What’s Unique About Stress in the Lives of Working Women?

What about Stress and WorkLife Balance.

This is a notable week for working women. Maria Shriver hosted the California Governor’s Conference for Women, which highlighted the Shriver Report.  On the East coast, Carol Evans is currently hosting the Working Mother Media 100 Best Companies Work-Life Congress in NYC.  I will be attending a luncheon tomorrow honoring Wendy C. Breiterman – the Director, Global Work/Life Strategies for Johnson & Johnson.  She will receive the Ted Childs Work Life Excellence Award.  Wendy is known for her passion, holistic vision and collaborative approach to supporting the needs of employees. She designed many of the company’s groundbreaking Work/Life programs and played a pivotal role in creating the LIFE 360™ Work/Life brand, spearheading a study of the value proposition for workplace flexibility, and expanding flexibility across Johnson & Johnson. Wendy not only ‘gets it’.  She ‘does it‘!  Congratulations.  


So today lets get a conversation going about women, stress, business and work-life. 

We’re all stressed. Stress is an epidemic! Whether it’s the formidable challenges of our economy, your fast paced fiercely competitive 24/ 7 global workplace environment, concerns about job security, the threat of local and global terrorism, being single, being partnered, death, care-taking responsibilities, jugging diverse demands, communicating effectively with others, politics on the job, harassment, divorce—daily hassles and the expectations we have of ourselves and of others—stress is the inevitable!   

While there isn’t any silver bullet to eliminate stress from life, you can’t afford the cost of letting stress sabotage your energy, health, joy, performance or business results.   


Ultimately, stress is less about what happens to us and more about how we relate to it. How much stress we experience—our stress levels—is determined by how we perceive, process and respond to things that happen inside and outside our bodies. 

Stress doesn’t just happen. Living with the inevitable stressors in life is not about being a thermometer or bystander, talk about being stressed. The key is live and function as a highly engineered thermostat.  Effortlessly and almost unconsciously regulating your mind and body responses not just having harmful reactions to the stresses in your life.  You need to know that stress is not an event–it is a mind-body process.

The stress process is influenced by a ‘cause’ & ‘effect’ relationship between triggers/stressors and responses.  Triggers can usually be categorized into one of four types:


Acute: Life’s disruptions- unexpected happenings

Chronic: Life’s disparities- expected but tolerated situations, ongoing annoyances in your life.

Traumatic: Natural and manmade disasters- can lead to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)


Major life events: Marriage, divorce, death


When your mind consciously or unconsciously appraises a trigger as exceeding your capacity to deal with it, one or more of the four typical responses occurs:



Biological: Heart beating fast, sweaty palms, headaches, chest pain, GERD

Emotional:  anxiety, irritation, moodiness or depression


Psychological: forgetfulness, lack of creativity or concentration, rumination

Behavioral: Eating disorders, substance abuse, procrastination

Gender influences stress in the lives of all women in the workplace: executives, managers, support staff, workers on production lines, and the service side of the cafeteria line. The triggers and the experiences may differ, but the affect on health is often the same.  Heart disease he number one killer of men and women in the United States.   In this regard we are all created equal!   It is not a coincidence that we are experiencing an epidemic of stress and cardiovascular disease in our society.   I see it everyday in the Emergency Room. 


Why Focus on Gender & Stress in the workplace?  It’s just another cut at understanding organizational performance.  Not only do women face challenges and stressors that are unique, but also our very nature makes our experience of those stressors different from men’s experience. In social science, gender refers to socially constructed differences between men and women that go beyond the hardwired biological differences. Here is what we know about gender differences, stress and the bottom line for organizations.   Differences influence:

1.Team composition and business performance outcomes 

2.Unconscious societal norm based gender roles 


3.Types of stressors to which individuals are exposed 

4.Salience/meaning attached to same stressors

5.Coping mechanisms including “tend & befriend’ response


6.‘Tie strength’ in developmental/mentoring cross gender relationships


Here are a couple of demographic changes have had a profound effect on stress in the lives of women and company performance.  First, more workingwomen have risen to positions of authority, responsibility, and leadership.  In a study examining stressors in leaders, men cited stress related to the politics of the organizations, specifically regarding their path to personal advancement, whereas women leaders cited ‘work-life balance’ as a major stressor.  For many women leaders this also includes care of aging parents.  The second demographic of importance is the incidence of divorce and single parenthood has risen significantly.  There are numerous stressors associated with this trend that influence the workplace.


 Are there differences in how men and women cope with stress?

 In the past, researchers suggested that gender differences in coping strategies arose from the fact that women are socialized from an early age to be more emotional, supportive, and dependent, as compared to men, who are portrayed as independent, rational, and instrumental. More recent evidence shows that women tend to use problem solving—direct and positive actions to deal with problems—perhaps more actively than men do.  Other researchers have found that women are more likely than men to use direct-action coping by working longer and harder.

But there are two coping patterns are seen in women more often than in men that are worth mentioning.   First is the pattern of overcommitment, where the need for control stimulates the thinking, emotional, and motivational component that triggers an enhanced arousal in demanding situations.  Men & women often with Type A behavior patterns have this coping pattern.  However it’s seen more often in women.  Women with this coping pattern have an inappropriately high need for approval and may suffer from excessive competitiveness and hostility, impatience, disproportionate irritability, and, most important, an inability to withdraw from work obligations.   YOU may know someone like this. To these women, commitment means making exaggerated efforts, beyond what is usually considered appropriate. These excessive efforts result from an underestimation of the challenges presented or an overestimation of one’s coping resources, which in turn may be triggered by an underlying need for approval. This is my patient who in the midst of being prepared to go to the cardiac cath lab needs to make ‘one more call’. 


Another gender-specific coping pattern is the strong tendency for women to seek the company and counsel of others—especially other women—when dealing with stress. In general, women maintain closer same-sex relationships than do men. We mobilize more social support during stressful events than men do. This pattern is thought to be due to the oxytocin hormone that is found in small amounts in men, but greater amounts in women. Tend-and-befriend is the name given to this response pattern by UCLA psychologist Shelly Taylor. It’s part of our social understanding that women like to talk and share, but Taylor theorized that this is in fact a unique quality in women, hardwired by biology. 

So lets look at the ‘work-life’ issue.  Work and family are major life roles for most employed adults. For women these roles often conflict and cause pressure.  Role conflict can occur at work, within the family and between work and family roles. Role pressures can be create conflict because of; absolute time (time based), spill over of emotional strain (strain based), or behaviors (behavior based). In several studies role conflict is higher in women than men.  

Here is the deal.  In fact, women do more housework than men do, regardless of their family living situation (married, cohabiting, divorced, living with parents, or single). The “double duty” imposed on employed women has real costs in terms of stress and exhaustion. For example, in households with children, childcare is the most time-consuming and arguably the most important job at home for both men and women, but women spend more than three times as many hours tending the kids as men do. For many of the women I spoke to in the course of my research, work overload resulted from the multiple roles they have to play in life and unclear expectations for each of those roles. Many women cited that they felt they had to work that much harder and longer because they were never fully clear about what was expected of them.  


Here is another important point. Women tend to have an integrated perception of work and family. Men tend not to experience the stress of role overload because they have an independent perception of their various roles—OR –they are less likely to experience possible guilt from not taking on tasks that would create overload. Men tend to be clearer about which situations they have control over, and they are better able to let the other situations go.  In general men have not only work and family to consider–but an additional category ‘self’.  And that’s okay.  In fact that is healthy.  

So here are some tips.  Do not fall into the trap of thinking that a comfortable integration of your work and personal lives is a luxury. As organizations restructure fundamental practices and processes beyond flextime and parental leaves, you must reexamine your personal thinking.  This is not just a woman’s personal issue.  The practice of flexible work is part of the solution.  Forward thinking organizations recognize that there is a difference between offering flexible work and creating a culture that embraces flex.  It’s not where you work but how you work.

I emphasize the importance of differentiating your roles from your identity. A role is usually about the tasks that we perform as a part of your family, an organization, system or team. As women, we often pride ourselves in wearing multiple hats, often simultaneously, which reflect our level of engagement in work, family, or community.  In most instances, my clients have the knowledge and skills to fulfill various roles across the dimensions of life; from their role as Corporate Executive Vice President to organizer of the car pool. Triggers can and will occur, remember stress is inevitable, but a lack of clarification around our evolving identity often creates the most harmful triggers.

Your identity usually creates a true sense of happiness, defined as pleasure and meaning. It is through a clear connection with your true purpose, passions and priorities (what I call your 3P’s) that we are able to derive meaning from daily activities by shifting and maintaining critical identities that shape our lives. For example, work does not have to be a role that generates stress because of conflicted feelings about caring for your toddler. 

Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi makes the argument that work and non-work are not necessarily opposites.  He describes what he calls flow. Flow is a technical term used by psychologists describes an experience that is rewarding in and of itself. It’s the quality of engagement in what you are doing.  When you are loving it and time just stands still.  You are likely to find your flow states when you clearly understand your identity.  When athletes talk about being in flow states or  “in the zone” or “in the groove,” they are completely absorbed in the experience, their minds clear except for the immediate task at hand–and the task doesn’t seem like a burden.  Flow can also describe a benchmark or a standard for positive psychic functioning. In the same way that athletes constantly seek to “elevate their game,” I want you to seek the same satisfactions from work and from life.

So if you are feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, exhausted or anxious when you do too much in too little time. Remember, time is a fixed, immutable commodity. The solution is two-fold. First, consider finding the things that allow you to Flow— in both your work and non-work life.

Second, Do less, not more.  Leslie Perlow of Harvard Business School described “Time Affluence”.  Time is of more value, allowing you to savor and enjoy what’s important in your life. It’s a much better predictor of well-being. Throughout your life, I encourage you to consider mindful engagement in your day-to-day activities and to value interpersonal relationships. Mindfulness is merely the ability to concentrate on the here and now.   You can’t change the past. The future is uncertain. So concentrate on now!  Making the most of now.

What happening with you and how does stress affect your work and non-work life?

Next blog is about how to deal with holiday stress. 


Thanks for reading.