Since graduating with an honours science degree in pure mathematics 30 years ago, Jan Swinhoe has blazed an enviable path through the actuarial, superannuation and banking worlds and is now relishing multiple board roles.
Looking back, the 61-year-old says one of the low points in her career was when she gave birth to her twins, Eloise and Charlie, in her early 40s, just a year after she had her first child, Catherine.
“I absolutely adored them so I put them first and put myself last, but in hindsight I wasn’t coping well, I was getting up at five and not eating anything until lunch or even mid-afternoon,” said Ms Swinhoe, who was once general manager of Westpac Private Bank.
“Once I had my twins, we went from an easily manageable life to a very out-of-control life … it was the first time I had felt things were out of my control and it made me stressed and anxious.”
An analysis of 30,000 health assessments of Australian executives conducted between 2013 and 2017 by Executive Health Solutions (EHS) has found that female executives in their 30s are three times more likely to show symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression than their male counterparts.
In the 30 to 40 age group, about 7 per cent of women, compared to 3 per cent of men, had “significant” mental health issues. The findings are important because while other reports rely on surveys or data generated in clinics and hospitals, these were obtained via objective health assessments of executives across a wide spectrum of industries.
Organisational psychologist Paul Flanagan, who sits on the EHS board, said women were more stressed and anxious in their 30s – and 40s – because of gender roles and the pressure to excel in their careers while raising children.
The data showed female executives in manufacturing and engineering were significantly more stressed than their counterparts in other industries, but age groups had a greater impact on the outcome.
Mr Flanagan said women in their 40s were 1.5 times more likely to show signs of stress, anxiety and depression than men, but women in their 50s, had about the same rate.
“Organisations need to understand the wellbeing of senior people has a big impact on the wellbeing and the performance of the whole organisation because they set the climate, the environment, so it must be managed,” he said.
He said employers must provide flexible work arrangements for both men and women so that it’s normalised.
“They must also look at performance expectations and accommodate people at different times of their lives,” he said.
“My advice to women is that they need to test their organisations to see how flexible they are in accommodating their needs.”
A recent survey of more than 2000 working women aged 16 to 40 found 90 per cent believed that flexibility was “important”, but only 16 per cent “strongly agreed” they would have access to the necessary flexibility when needed.
Co-author Professor Rae Cooper, from Sydney University’s Business School, said women in their 30s were among the most stressed labour market participants, especially if they’re a mother and working a full-time job.
“Organisations need to provide more flexible working options and partners need to step up and share the care of young children so women in their 30s have a stress-free professional and family life,” she said.
Valeria Ignatieva, co-founder of DCC Jobs that pre-screens employers on aspects such as paid parental leave, pay equity and flexible working, said more and more female executives were balancing careers and families.
“Some examples include job sharing at NAB and [pharmaceutical company] MSD providing flexibility in roles where traditionally this was not common,” she said.
“It’s also important to ensure that women are not discriminated against in the interview process if they are expecting. Laing O’Rourke and HSBC are great examples of employers providing workplaces where women can advance their careers and have a family.”
This piece by Esther Han was originally published on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, 20 March 2018.