In focus

Why are British women so sad right now?

A global health index shows that female wellbeing is falling faster in the UK than the EU – could the largest gender health gap in global advanced economies be responsible, asks Katie Rosseinsky

Monday 13 May 2024 15:29 BST
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A new study has found that UK women are sadder and more stressed out than those in Europe
A new study has found that UK women are sadder and more stressed out than those in Europe (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

How are you feeling? If you happen to be a woman from the UK, there’s a reasonable chance that your honest answer is something along the lines of: “Not that great, actually.” According to the Hologic Global Women’s Health Index, an annual survey that explores female wellbeing around the world, UK women are sadder and more stressed out than their counterparts in the EU. Sigh.

The statistics make for pretty depressing reading – but they might not be all that surprising to women (they may even tally with your own anecdotal experience). Thirty-two per cent of the survey’s British participants revealed that they had felt sad on the previous day, compared to 21 per cent three years earlier; just 26 per cent of the EU women surveyed reported the same feelings in the recent study. Thirty-nine per cent of UK women had experienced stress the day before, while the European average was 34 per cent.

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What’s even more concerning is that worry, stress, anger and sadness levels among British women have all increased since the study was launched in 2020 – yet they’ve dropped across the rest of Europe. Put simply, we’re continuing our own downward spiral while things are apparently looking up elsewhere. Overall, the UK ended up ranking 22nd out of 31 European countries when it came to women’s emotional wellbeing, beaten by countries like Ireland, Poland, Lithuania, Germany and (perhaps unsurprisingly, given how often they score highly in various quality of life league tables) the Scandinavian nations.

All of this paints a worrying picture – so why might British women be feeling so despairing? Let me count the ways. The cost of living crisis disproportionately affects women, who tend to be paid less and face greater job insecurity. In many ways, the problems seem to have been more pronounced here than in Europe. The inflation rate climbed higher, as did energy prices, which also took longer to fall than they did on the mainland. Previous research from the charity Mind found that 74 per cent of women in England and Wales feel that their mental health has been negatively impacted by the rising cost of living.

Meanwhile Hologic, the company behind the survey, has suggested that the UK’s relative standstill when it comes to improvements in women’s healthcare is a driving factor, as our country is “being leapfrogged by other[s]”. Senior NHS consultant Geeta Nargund, who is the medical director of abc ivf, seems to agree. “That British women feel sadder and more stressed than their European counterparts unfortunately comes as no surprise in the context of a country with the largest gender health gap in the G20 and the 12th largest globally,” she says.

Waiting times for women’s health treatments are getting longer
Waiting times for women’s health treatments are getting longer (Getty)

Delve into the statistics and the scale of this inequality is quite staggering. In 2017, Public Health England found that women can expect to spend a quarter of their lives in ill health, compared to one-fifth for men. Nargund notes that women with a total blockage of the coronary artery are 59 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed than men, and that it tends to take eight years for women to be diagnosed with endometriosis, which can cause severe pain and fertility difficulties. And that just takes account of the women who carry on pushing to receive a proper verdict from doctors – many give up or put off making an appointment because they worry that their symptoms won’t be taken seriously.

And once you have got your diagnosis? Increased pressure on the NHS means that there are long wait times for women’s health treatments, explains Dr Claire Merrifield, GP and medical director at healthcare testing company Selph. “In 2022, the median wait time for gynaecological services in hospitals doubled from 6.9 to 13.7 weeks, with over 300,000 women waiting longer than a year to see a gynaecologist compared to just under 1,000 in 2019,” she says. “With this pressure on specialist services there is little provision for medical support around fertility and the perimenopause, which can both be significant causes of stress and affect wellbeing.”

Men have typically been treated as the default patient when it comes to medical care and research; less than 2.5 per cent of publicly funded research in the UK explores reproductive health – that’s despite the fact that one in three women can expect to deal with a gynaecological issue in their lifetime. The result is that women find themselves navigating a system that was never really set up to work for them. This can be a deeply frustrating experience – but isn’t it the same all around the world?

Not quite. Other countries are taking steps to close the gap, Nargund says, citing the example of Spain, which has become “the first European country to provide menstrual rights in the workplace, allowing anyone with disabling periods [to take] time off work, fully paid and funded by the welfare system”. Denmark, meanwhile, offers “a full range of reproductive health treatments within their healthcare system, including infertility treatments”, Dr Merrifield adds (the cost of three cycles of IVF for a first child, for example, is covered). In comparison to other countries, she notes, the UK tends to “have a reactive mindset when it comes to women’s health” – we tend to “only seek support when there is an issue”, rather than being checked out for future problems. “Many other countries adopt a more proactive approach with routine check-ups providing the opportunity for education, early support and preventative screening.”

Our working culture means that we might work longer hours or have less of a work-life balance than our continental counterparts

Georgina Sturmer, counsellor

There are other factors at play beyond the healthcare system too. “In the UK, while women arguably have more opportunities than ever before, there are huge pressures on our shoulders,” says Georgina Sturmer, a BACP accredited counsellor. “Our working culture means that we might work longer hours or have less of a work-life balance than our continental counterparts,” she adds (think of Scandinavian countries where work tends to finish at 5pm on the dot, or even the French’s much-parodied insistence on logging off for long summer holidays).

Women feel the impact of this acutely, as they often carry the extra burden of childcare, housework and other caring responsibilities (such as looking after ageing parents). The UK’s childcare system is one of the most expensive in the world, and the high cost means that some new parents are priced out of returning to work. It tends, of course, to be women who put their careers on hold to look after their children (which works for some mums, yet might be frustrating for others). Countries like Denmark have a more balanced parental leave policy, which doesn’t assume that one parent will do the lion’s share of caring from the start.

So what can be done to improve this frankly dire state of affairs? Investing more in women’s healthcare and preventative testing could help, suggests Dr Merrifield, as it would better support around the time of perimenopause (this “can improve mood and reduce the risk of developing health conditions like anxiety and metabolic syndrome”, she says). More affordable childcare and shared parental leave would be positive steps, too. But you’d be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu when you hear those potential solutions – campaigners have been banging the drum about these issues for years, but progress just doesn’t seem to be happening. Perhaps the study will serve as a wake-up call – either way, a flight to Denmark is looking more attractive by the minute.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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