Wednesday, 03 November 2021
Everyone experiences work-related stress, so is it justified to characterise it as a problem that disproportionately affects women? A growing body of research suggests it is. According to the most recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive (based on a survey of 37,000 households over three years), women are 1.4 times more likely than men to experience stress, and women aged 25 and over have the highest levels of work-related stress. This has physiological consequences: women are more likely than men to report side effects of stress, such as headaches, stomach upsets and insomnia.
It’s unclear whether women are so badly affected because of cultural or biological reasons – or even if men feel similarly stressed but are less likely to admit it – but we face some unique difficulties, including sexual harassment, the gender pay gap, and under-representation in STEM industries. When working for a company where 85 percent or more of employees are men, many women experience social isolation, low levels of support and high amounts of performance pressure, leading to an inability to properly regulate the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to disrupted sleep, irritability and, over time, adrenal fatigue.
Women also typically perform double the amount of domestic work as their male partners. “The gender difference is reducing,” says registered occupational psychologist Emma Donaldson-Feilder, “but women are still more likely to be the carers and the ones responsible at home, so they can have more of a juggling act on their hands.”
Nicola Blee is a certified business coach, who specialises in working with female leaders and entrepreneurs. She says both genders are affected by external pressures such as economic insecurity and smartphones, making us constantly contactable. But she thinks women are more affected by internal factors. “I find women will often be more self-critical or self-doubting than men, and that comes from feeling that they need to be perfect.”
That resonates with Áine Mulloy, co-founder and chief marketing officer of social networking app Girl Crew: “When you’re building a company, a lot of the pressure comes from your own desire to succeed. It's harder to step back from stress when it’s self-inflicted.” In the worst-case scenarios, women stop themselves from chasing their career goals. “It’s notable that women are less likely to set up a business than men,” says Blee. “I find many women are held back by the fear that they won't be resilient enough.”
It’s a cliché that a little stress can be good for us but Donaldson-Feilder says being under pressure for short periods of time does help us perform. The problems start when we can’t let go of those stressors. “That puts us in a chronic state of stress response, which keeps our adrenaline and cortisol levels high on a long-term basis. That can disrupt the digestive system, the musculoskeletal system and lead to burnout, which is when you’ve over-stressed and run out of resources.”
She says the first step to tackling work stress is to understand it. “Identify whether this is a fundamental problem or a temporary one, what the causes are and which of those can be mitigated.” Then tackle it as early as possible.
“A lot of people are nervous about saying they've got too much work because they don't want to be perceived as not performing, but having a constructive conversation and presenting some suggestions is more likely to get a good response than saying, ‘Argh, I can’t do it.’”
One of the biggest components of job happiness is having a good relationship with your line manager, Donaldson-Feilder says. “Managers need to understand how to support individuals, how to give them clarity about their role, and how to get them involved in decision-making.” That might be especially important for women, as we release the bonding hormone oxytocin when stressed, which makes us crave emotional connection.
Nicola Blee says there are some situations that almost everyone would find stressful, such as redundancy or selling a business, but the more that people experience such seismic shifts, the less likely they are to feel panicked by them. On a day-to-day basis, Donaldson-Feilder says different types of tasks stress different people out depending on what is asked of them. “Some people can handle lots of challenging customers but find writing a lot of reports difficult, it’s very variable.”
While you can’t avoid every aspect of a job that you don’t enjoy, you might be able to negotiate with your manager or colleagues so your tasks better match your skillset. Stephanie Tasker is a principal recruitment consultant at Sellick Partnership – a high-pressure position that involves meeting clients’ needs while hitting monthly billing targets, but she far prefers it to her previous role managing people. “If someone wasn't working hard, it frustrated me, and I'm quite direct, so I wasn’t the best at approaching those situations.”
Making changes to how we work might lower stress levels, but we need to support our wellbeing, too. Donaldson-Feilder says, “There's increasing evidence that mindfulness meditation and eating well can make a difference, and the benefits of exercise cannot be overstated.” After feeling “emotionally and physically wrecked” at the end of Girl Crew’s four-day launch event last year, Áine Mulloy vowed to take better care of herself. “I’m now more conscious about turning my phone off and getting to sleep earlier.”
Donaldson-Feilder says that turning to loved ones for support is hugely beneficial. “If we’re able to draw on the relationships in our lives, it reduces stress and improves wellbeing.” Nicola Blee says this helps in professional situations, too. “What I see from my clients is that the more women connect and collaborate with other women at work or in their peer group, the better they do.”
Nicola Blee says we can easily become bogged down in daily to-do lists, which adds to our stress and resentment. She recommends working out what we want from our careers long term. “Ask yourself, ‘Who am I? What is important to me? What sets me alight?’ If women know what's important to them, it helps them prioritise.” It also makes it easier to keep everyday stresses in perspective.
If you’re overwhelmed, it might seem like working harder will help, but you’ll only further deplete your mental and physical energy and risk burnout. Sometimes, you need to take a few days off, or even longer. Emma Donaldson-Feilder says, “Having a bit of recovery time allows our bodies to return to a non-fight-or-flight state, which allows us to manage stressful situations.”
We’re too hard on ourselves, says Blee. “Often all we hear internally is our negative voice criticising us.” She recommends we think about the times things have gone well – and keep a visual reminder close by, perhaps a photo or a piece of jewellery that symbolises success. “It helps you tap into that place where you feel like whatever comes at you, you can cope with it.”