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Gender and Mental Health of Women Health Care Workers

The mental health of health care workers is important, affecting women as individuals, in their families and communities, and potentially affecting the care they provide.

Mental health can be positively defined to include emotional and spiritual well-being. Poor mental health can include anxiety, depression, stress and addictions, as well as other more traditionally described symptoms, and is increasingly recognized as a work-related issue.

For many reasons the mental health of health care workers is a women’s issue. Almost a fifth of employed women work in health care and they account for over 80% of the health labour force. They work as nurses, nurse aides, cooks, cleaners, dietary aids, clerks, administrators and laundry workers. Women also do the overwhelming majority of unpaid personal care for family and friends- especially the direct physical care. Men tend to do different tasks. Stress from women’s paid work interacts with responsibilities and relationships at home. Women’s health is defined, experienced and treated differently than that of men. We need to think about women’s mental health issues in relation to the effects on their bodies while placing those bodies and women’s care work within the context of their lives.

It is also important that we understand and honour the important differences among women. The effects of working in health occupations may vary according to job security, workload, shiftwork and control over one’s work situation. Mental health is affected by social, economic, or geographic situations such as living or working in rural or isolated areas, living in poverty, belonging to a group that experiences racism or colonialism, facing discrimination due to sexual orientation, facing barriers due to differing abilities, being a recent immigrant, or working with people who have a stress disorder.

From November 20 to 21, 2008 WHCR held a Symposium on the Mental Health of Women Health Care Workers, bringing together 50 researchers, practitioners and policymakers with expertise on mental health, on gender and on health care work. The workshop was guided by four main questions:

  1. Why is this a woman’s issue?
  2. What are the issues for women?
  3. Which women?
  4. What can be done and who should do it, at what level of government, organization or community?

Following the Symposium, in February 2009, WHCR will host a forum with federal policy-makers to discuss working together to addressing the mental health of women health care workers.

An annotated bibliography on the mental health of healthcare workers is available here.

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