Female Bosses at Higher Risk for Depression

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Life at the top of the corporate ladder can seem sweet, but being the boss is hard work. And new research indicates that it could be a lot harder for female bosses in particular, because their high-ranking positions are linked with a significantly higher number of symptoms associated with depression.

According to a study recently published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, women with job authority have significantly more depressive symptoms than women without that power. In contrast, men with job authority actually had fewer symptoms of depression than men without high-power titles.

What else did the study find?

For the study, researchers asked 1,500 middle-aged women and 1,300 middle-aged men about their job statuses and the number of days in the past week they felt depressive symptoms like sadness or thinking of their lives as failures. The responses revealed that when a job included hiring, firing, and influencing pay, women were predicted to have a nine percent increased rate of depressive symptoms than women without authority. Men with job authority, on the other hand, had a ten percent decreased rate of depressive symptoms compared to men without management-level jobs.

Interestingly, the women with job authority theoretically should have stood a better chance of avoiding depression; they exhibited characteristics that are typically considered strong predictors of positive mental health. Compared to the women without job authority, they reported higher levels of education, higher incomes, more prestigious occupations, and higher levels of job satisfaction and autonomy. But despite these advantages, their mental health seemed to be in much greater jeopardy than their lower-status female counterparts.

Why are female bosses more likely to be depressed?

While the study did find an association between authority and depression, it was not designed to demonstrate cause and effect. So it’s unclear whether the increase in depressive symptoms is actually due to the female participants’ high-ranking job positions.

But according to the study’s lead author, Tetyana Pudrovska, the link could be influenced by pervasive societal stereotypes about women in the workplace. “Women in authority positions are viewed as lacking the assertiveness and confidence of strong leaders,” she said. “But when these women display such characteristics, they are judged negatively for being unfeminine. This contributes to chronic stress.”

Pudrovska also notes that compared to female bosses, male bosses are less likely to encounter the same negative prejudices and resistance from subordinates, colleagues, and superiors. The absence of these stressors may account for the decrease in depressive symptoms among men with job authority. “Men in positions of authority are consistent with the expected status beliefs, and male leadership is accepted as normative and legitimate,” she said. “This increases men’s power and effectiveness as leaders and diminishes interpersonal conflict.”

What can I do to keep my mental health on track?

According to the researchers, the findings demonstrate the “need to address gender discrimination, hostility, and prejudice against women leaders” in order to reduce the negative psychological impact on female bosses and increase the psychological benefits of higher-status jobs for women. While it will take time for society to catch up and abandon longstanding gender stereotypes, there are steps you can take now to protect and foster your own mental health if you are a woman in a managerial role at work:

  • Encourage your company to provide executive or business coaching for those on the management track.
  • Buddy up with a peer in a similar position at another company to get regular support and feedback.
  • Implement healthy lifestyle changes: Eat a balanced diet, avoid alcohol and drugs, get a good night’s sleep, and exercise regularly.
  • Seek support from friends and family and talk openly about your stressors.
  • Find a therapist or counselor who can help you develop skills and tools to cope.

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