The female leader’s stress toolkit

Cropped shot of a mature businesswoman looking stressed out while working in her office at home, menopause at work

Article by Kate Hesk, CPO and founder, Cognomie

Stress manifests in many forms.

Each of us as humans has different triggers and vulnerabilities to it – it’s hugely personal. And while some of us may have a narrative of “thriving under stress” the truth is, too much of it can lead to an overloaded nervous system, burn out and longer-term health issues.

In 2019/20 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases. It also caused 55% of all working days lost due to work-related poor health. How do we keep the relationship between stress and the workplace from going toxic?

McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report found that while senior leadership for women is improving, the gap in burnout between women and men almost doubled in 2020- 21. And, last year, one in three women considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career.

The same report found that employees with female managers are more likely to say their manager has helped and supported them – whether it’s offering emotional support or checking in on well-being, managing work-load or navigating work-life issues.

Here’s the thing about female leaders and stress. While we’re excellent at investing -through time and energy – the critical work of supporting our teams, we often do this at the expense of our own well-being, taking on more stress as a result. The adage you can’t pour from an empty cup  rings true simply because it is. So how can we manage our own stress levels as leaders, staying replenished and topped up in our well-being?    

Perspective as a superpower – Harnessing your perspective as issues arise can really help you create distance from stress – or stressful situations. Notice when it’s happening, pause and try to delineate your thoughts and response. When you step back, and look inwards, you can acknowledge the situation rather than be consumed by it. Know you are not your thoughts.

Understand where your stress and emotions are coming from too: are they environmental or could they be physiological? For many female leaders, the reality of peri/ menopausal symptoms can add another of stress to our working lives. And while efforts are in place to normalise conversations around menopause at work, the impact on our emotional, mental and physical health cannout be underestimated. Investing in coaching around menopause, and creating a personal plan to navigate this time of change can be a powerful step helping you manage this. 

Connection is a huge part of perspective. Invest in connecting with peers and likeminded women in leadership cultivate that community, support and accountability where you can have conversations around stress and leveraging it openly.

Courage to seek support – As women, nurturing others while neglecting our own needs is sadly, a legacy blueprint of culture and society. When we’re spinning all the plates, it often feels uncomfortable to ask for something for yourself.  But overwhelm can quickly move to burnout as it’s cumulative. This, in turn, compounds because of everythng we’re dealing with – at work and home. Have the courage and confidence to ask for help; as leaders we’d never expect our teams to manage alone, and stress is not a failing, rather a normal part of a full life.

Build your own trusted support team. This could be working with a coach or a thinking partner who holds that space for quality conversatiions  that support your own self-awareness, reflection and growth.

Control what you can control  – By focusing on the things that are within our control, we can again regain a sense of agency and self-efficacy – to empower, regain confidence, restore a sense of inner balance against a backdrop of external stressors. If we look at relationships at work, for example, it’s so easy to feel you have to take responsibility for another person’s feelings, reactions or responses to a situation. Ultimately, we can’t be responsible for a colleague’s set of circumstances beyond our control. Focus on what’s working within the relationship so that you can have the impact you want, affecting change within your capability.   

Reconnect to your values

This is a huge part of the resilience work I do with clients. When stress escalates, we need to remind ourselves why we’re here, and refocus on meaning and our sense of purpose.

This could start in the smallest way by setting an intention for the day.

Think: what do I want out of this meeting? How do I want this conversation to go? Make it super-micro in this moment: what’s the next positive step I can take towards this task or goal?  

Connect to joy

Stress turbocharges a sense that your agency and control are being stripped away from you.  Feeling in flow and alignment counters this.  What lights you up? What brings you joy?  A great anti-stress strategy is to connect to joy in small, meaningful ways throughout the day. This could be a coffee with a colleague at the start of the day, a lunchtime walk, leaving a voicenote for your close friend.

Pay attention to what reconnects you with joy and commit to creating more of those throughout your day. 

Bringing these strategies together can help you create a powerful resource to dip into throughout those sticky, stressful moments that have become of our working lives. By noticing when “good stress” tips into “bad stress” you have that presence to manage it effectively and fully.

What’s more, by modelling this behaviour for your team, you’re giving other people permission to do the same, and reset the culture around stress in the workplace.

You can find out more about managing stress here.

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