender stereotyping and career progression, and just focus on being productive. Workshops, support groups and policy changes will go a long way in sensitizing everyone and ensuring that they have the support they need.

Individually, you can take certain steps to improve the way you deal with anxiety, the first of which is to consult with a therapist to assess where you are on the spectrum of anxiety disorders and the best way to reduce it.

It is also important to practise mindfulness and to prioritize work and personal life tasks each day so that you are able to avoid too much multi-tasking. When you start feeling anxious, relax your posture and take deep breaths to normalize your heart rate and blood pressure.

Above all, practise self-care. Set aside a time where you put aside all your roles—mother, wife, daughter, etc. and do something that makes you happy. As they say during pre-flight safety announcements: “Make sure you help yourself first before assisting others."

Mind Matters is a weekly column which looks to alleviate the stigma around mental health at work. Neerja Birla is the chairperson and co-founder of Mpower, a movement that aims to affect a positive change in the attitude towards mental health.

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