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Can Being the Boss Make You Depressed?

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More power, more problems? Women with the authority to make hiring, firing, and salary decisions tend to suffer from higher rates of depression than both their powerful male colleagues and their lower-rung female coworkers, argues a new study from Penn State University and Iowa State University. Past research has found high levels of job control and authority usually lead to better mental health outcomes—at least among men.

But compared to women with no power to hire, fire, or make pay decisions, women with one or several of those duties suffer from as much as a 16 percent rise in depression-related symptoms, the study shows.

What gives? Social factors and cultural norms make job authority more stressful for women, says study coauthor Tetyana Pudrovska, Ph.D., a sociologist now with the University of Texas. “Higher-status women are often exposed to overt and subtle gender discrimination and harassment,” Pudrovska says. “This contributes to chronic stress that can undermine or even reverse the psychological benefits of job authority.”

Women are expected to show both “feminine characteristics”—nurturing, caring, kindness—as well as leadership characteristics (assertiveness, competitiveness, authority), Pudrovska explains. “Women in authority positions are viewed as lacking the assertiveness and confidence of strong leaders, but when they display leadership qualities, they are judged negatively for being unfeminine,” she says. Meanwhile, guys don’t have to deal with this double-standard, she adds.

How do you fix the problem? Pudrovska says new workplace policies and education interventions could help erode the kind of gender bias that leads to “stressful exposures” for women in powerful roles. The good news: Those kinds of changes may already be taking place. The group of men and women included in the study were born in 1939. Younger women may not encounter the same levels of resistance and stress as their stereotype-redefining forebears, the study authors speculate. 

But what can you and other high-level working women do to combat depression today? Lots of research suggests a good night’s sleep and exercise are good weapons against depression—but if you think you're suffering, see your doctor ASAP. And to lift up your spirits today, try these 5 Mood-Lifting Exercises to Beat the Blues.

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