Women must prioritize mental health on their way to the top

January 21, 2022, 3:00 PM UTC
"Now more than ever, women with their eyes set on the C-suite must proactively nurture their mental wellness," writes Alva Adams-Mason.
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When gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics gymnastics final last summer, she made sure the world knew why; she announced that she had decided to protect her mental wellbeing. This act of recognizing her personal headspace and making a positive decision for her mental health did more than shine a light on the importance of mental health for world-class athletes. Simone helped bring mental health to the forefront of discussion everywhere—including in the boardroom.

Mental health is a serious concern for all women who strive to be at the top of their game—whether their goal is the Olympics, the C-suite, or success and fulfillment in their chosen professions.

Women as a whole tend to be twice as likely as men to suffer from depression and anxiety, and not surprisingly, the problem is even more prevalent among working women. Not only do career-driven women report feeling like they have to work twice as hard as men to move up the corporate ladder, but they’re also shouldering the majority of caregiving for their children. These burdens lead to increased levels of stress that translates to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and/or depressed. 

Discussion of women’s mental health has reached a tipping point recently, as concerns over COVID-19 and social injustice have dominated the nation’s headlines and thoughts. The mental health of mothers, senior-level female executives, and Black women has never been more at risk, according to the most recent Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, which details the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on those three groups. Now more than ever, women with their eyes set on the C-suite must proactively nurture their mental wellness.

In 1999, when I began working for Toyota Motor Sales as a dealer development administrator, I was a single mother of three trying to balance the demands of motherhood and workplace issues with my career aspirations of being an executive. As I’ve worked my way up to my current position, as executive group manager for multicultural business alliance and strategy for Toyota Motor North America, I’ve learned several practices for maintaining my mental health I’d like to share.

6 ways career-minded women can cultivate positive mental health

  1. Practice mindfulness and surrender to whatever is happening in the moment. Saying “I surrender” doesn’t mean you have failed, but instead shows that you are surrendering to what is happening, accepting that your world is not perfect, and acknowledging that you are going to push on and work through the issues. 
  2. Find something you can lean on for strength, whether it’s your faith, meditation, your family, or friends. 
  3. Cultivate a tribe you can call on in times of need. Find other women who are facing the same issues as you—individuals in a similar work environment or at the same level who understand the specific challenges you face. But make sure you can trust them before confiding in them.
  4. Recognize that it’s okay for people to have opinions that differ from yours. Don’t take it personally. 
  5. Take time for yourself and your mental health. This might mean taking a step back from the grind to rest and rejuvenate; choosing to take your time instead of rushing to get something done; taking advantage of corporate benefits such as employee assistance programs; or just taking a moment to breathe.
  6. Forgive quickly, let go of resentment, and move on. Focus on your path. Accept that you’re only in control of yourself.

How employers can support women’s mental health

Prioritize mental health: The success of a company depends on the well-being of its employees. Not only is prioritizing your employees’ mental health the ethical thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. Happy employees are more productive and contribute to better company morale, employee retention, and recruitment. When your employees are thriving, your organization directly benefits.

Provide benefits that support mental health: Employers can help employees better meet life’s challenges by providing resources such as access to mental health counseling; work/life resources; resources to help employees navigate financial, legal, and dependent care challenges; and professional and personal development training for employees and managers. Taking it a step further, Toyota Motor North America provides benefits such as Life Matters, an on-site gym at its Plano, Texas headquarters, relaxation rooms, and mentoring programs. The company also offers WIIT (Women Influencing and Impacting Toyota), a Business Partnering Group (BPG) open to all team members, dedicated to contributing to an ever-more inclusive culture, and to supporting opportunities for women at all levels with programming, networking, education, leadership, and skill development. 

Create a healthy workplace culture: According to a recent Gallup poll, the greatest factor that contributes to—or detracts from—a person’s mental health is their job. Job duties, stress level, and environment can significantly affect an employee’s overall health and happiness. And senior-level women are significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel burned out. When companies value a work environment built on mutual trust—and demonstrate this with safe spaces for open dialogue, schedule flexibility, and a culture of respect for others—everyone benefits and can feel empowered to bring their full selves to work. Tools and resources for managing workloads and prioritizing mental health and self-care are crucial. Toyota offers Whit, an optional mindfulness tool, to its team members to encourage awareness of mental health and provide resources for personal implementation. 

Commit to making women’s advancement a company priority: The relentless pressure to always be “on” and giving 110% to make it as a woman to the C-suite is a challenge all women grapple with. But the struggle is even more pronounced for women of color—especially Black women, 49% of whom feel that their race or ethnicity will make it harder for them to get a raise, promotion, or get ahead. Companies can eliminate the stress this bias causes by ensuring that women—and especially Black women, who hold a mere 1.4% of C-suite positions—receive the support they need to succeed. This might include managers showcasing their work, advocating for new opportunities for them, providing mentorship and other tools for success, and/or holding diversity training on unconscious bias for executives and employees. Promoting women also includes reducing racial bias and creating a culture of inclusion where every employee—regardless of gender or race—feels welcome, respected, and valued.

Knowing what you want and being relentless in pursuing it is critical to making it to the C-suite, but ultimately, taking care of your mental health along the way is equally, if not more, important.

Alva Adams-Mason is executive group manager, Multicultural Business Alliance & Strategy, for Toyota Motor North America.

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