HR & Management
Life-coach Michelle Zelli on mental health in corporate workspaces
7 min read
26 September 2018
Life and relationships coach Michelle Zelli understands mental health problems in the corporate world having sat on the board of several bluechip companies.
Whether an SME or gargantuan blue-chip, smart companies are keen to find new and innovative ways to help employees avoid and tackle the minefield of mental health issues.
Whilst suicide has previously been a predominantly male issue, over the past decade we’re seeing the gender gap closing. Especially in the US, the greatest area of increase in female suicide aged 45-65, which has increased by 63%. What on earth is going wrong?
With mental health being responsible for £105 billion lost in the UK workplace each year, even the most heartless of businesses are being forced to take the wellbeing of their employees seriously. Things have moved forward since I left the corporate arena 15 or so years ago – but not as much as I would have hoped.
Female ‘burnout’ in the corporate world
My own experience confirms how hard it can be to hold your own as a woman in the corporate workplace. As sales director within a blue-chip, the pressure was untenable and eventually resulted in my full mental breakdown, which the nice doctor wrote up as ‘Executive Burn Out’. After all, who wants the stigma of a ‘mental breakdown’ on their records?
HR asked me if I was ok, by which time my behvaiour had become erratic, emotional and my appearance had changed too. I was washed up, wrung out and wilting fast.
I spent three weeks in The Priory, desperate to undo the damage of a four-year killer schedule and almost impossible targets. Those weeks were a welcome respite and I wasn’t alone. During my stay, I met other female executives who too had simply run out of bandwidth.
Holidays were my only respite. When my body would react to the lack of adrenaline and I was ill for at least three days. By the time I eventually relaxed it was time to wind back up and head for the boardroom.
The blue-chip burn
According to the UK National Office of Statistics, women are still doing 60% more domestic chores than men, which equates to an additional 45 minutes a day. When piled on top of a long, stressful working day at the office, this could be the final straw for many.
I can confirm that my fellow women executives were regularly in the car at 4am heading to a meeting at the other end of the country, and returning home at 11pm. There was no respite and self-care was a non-starter.
With the long hours and high stakes nature of working in big corporates, it’s undeniable that both men and women working in these industries face higher rates of mental stress. But, traditionally, male executives tend to have more home-based support when it comes to dealing with the stresses of working in blue-chips.
During my final weeks in corporate, I recall breaking down even in meetings, tears of pure exhaustion and frustration I just couldn’t hold back. I simply had nothing left to give and no insulation from my screaming nervous system.
With wives at home, supported by their husbands’ substantial salaries, they can act as carer, housekeeper, PA, and runner, but corporate women though, well that was quite a different story. At my place of work, there was an unspoken rule that women needed to work harder to compensate for not being male.
Women are notoriously bad at saying no. Is it because we’re determined to show we’re as tough and rough as our male counterparts?
Mothers are juggling many plates to such a high standard trying to be perfect. At work, women are often expected to attain standards not applied to men, there’s a sense of somehow having to prove our worth and capability.
As a coach, I see women in my office who are trying to be all things to all people, putting themselves last and arrive already at their wit’s end.
A recent study showed that women spend around ten more hours a week multitasking than their male partners. So, when we add this to the self-imposed pressure to have a clean and tidy home, wonderfully nourished and nurtured children, to look good, feel sexy and be successful within a cutthroat and demanding work environment, it’s no wonder women are struggling to hold executive positions.
It’s time to open an honest conversation. Women are overburdened, with high expectations of themselves both in the workplace and at home.
Whilst HR did fulfil their legal requirement there was little in the way of soft skill understanding and hands-on support. Having spent four years working a punishing schedule, under relentless pressure, something was bound to give. I was expendable, there’s always hungry people waiting to step into the role.
More companies than ever are taking female wellbeing seriously but it’s still not enough. The statistics show we must do more to protect ourselves, let’s start by learning to say no to the pressures we can’t afford to handle.
Michelle Zelli is a renowned life and relationships coach. Following a career on the boards of several blue-chip companies, Zelli took the corporate life-lessons she learned to the therapy room, guiding high-level executives and others in the arts of self-esteem, and intention setting lifestyle mapping.