MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

Amy McKeown: It’s Time To Rethink How We Approach Women’s Health and Mental Health 

Amy McKeown is a changemaker and straight-talking mental health and wellbeing consultant who has been working in the sector for nearly 20 years.

In this exclusive interview for Make A Difference News, Amy shares insights into why the pandemic has affected women disproportionately, how employers need to respond and what women can do to help themselves.

First, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became involved in workplace mental health and wellbeing?

I have never not been involved in workplace mental health and wellbeing; it is our family business. I grew up the daughter of a Consultant Psychiatrist who, in the 1980s, specialised in stress, anxiety and depression. In addition to having a private patient practice my Dad also was Medical Director of a number of private Psychiatric hospitals, BUPA’s Psychiatric Advisor and got an honorary degree for putting in the mental health support at AstraZeneca. Conversations over dinner were about mental health, stress, anxiety and depression, the role of health providers and insurers, and what businesses and organisations could do to support their people. 

I spent my 20s running a mental health tech start up. I wanted to take my father’s knowledge and clinical experience around mental health to people proactively and confidentially at work to help prevent problems from occurring. It seemed an obvious thing to do. I built up a decade’s worth of experience in all aspects of organisational health and mental health. 

In retrospect I was 15 years ahead of my time. An attempt to sell my business to the big health insurers failed due to the 2008 recession and I found myself recruited by Ernst & Young (EY) to help them build a digital health business (I have an MSc in Health Informatics; how you use data and technology in business and healthcare). I did big things there, growing the employee-led Mental Health Network from 2 to 500+ people across the UK. I also implemented my health and mental health strategy across 14.5k people in the UK, before being external facing and helping other clients and organisations take the journey we had.

After having my children, I’ve now re-launched my career as an independent consultant and write a weekly blog and vlog on LinkedIn. I regularly share my knowledge skills and experience in, and around, mental health and wellbeing, which receive 1000s of views! Do connect with me if you’re interested to join the conversation. 

At the moment, I consult to many different organisations (of all sizes, from 20 people to global behemoths). I’ve got a couple of case studies on my website for anyone interested in seeing more of my work.

You recently ran a Business of Being a Woman event. Do you think that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women’s mental health? If so, how?

I have always been hugely passionate about women’s health and mental health, and the role of women in both the workplace and society. The aim of my conference was to fill the gap between the current focus on mental health and the ‘Women In’ events which are often very networking focused and masculine.

I wanted to create a space where we could focus on what specific health and mental health needs women have, and what leadership skills and styles women can adopt to enable them to be both successful in their careers, but also present, healthy and embodied. 

The pandemic has had a devastating effect on women’s rights. Evidence from the last year has shown that women have spent more time on unpaid childcare and housework than men (up to 2.75 hours per day extra and 99% of unpaid childcare), were more likely to be made redundant or furloughed, and did more of the home schooling (67% of women vs. 52% of men).

Women have been attending antenatal appointments, giving birth and going through miscarriages alone. Women who have given birth in the last 3 years have had furlough payments reduced. Or if they are self-employed or freelance in some cases these have stopped, due to the inability to show 3 years of consecutive financial accounts. We really are at the most frightening time for women’s rights since the end of World War 2 when women were forced back from the factories into the home. 

This has taken its toll on women’s mental health with women reporting higher anxiety, depression and reported loneliness. My interest in women’s mental health was built long before the pandemic though. Women have always had higher rates of some mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, and in other conditions (bipolar, schizophrenia) can show different symptoms to men.

Then there are the mental health conditions that are unique to women including perinatal and post-natal depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder and perimenopause related depression. I find that often discussions and approaches to mental health both in terms of treatment, but also how organisations deal with mental health in the workplace are often ‘one size fits all’. They don’t take into account differences in mental health conditions, symptoms shown or any impact of gender or women’s hormones. This is something I wanted to highlight and address. 

You can listen to the full recording of the inaugural ‘The Business of Being a Woman’ (for free) via my website.

You’ve also publicly shared your own trauma related to miscarriage. Can you tell us a bit about this and how it has ultimately inspired you to make a difference?

I very sadly had a miscarriage when I was expecting my second child. Having had a completely incident free first pregnancy and birth we were stunned and surprised to find out, at the 12 week scan of my second, that there was no heartbeat. This was the prelude to a hideous couple of months where I waited 10 days to go into labour and deliver our baby, was bedridden for 6 weeks and was haemorrhaging for over 10. Within 3 weeks of my return to work at EY I was put through a redundancy process and subsequently lost my job. I learnt from personal experience the importance of having strong occupational health and wellbeing systems in place. 

I decided to speak publicly about my experience for a number of reasons. The first being that until this happened to me I had no idea of what couples go through during a miscarriage. Despite 1 in 4 pregnancies ending this way, and despite 15 years of work in health and mental health by this point, I had never heard of anyone mention miscarriage as a reason for absence or even mention it at all. I was shocked by both what I had been through and how traumatic it was, but also by the number of people who told me that they had been through something similar albeit often not as extended or difficult.

I felt I was in a position to share my story and experiences in a way that could hopefully break down the silence, help create understanding about what miscarriage is, and give the many people who go through this each year some comfort in that they are not alone. Indeed, now that I have gone public I am frequently contacted by women going through the same thing who want to share their experiences or need support.  I talk candidly about my miscarriage for ITV here

It was important for me to speak as I felt as though I could make a difference. I am a big advocate of women’s rights and women’s health and mental health. By talking I could highlight that there is an issue and encourage other organisations to treat couples who have suffered miscarriage with compassion.

In the UK 54,000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy or taking maternity leave. Miscarriage is a strange one as a woman ends up without a baby or any of the maternity protections; just 2 weeks pregnancy protected time after the pregnancy ends (and when that is, which is a matter of debate).

It’s quite easy to end up, like me, with a pregnancy related illness but no legal protections. And vulnerable, as an employer now knows that you are thinking about having a child. I am working with the charities ‘Pregnant Then Screwed’ and ‘Maternity Action’ to change the Equality Act 2010 as our current definitions of pregnancy and pregnancy-related are vague and outdated (based on the Births and Deaths Registrations Act in 1953). Many thousands of women slip through the gaps each year. 

If you want to get involved or support, you can contact me via https://amymckeown.com/campaign  

Moving forwards, what would you like to see employers doing to proactively support women’s mental health?

The pandemic has thrown working practices up in the air. We have a unique opportunity to change things for the better. Many of the issues I have spent my career dealing with including mental health, gender equality and disability could, if we get this right, be positively impacted as we rebuild. Learning what worked in terms of flexible and remote working and implementing this for the future could open up the workplace to those who have previously been excluded.

More senior, flexible roles, different business models, and a chance to work more on your own terms gives women, carers, people with mental health issues, mobility issues and disabilities a much fairer playing field to build careers. I can’t help thinking this will have a positive impact on mental health.

In terms of women’s mental health, I think employers need to think thoroughly and carefully about the structural challenges of being a woman in their organisation. Getting flexible and remote working practices sorted are definitely a piece of the jigsaw but there are many other embedded issues. The trajectory through many organisations requires big commitments and momentum around the age 35–45, exactly when many women are off having children. Losing that momentum and coming back into a workplace culture often hostile to any form of caring responsibility, life outside of work, or discussion about emotion or feelings can play havoc with women’s mental health and self-esteem.

Taking time to understand the experience of being a woman in the workplace could lead to proactive changes such as creating new policies around menstruation, menopause and fertility. I’d like to see health, mental health and wellbeing strategies containing separate women’s health and mental health components. Not just ensuring that women are more proactively supported around fertility and birth (most health insurance or health programmes completely exclude these) but that women’s needs are represented at every possible point. 

Promotion and prevention activities should include menstrual cycle awareness, menopause and hormonal understanding. Specific nutritional and activity advice targeted at what works for women’s bodies. Health interventions and providers need to broaden with a greater variety of different health approaches offered. For example, most psychological support offered is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy based, a linear, structured therapy.

Women are cyclical creatures that often resonate more with less structured and different approaches. We have come from a place where drugs and therapies have been tested on men’s bodies, so we have little understanding of the impact of hormones or what works best for women physically and mentally. It’s time to rethink how we approach women’s health and mental health from a different perspective. 

Talk to your women. Understand what they need. Understand why they leave. Open the dialogue around their health and mental health. I imagine this will be a shock to many but the more we talk about women’s health, hormones and needs in the workplace, the more we can build the working world to support women. And that also has a positive impact on men.

What are your top tips for how women can maintain their own mental health through the pandemic and beyond?

The most important thing that any woman can do is what I term ‘radical self-care’. Getting to know herself, her cycles, her needs, how to look after herself. And then doing it.

The challenge for women is twofold. 

Firstly, our patriarchal society has encouraged women to put everybody else’s needs ahead of our own. The pandemic has exemplified this with women’s needs and time taking even more of a hit. Taking time out, insisting on our own needs being met, and creating and sustaining boundaries around this can be very hard, be deemed as selfish or have a real impact on a woman’s self-worth.

Many women are taught to derive to validation from how they make others feel or what they do for others, not from how they look after themselves. Looking after our own needs sounds simple but practicing it is not. 

Secondly, women are not taught to know and understand what their needs are. In addition to our society distorting the role of women in it, it has skewed our understanding and beliefs about our own bodies. There is a huge gulf between the sorts of women’s bodies we see in print and on screen, and what a normal human female body is.

This spills over into the relationships women have with food, exercise and how we see ourselves. Likewise, we have been taught to ignore our cycles and hormonal flows (and what our body needs from us at each part) and to carry on regardless, working flat out in an ‘always on’ world. Hormones are something to be ignored or disregarded and certainly not mentioned for fear of looking weak.

Many women are now completely disembodied and unaware of what their physical cues or needs are. We live mainly from our heads and minds. 

To maintain our physical and mental health – for both are always entwined – we need to unpick from the distortions and belief systems, our real needs and what we need for our own self-care. We need to learn to say ‘no’ and protect our boundaries around this. We need to ensure we have space, get enough good quality sleep, drink enough water, nourish ourselves with healthy, wholesome food, and enjoy things like refined sugars, caffeine and alcohol in moderation. We need to spend time with the people we love and do the things that make us laugh.

To work with our cycles and rhythms and to work in environments that support us, doing work that fulfils us. We need to understand who we are so we know when we are off balance and when we need to go to others for support and help (including medical help). Many women need chemical help maintaining their mood but the above all still applies. It’s about knowing who you are and what works for you.

Women’s mental health is, to my mind, a combination of chemical, hormonal, physical, emotional and societal constructs. All interwoven. The best way to maintain your mental health is to understand this and to make empowered, conscious choices about your life and what you need right now. 

About Amy McKeown

Amy McKeown is an award-winning health, mental health and wellbeing consultant. She coaches organisations of all sizes to build strategies with are both innovative and measurable, whilst providing unique expertise in implementing said strategies. Amy is also a respected thought-leader within her field, sharing her advice regularly on LinkedIn and at speaker events such as Mad World.

You might also be interested in these articles:

Interactive Webinar: Understanding the Menopause – How Employers Can Help

How Pearson’s Phased Return to Work Policy Supports Wellbeing of Working Mums