The toll of toxic workplaces on mental health for women with Dr. Jenny Brockis

Photography by @Micaela.Mandorff  Her Muse @emily_kaufman_ Styled by Ashlee Trout

Managing employees grappling with mental health challenges in the workplace has emerged as a pivotal organisational hurdle for leaders and HR teams. While both men and women experience mental health conditions at similar rates, women encounter unique obstacles related to mental well-being in professional settings. Recent findings from the “Women in the Workplace” report by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey reveal that the gender gap in job departures is at its widest since the report’s inception eight years ago. Research further underscores that women are 41% more likely to grapple with toxic workplace cultures compared to their male counterparts.

This RUOK day, we speak with Dr. Jenny Brockis to explore how a company’s culture can impact the mental health of women. Dr Jenny Brockis is an award-winning speaker, best-selling author, Board Certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician and Workplace Wellbeing Specialist. Dr Jenny Brockis started her Brain Fit Consultancy in 2009. Today she works with leaders, managing directors and L&D professionals to create mentally healthy workplaces that enjoy a high level of mental wellbeing, psychological safety, and know-how to avoid burnout.  She discusses that, despite all our cleverness, medical advances, and technologies, what really counts to making us feel happy and healthy and enjoy our work comes down to three things; being part of a workplace culture founded on care, having a leader who is genuinely committed to the health and wellbeing and career progression of every employee, and enjoying great physical, psychological, and social wellbeing.

HER: The Her Economy community has identified overwhelming workloads, the absence of breaks replaced by lunch and learns, poor communication, exclusion, meeting fatigue, the expectation of online availability beyond work hours, and deferred opportunities to promotion as significant contributors to a toxic workplace culture. In your view, what characterises a toxic workplace culture for women, and what warning signs should we be aware of?

Dr. Jenny Brockis: All of the above are relevant to all genders.

Judging from the finding of the report “Women in the workplace” the challenges faced by women should not be underestimated. The matter is urgent. A toxic workplace culture is hugely detrimental to the individual, the organisation and society, because the impact of the toxicity spreads beyond work itself.


  1. Pay inequity and a lack of transparency around who is being paid what. Being treated unfairly is a massive social threat akin to being kicked in the guts. It’s a deep visceral response associated with a feeling of disgust and anger. It’s the fastest route to the nearest exit.
  2. Boy’s club attitude (inappropriate language, sexist comments, bullying, intimidation, incivility.)
  3. Evidence of disrespectful behaviour, lack of inclusion, being overlooked for promotion or career opportunities, abusive behaviour, being excluded from comms or being recognised for great work or worse when others take the credit.
  4. A lack of core and common shared values. There’s no feeling of belonging or being part of a team.
  5. The focus is all about output and outcomes with no attention paid to the individual’s needs. It’s putting profit before people, and it doesn’t work.

Warning signs of a toxic culture:

  1. Office gossip and politicking
  2. Low staff morale, negativity, and pessimism (it’s contagious)
  3. Favouritism
  4. A cold climate. There’s a lack of camaraderie or team spirit.
  5. A bad smell. You can smell the fear where everyone tries to stay under the radar and not be singled out There’s a lot of “covering” to fit in
  6. A lack of clarity around expectations of roles and responsibilities
  7. A revolving exit door (high staff turnover)
  8. High rates of sick leave, stress leave, absenteeism and presenteeism, mental health issues and burnout, interpersonal tensions, and conflict.
  9. Poor leader support
  10. Low psychological safety

HER: How does the lack of support for young women in the workforce from senior female leaders impact the mental well-being of emerging female leaders?

Dr. Jenny Brockis: I remember one female colleague who said she found the lack of support from one of the few female leaders she was hoping to emulate, hurtful and bewildering until she realised she was seen as a potential threat by the other woman who was jealously guarding her hard-won role. This is toxic femininity at play. My colleague hadn’t expected any favours but was blindsided by her senior’s behaviour towards her.

Not feeling supported is demoralising. The person may start to have self-doubts about their capabilities and competency and try to compensate by working harder and putting in more hours. This adds to high stress levels which can manifest as psychosomatic symptoms of headaches, digestive disturbance, fatigue, disturbed sleep, anxiety, or depression. Performance drops and the vicious cycle continues.

HER: How has the struggle against toxic workplace cultures intensified the challenges faced by women of diverse backgrounds, including race and sexual orientation?

Dr. Jenny Brockis: Why? Because according to a metanalysis women from diverse backgrounds, ethnic groups and sexual orientation are more likely to be exposed to microaggressions, and barriers to career progression.  Being underrepresented makes finding allies to support or advocate on their behalf more difficult.  Lower psychological safety means these women are operating in a more stressful environment, on the lookout for bullying, bias, judgment, racism, racial harassment or being called out for mistakes more.

Covering is where the individual attempts to fit in by altering their clothing, not talking about their personal background and seeking ways to be more like the majority in appearance and behaviour.

HER: In what ways has the issue of “workplace burnout” profoundly affected the mental health of young women, and what can leaders do to foster a mentally healthy work environment for female employees?

Dr. Jenny Brockis: Workplace burnout continues to be a growing problem. It affects more women than men and typically it is the younger generations – millennials and Gen Z who are suffering the most. One reason for this being the additional cognitive load carried by women along with heightened financial stress in the younger generation and a lack of life experience. Baby Boomers and Gen Ys are more chilled in comparison. Always being on, always being available because we’ve accepted the need to contribute 24/7 is harmful. Burnout affects up to 75% of the workforce (depending on which study you read) It develops gradually and can smoulder along for months or years or escalate to a tipping point where the affected person collapses. 

No one chooses burnout, yet the stigma of “not being up to the job” or weak persists despite the fact it is often the most dedicated passionate and driven who are at greatest risk. Overwork kills people While not a recognised cause of death here in Australia, overseas karoshi (death from overwork) in Japan and other countries is known to cause death from stroke, heart attack and suicide across all ages and both sexes. We’re still operating in a system glued to the concept that success only comes through hard work that has morphed into a culture of overworking and acceptance that high stress is the norm. This is wrong.

A mentally healthy workplace starts with leaders who demonstrate a genuine interest in the health and wellbeing of their employees and lead through their own behaviours. Leaders who can show their human side and own stories of struggle are seen as “like us” fostering greater trust and belief that they are cared about. It’s about devising social norms at work that seek to increase collaboration and contribution, calling out the good and being appreciative of help given freely by others.

A safe environment with high psychological safety grants permission (and the expectation) that it is normal to have open and honest conversations about feelings and struggles. Peer support is a very powerful tool that reduces the sense of isolation felt when mistakes have been made, or someone admits they have too much on their plate and need help. A proactive stance works to minimise the impact of stress before it has an opportunity to morph into mental illness or burnout.

“Checking the Pulse” is a good way of using informal conversations between employees and their managers to find out what if any issues are occurring, listening to concerns and then being seen to take action. The simple question “how are things going and is there anything I can help you with?” is non-threatening and helps individuals to know they are seen as people and not just cogs in the machine. Education and training around stress management, mental health first aid and burnout prevention are opportunities for greater understanding and reduction of stigma. Buddying up or being allocated a mentor is a powerful way to build a trusting relationship that can assist younger female employees develop their self-confidence and competence.

The manager has been identified as the person with the greatest influence on how an employee will perform. When the manager is well trained and has the people and social skills required, they know their staff well enough to identify changes in performance that can lead to early intervention if required. This isn’t about the manager providing therapy but ascertaining if the employee needs or wants help and then directing them to the right place and person to help.

HER: How can organisations more effectively confront the issues related to workplace anxiety and depression among young women?

Dr. Jenny Brockis: THE most important thing is to talk about it. Mental health challenges are VERY common. With one in two women currently dealing with a mental health challenge, it’s vital we get better at having open and honest conversations, so it becomes normal to talk about what’s real for you. This matters because the stigma around mental health issues and burnout remains (and is felt particularly by the person concerned) There is a lot of shame and guilt that can prevent individuals from speaking out. Review workloads. It’s not acceptable to be taking on the additional burden of another person’s role in addition to your own. If it’s too much this needs to be discussed with the leader manager to see what can be done to lighten the load.

  • Review processes that may be unnecessary, outmoded and contribute to high stress. like too many unnecessary meetings! Ensure deadlines are realistic.
  • Ensure lunch breaks are taken as well as annual leave when due.
  • Enable flexible work options where possible. Is working from home an option, or hybrid work? Find out what works best for them and see if this can be made to work.
  • Ensure support is always there. Whether it’s the leader, boss, supervisor, or colleague, this is a joint venture where each person is looking out for the health and welfare of each other. Are you encouraged “to leave on time”?
  • Are you encouraged NOT to take work home to do in the evenings or on the weekends just to keep on top of everything.
  • Ask the individual or team to brainstorm ideas they think would help. Get them to identify the top three and then experiment to see which works best. Review regularly and repeat.
  • Establishing regular check ins and provide the support as required.
  • Educate how the risk of mental health issues changes over the lifespan. Pregnancy, the menopause, and gynaecological problems such as heavy painful periods, endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome are examples.

Not everyone with mental health challenges has to take time off from work Many are able to continue to work normally. They may be on medication. They may be seeking professional health but it doesn’t impact their ability to function normally. There is a spectrum of mental health from good to poor. What differentiates where a person sits on the spectrum at any given time will depend on their raft of wellbeing strategies they use to nurture coping skills and resilience.

Encourage strong social networks. Having a friend (or more) at work can make dealing with challenges easier. You have someone to talk to and someone who will sit and listen (without interrupting). Feeling heard and sharing your feelings in this way can enable the person affected to resolve the issue more readily on their own without further intervention. It meets our fundamental human needs of being seen, heard, and understood.

HER: What strategies can women employ to advocate for their own mental well-being at work, especially in the context of the growing trend of “quiet quitting”?

“Quiet quitting” is having a moment. The trend of employees choosing to not go above and beyond their jobs in ways that include refusing to answer emails during evenings or weekends, or passing up extra tasks that fall outside their position, is catching on, especially among Gen Z.)

Dr. Jenny Brockis: This is a survival strategy. When overwork and stress is getting to the critical zone and the option to leave the job is not available, the way to manage this is quiet quitting or “the right to disconnect.” Rest and time for recovery is essential for optimal performance. Time out and switching off from work is essential to mental and physical health.

The right to disconnect is now being taken up globally with a number of countries now legislating it. What it means is, that once an employee has finished work for the day and gone home, they are not required or expected to attend to out of hours phone messages and emails etc (except in an emergency) Here in Australia some organisations including the Victorian police and Queensland teachers are implementing it. It’s a really good way of ensuring you switch off from work completely, meaning you will wake up more refreshed, rested, and able to perform at your best in the day ahead. It shouldn’t be a “nice to have” but an essential to every healthy organisation.

Beyond quiet quitting at work and choosing not to work outside contracted hours the other things to consider are

  1. Engaging in a non-work activity that makes it impossible to be thinking about work or worrying about the email that arrived at 10.30 pm If you’re doing something that’s fun, that makes you happy, stress levels fall, you feel calmer, you retain cognitive clarity so you can keep things in perspective.
  2. Develop a raft of wellbeing activities you can schedule on a regalr basis. It doesn’t matter what, the main thing is to have identified them and then committed to attend. Signing up for classes, joining a social or community event and especially those things that require you to move and be away form a screen.
  3. Choose the healthier lifestyle options. Better diet has been shown to improve mood, thinking skills and focus Being sufficiently physically active releases a cascade of neurochemicals and hormones that increase happiness and contentment. You don’t have to be a gym junkie or have a wardrobe full of active wear to feel the positive benefit of feeling fitter and walking is a great way to start. Many doctors are now prescribing exercise as a way to help allay symptoms of depression, anxiety, and chronic stress. Other doctors are prescribing nature or green prescriptions. Time in nature has long been recognised as having a beneficial impact on our psyche, whether it’s going for a walk in the park, taking a picnic to a nature reserve or enjoying your own back yard, time in a green and blue space has multiple cognitive, physical, and mental benefits.

Sleep is the other essential poor sleep or insomnia is frequently work related. Stress and ruminative thoughts fragment sleep leading to greater irritability poor memory, ineffective learning, low mood, and a heightened risk of developing a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression which have a bidirectional impact Poor Sleep affects our mood. Low mood or anxiety affects our sleep Getting help with sleep if your sleep deprivation is causing you problems with how well you function matters a lot. Talk to your GP who may refer you if necessary to a sleep specialist of for a sleep test to find out what is happening.

HER: Finally, looking ahead, how crucial is it for leaders to prioritise mental health over productivity for women in the foreseeable future?Stress reduction is a personal choice – music, exercise, meditation, reading It’s what you commit to that counts. Socialise. Loneliness is a rapidly growing problem affecting 1:4 Australians, made worse by Covid It too is detrimental to physical and mental health. Catching up with friends, having a laugh, calling up someone you haven’t spoken to for a while all helps. And tell your partner and your kids how much you love them.

Dr. Jenny Brockis: The gender gap in mental health is real and with one in two Australian women dealing with a mental health challenge it is imperative that leaders take an active role in promoting mentally healthy workplaces. Making it a top business priority will serve to reduce the stigma, enable employees to stay mentally fit and to ensure early intervention and access to assistance if and when required. This will serve to reduce the burden of mental health challenges, burnout and chronic stress which is good for the individual, their teams, and departments and for the organisation as a whole. A mentally healthy workplace culture is a competitive advantage and a win for everyone.

For more visit  @drjennybrockis

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