Every day, women around the world are subjected to social and economic factors that put them at greater risk for poor mental health, including gender biases at work and home, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. However, with the added stresses of the pandemic, mental health struggles among women seem to be even more prevalent. One study revealed that women worldwide are suffering three times more than men when it comes to mental health, with women in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region being especially affected. According to a recent study, 85% of women in Thailand believe their mental health has been affected by COVID-19, and 66% of women in India admitted to being more stressed during the pandemic lockdown compared to only 34% of men. More concerning are the consequences. In Japan, suicide among women rose nearly 15% in 2020, and domestic violence issues climbed 300% in Hubei, China, in the first month of the pandemic.
It is important for both individuals and companies to recognize the high percentage of women mentally affected by the pandemic so we can create a safe environment for women to come forward with their struggles. Just as importantly, it’s critical to understand and help reduce the other difficulties women are facing in their daily lives as they strive to balance family, community, and career obligations; comply with cultural expectations; find sanctuary from violence; and/or secure financial independence.
In this latest installment of our “Around the World with WIN” series, we hear from Smitha Naik and Peter Morris about the polarity between women and men’s mental health in APAC. As co-leads of the Zebra Women’s Inclusion Network (WIN) in the region, Smitha and Peter work hard to promote equality for women both within and outside the workplace. Their intimate discussion with colleagues, community members and family members, along with their own personal experiences, have helped inform their actions as women’s mental health advocates. Their learnings will help us all become better allies for the women in our lives…
Your Edge Blog Team: There is growing evidence that many women around the world are subjected to social and economic challenges that can put them at a greater risk for poor mental health. What hardships are affecting the mental wellness of women in your region the most right now?
Smitha: Research from the Indian Journal of Psychiatry suggests that gender has been described as a critical determinant of mental health and mental illness, typically driven by a patriarchal society. Although mental health cannot be gender specific, mental disorders disproportionately affect women due to gender-based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, income inequality, subordinate social status, and unremitting responsibility for the care of others. In urban India, dual responsibilities of home and work, along with increased stress levels, lead to mental health issues such as depression in women.
Peter: I see everyone I talk to both at work and outside being impacted by the pandemic. Some are finding it hard to work at home, while others are having to look after/manage an extended family on top of their normal responsibilities. So, it’s hard for me to define a single contributing factor to the decline in women’s mental health across the region. That’s why it’s so important we take the time to listen to each individual and understand their unique struggles – which, by the way, might be different today than they were a month ago.
Your Edge Blog Team: According to recent reports, many countries in the APAC region work an average of over 40 hours a week. Has that been a temporary increase due to the pandemic or a long-term trend?
Smitha: Forty hours a week is normal in the APAC region. However, since the pandemic, there has been an increasing blur between work and personal time, resulting in some working more than 40 hours. People in the technology industry have specifically worked additional hours since the pandemic started due to the absence of access to office facilities, devices, and high-speed internet. Internet connectivity is very good in cities like Bangalore, but it may become limited as one moves away from cities to towns. So, it’s taking some workers longer to complete tasks. On the flip side, teams have reduced commute time, which is saving a few hours every day, and that’s time they are able to give to their work and personal lives. There are also certain industry proponents calling for an increase in working hours to increase productivity, which is essential to strengthen the economy. So, it is possible it will become standard to work more than 40 hours a week.
Peter: In addition to the average workday increasing over the years, it has become more evident as of late that working virtually presents a unique set of challenges for global companies. For example, it’s very common for me to meet with colleagues during U.S. working hours, which is in the evening in Singapore. This can often be a challenge for APAC workers, who often put in even more work hours to virtually meet with colleagues in different regions on top of other daily responsibilities.
Your Edge Blog Team: Are you finding women in APAC are challenged to strike a work-life balance as a result?
Smitha: While people have always managed work commitments on top of home responsibilities, the pandemic has created a much heavier workload outside of the office. One of the most significant challenges that the pandemic has presented to women in APAC — and even globally – has been caretaking. For example, the closure of nurseries, daycare facilities, and schools has increased the responsibilities on parents with young children. This burden has specifically fallen on mothers who are traditionally the caretakers in the family.
Another pandemic-related challenge with work-life balance has been caring for family members affected by COVID-19, especially in situations where isolation and social distancing is a requirement. This has caused a disruption in support systems across the APAC region – be it from a family member, neighbor, external help, or even social meetings.
Peter: I have personally experienced challenges with this “always on” mentality and can imagine how increasingly difficult this must be on those who are caretakers as Smitha mentioned.
Your Edge Blog Team: You have both hosted and attended events through WIN to discuss topics such as work-life balance and emotional intelligence, with the mission of starting an honest dialogue regarding women’s mental health. What did you learn from these discussions? And how can conversations like these eliminate the gender inconsistencies in mental health?
Smitha: One of the events Zebra’s APAC WIN hosted earlier this year was a session on the neuroscience of breaking bias in honor of the #ChooseToChallenge Women’s History Month theme. About 250 Zebras attended and were incredibly engaged in this discussion, which challenged them to be part of the change. Events like this one give me hope that more and more people are talking about these issues, discussing biases candidly, and willing to take steps toward equality.
Peter: Events like the one Smitha mentioned show that people are willing to attend these kinds of discussions – that’s a start. When we open ourselves up to listening, we’re learning. The more people learn, the more we can change the way we act or speak up for those around us who do not feel empowered.
Your Edge Blog Team: Would you say there is a stigma around mental health in APAC?
Smitha: It is hard to open up about any health issues, including mental health. This is not something that is commonly discussed in the APAC region or anywhere in the world.
A little over a year ago, WIN APAC hosted an event where a doctor came to give advice on how to manage stress. It was clear during the discussion that individuals were not comfortable speaking about their struggles openly. While it may be hard to open up about mental health struggles, conversations like this one start a dialogue that can encourage more individuals to be candid with the challenges they are facing. The more conversations are had, the more comfortable people feel like seeking help.
Peter: I agree. It’s difficult to openly discuss and accept this, since much of these conversations are still considered taboo in many Asian countries. However, working from home has helped more people see the human side of their colleagues. The more we accept that we are all human, the more we can empathize with the struggles others are facing.
Your Edge Blog Team: What can be done to remove this stigma and bring more support to women who feel uncomfortable seeking help due to perceived consequences?
Smitha: In my opinion, we should take a scientific approach and review the recommendations that are revealed through research.
Peter: Talking about it more. It’s good to talk! And it’s good to listen!
Your Edge Blog Team: Here at Zebra, we believe every person should have equal access to mental health resources as well as opportunities to be transparent with mental health struggles. While Zebra encourages employees to look after their mental health, this is not necessarily the case at other companies. What practices does Zebra incorporate that you would encourage other organizations to implement to help ensure their employees are receiving these crucial resources?
Smitha: Zebra provides tons of material on our internal Zebra Education Network (ZEN) platform that our team can learn from. Along with this, WIN has held yoga sessions and discussions with doctors on mental health and methods to manage stress during these uncertain times. The session on the neuroscience of breaking bias also discussed how to continue building an inclusive team and eliminate unconscious biases.
More companies can support team members who are struggling with mental health, like Zebra does, by building a strong leadership that holds the highest regard and support for inclusion and diversity. Being willing to listen, encourage conversations, and provide psychological safety to company members can create a safe environment for those who need it.
Your Edge Blog Team: While it is important to provide equal access to mental health resources within organizations, it is also important to encourage individuals to be agents of change outside of the workplace. What advice would you give those who aim to be better advocates for women’s mental health or, even their own mental health?
Peter: I know I might sound like a broken record but talk about it! It’s valid and helpful to express how you feel. It’s also good to acknowledge the normalcy in having good days and bad days. By being open with your struggles to friends, co-workers, or mentors, you can inspire others to do the same.
Smitha: I agree, talking about mental health is so important. It is also okay to seek professional help when needed!
Your Edge Blog Team: What steps are the two of you personally taking to improve or maintain your mental health?
Smitha: I have started taking care of my balcony garden, giving me some “me” time, and I recommend others take up a hobby too.
Peter: Meditation helps and – funnily enough – little motivational messages on Instagram and reminders each day to stay positive. Listen to the early morning birdsong.
Your Edge Blog Team: Thank you both for sharing your thoughts and experiences and for paving the way for more women to be open with their mental health struggles. We look forward to hearing more about how your efforts through WIN are creating safe spaces for women across Zebra Nation and the region to open up to others and access the resources they need to better manage stress and heal from trauma.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please seek help or call a 24/hour hotline in your region for immediate assistance.