Negative stress at work has always been with us. Whether it is worse for women than men, I don’t know. What I do know is that essentially man or woman, we feel stressed when we feel out of control, when we don't know what will happen next and we aren't OK with that.
Of course this sense of being out of control is familiar to many women, especially senior ones. Many ambitious women feel compromised in their career by their choice to have a family. This is compounded by their reluctance to set boundaries and to ask for help.
What can we do to help ourselves as ambitious women to handle stress better?
I think the answer is two fold: Developing counter cultural strategies that increase a sense of control
and having immediate stress reducing practices that reliably calm you in the moment.
Counter cultural strategies
I believe the 3 most effective counter cultural strategies for women are creating an inspiring career vision, setting boundaries and asking for help.
An inspiring vision
Our strategy is informed by our engagement or not with an inspiring outcome that calls to us so powerfully, we will not rest until our real time situation and the desired outcome, look the same. We may not feel able to describe it in terms of a specific role, it might be more like a set of tick boxes that the ideal role would need to have that would confirm your success. Like having executive level responsibility, being taken seriously or being remunerated in line with what you deliver. Whatever those are, you must experience delight when you imagine how it will be when they are all ticked. If your engagement with this outcome is strong you will pull out all the stops to achieve it.
I had a client recently who had been a lawyer. She had two young children and was going through a messy divorce. She was distracted to the extent that she could not be present in our session. I did an exercise where she stood in her future imagining having achieved her dream job, working with threatened animals in the wild. At first she didn't really connect with that future, telling me what she thought she ought to say. Then suddenly as if by magic she connected and really saw herself being that person and excitedly, was telling me what it was like! She was there. Her whole demeanour changed and she was completely present and alive having no problems with descriptions and facts and figures. She knew what she wanted. Deep down we all know what we want.
When she returned to the present she did not forget that vision and remained present and focused on her next step. The anxiety had been replaced by a directed urgency.
Once you have that measure of success, and you are making steady progress towards it, you will feel calm and more fulfilled. Sadly too few of us look at out career in the long term linking the overall ‘why’ of our endeavour, with the ‘what’ of how we will make it happen. Often because our culture tells us it is our job to support others and not out-shine them.
It is that same culture that is responsible for our much documented habits of being reluctant to to set boundaries or ask for help.
If we don't set boundaries, we tend to stay where we are especially if it involves male colleagues taking advantage of our lack of confidence. One women I worked with complained that she was being passed over for international assignments by her male boss, something she found out by accident. When she plucked up the courage to question him and explain that she had taken the role because it could give her the appropriate international experience to move up, he responded positively and delivered within 6 months of the deadline she had set in her mind. She felt much calmer and in control after that!
Asking for help
Asking for help is the other blocker women suffer from. We can feel embattled and undeserving when operating in a man's world. It probably wasn’t an easy ride doing as well as they have, asking for help can feel like admitting defeat or an indulgence we don't deserve. Again there needs to be a shift in mind set that allows a women to enlist the support of the people who can make a difference like mentors, sponsors, champions and executive coaches. Any or all of these can really make a difference to what is possible for a woman in a company. She can get different perspectives, useful connections and greater opportunities, bringing self awareness, confidence and of course a greater sense of being in control. We need to ask ourselves why we wouldn't deserve it.
Immediate stress reducing strategies
In fact there is a similar theme here. To reduce stress at the rock face, regardless of the bigger picture there are a couple of techniques that I find work well and they both involve different ways of operating in the present.
The first is mindfulness. Easy to say and pretty challenging to do. But of course there is an app for that! One I have found really effective is Headspace With 10 free introductory 10 minute sessions it gives you immediate respite from a racing, distracted mind. All the people I have spoken to have foundit an effective way of calming down and getting things in perspective.
The other approach that also works very well is EFT Emotional Freedom Therapy or tapping. It involves giving your level of anxiety/stress a number out of 10 then tapping on certain meridian points on your head and upper torso whilst verbally accepting completely how you are and how you are not. I haven't met anyone who has not found it helpful to bring down their level of anxiety. Whilst we may be able to hold it together at work, it is ofetn during the private hours, when we are alone, that the anxiety provoking thoughts take over making us feel bad about the past or anxious about the future.
Both these techniques bring us into the present focusing on what we can do right now to help us move forward calmly..
Stress is a state of mind
Negative stress is a state of mind characterised by feeling out of control and unable to be present and resourceful. If we can find a way of getting things in perspective by connecting with the why and having ways of calming ourselves enough to connect with that why we have a good chance of handling our stress.