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Reasons for Today's Stress Pandemic (and Why High-Achieving Women Suffer the Most)

mindset mastery Jan 23, 2020

It’s a jungle out there
Disorder and confusion everywhere
No one seems to care, well I do
Hey, who’s in charge here…”

Randy Newman, It’s a Jungle Out There

As a consultant, I have exposure to the inner workings of companies of all sizes and in all industries. Over the past few years, I have noticed an increasing trend of excess stress experienced by employees at all levels, particularly at the executive level. While there are many systemic reasons that I can pinpoint for this challenge such as the reduced headcount, higher pressure for short-term numbers, expectations of 24/7 connectivity, the net result is all the same. Stress abounds everywhere – particularly for high achievers.

Regardless of how the excess stress has come to be the impact is significant. There are many studies about the high toll that exhaustion is taking on us as individuals and companies and society on the whole. The experience of time poverty and sleep deprivation is directly correlated to the rise in stress related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, ulcers, obesity and a variety of other medical conditions. On an emotional level, it creates feelings of irritability, depression, anger, hopelessness and that awful feeling of being alone. At the individual performance level, excess stress inhibits quality decision-making, creativity and innovation. At the organizational performance level, teamwork suffers as conflicts as reactive responses become the norm.

What is Burnout?

Stress unchecked leads to a medical condition called burnout or adrenal fatigue. Burnout is what happens when our fight or flight brain is kicked into overdrive due to the excessive resulting in an overabundance of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This creates a system when the adrenal glands become fatigued and are less effective at regulating the internal system that moderates whether or not an email or text is caused for massive alarm.

The Impact of Excessive Stress on High-Achieving Women

“I don’t wanna ‘lean in’. I wanna lie down”

Comedian Ali Wong

The cold hard facts is that while the stress pandemic affects all workers, high-achieving women are paying the biggest price. They are most at risk for burnout and are most affected by its consequences.

High-achieving women have a nearly 40% increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks and are more likely to die within a year of the attacks. They have a 60% greater risk for type 2 diabetes. They are more likely to become alcoholics and/or get an eating disorder (compared to women in low stress jobs.)

What’s also disturbing is that really smart and intelligent people are opting out workplaces that really need their unique feminine perspective. They may say things like I did when I left my high-profile role at Disney that, "I was leaving to be with my kids", the truth is I left because I was burnout. As author Caroline Turner states in her book Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity and Profitability Through inclusion, “I lacked the passion to keep it up.” Or as former Merrill Lynch managing director Roseann Palmieri says, “I’m at the table. I made it it. I’ve networked, I’ve clawed, I’ve said ‘yes’, I’ve said ‘no.’ I’ve put in all this time and effort and I was underwhelmed. What I was getting back was unacceptable to me."

At a very personal level, burnout makes high achieving women who are normally driven and ambitious want to crawl into a hole and give up. Or fall flat on their face in a pool of blood like Arianna Huffington reports in her best seller “Thrive.” Or leave high profile legal careers like resilience expert Paula Davis-Laack. Or walk out on dream jobs at Walt Disney World like me.

Why High-Achieving Women Suffer the Most

There are very good reasons for why high achieving women are burning out at a faster rate than any other demographic group.. And if we are going to find any meaningful solutions we are going to need to face reality of the modern workplace and what gets high-achieving women into this bind because that is the only way to alter it.

The Realities of the Modern Workplace

The modern workplace was created by and designed by men. It is a fact. It’s not a dig against men. It is how the world of work came to be. To explain let me give you a short history lesson on work.

Women have always worked. Working women is NOT a new phenomenon. When society was more agriculturally based, work was divided among genders according to obvious physical differences. Men were larger and physically stronger so the hard labor and hunting fell to them. Women had the children and stayed close to home nurturing them AND doing a lot of other things such as gathering and preparing food, trapping animals, making butter and all of the other tasks that make me super grateful for the modern inventions of the grocery store, microwave and high capacity washing machine.

And as agriculture developed enough to create surplus product, the marketplace was born. Since men did the traveling, men went to market and so the market institutions, rules, laws and habits were created by men for men.

Women started entering the marketplace in the 1940’s during World War II. The physical strength of men was no longer needed to accomplish knowledge based work and so the bonafide job qualifications were leveled. The 1970’s introduced us to the Enjoli woman who could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan (and of course never never for the romance!) and the 80’s brought us the unfortunate office look of shoulder pads and running shoes.

We have come a long way, baby for sure. The workplace is slowly evolving as there are more and more female CEO’s.  Yet we are not there because we are still operating in corporate cultures that are aligned towards how man think and operate vs. how women are wired. This disconnect is a primary culprit for the leaking pipeline as smart women opt out leaving the business-world continually absent of the much needed feminine perspective.

Politically Incorrect

What makes corporate life hard for women is not the tasks and responsibilities that go with the positions. It’s the distinctly male bias of corporate culture that requires a woman to operate in ways that are not supported by her biology whereas her male colleagues natural brain wiring is supported.

While there are variances company to company, there are common attributes of what corporate political correctness looks like. Politically correct leaders are: 

  • Single focused: Pay full attention to one thing, one result
  • Non-emotional: Trust facts over intuition or feelings
  • Competitive: Over-arching drive for productivity and achievement

These attributes of political correctness are the exact same as the way the male brain is wired. You know that phrase “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business” just had to been originally coined by a man!

Woman on the other hand are wired with:

  • Diffused awareness: Pay attention to everything
  • Emotional and intuitive: Trust gut above all else
  • Biologically wired to be pleasing: Overarching desire for connection and being included.

This mismatch between what is valued at the workplace creates the “double bind” which is in essence act like a man and if you do, you’ll be punished for it. If a woman behaves in ways that are consistent with feminine stereotypes she will be liked, but she will not be respected or seen as a leader. If she operates in ways that are more consistent with masculine stereotypes she may be respected but she will also be judged and disliked.

This double bind plays out in many ways but shows up particularly in communication and leadership styles. Deborah Tanner in her book Talking from 9 to 5 explains it like this: “Women are expected to hedge their beliefs as opinions, to seek opinions and advice from others, to be ‘polite’ in their requests. If a woman talks this way, she is seen as lacking in authority. But if she talks with certainty, makes bold statements of fact rather than hedged statements of opinion, interrupts others, goes on at length and speak in a declaratory and aggressive manner, she will be disliked.”

Being disliked and not included creates a survival panic for women according to neurologist Louann Brezendine, MD. She explains in her book The Female Brain that women’s desire to be pleasing is set up for her survival and the survival of her offspring. For example:

  • Women’s ability to hear a broader range of emotional tones in the human voice and read facial expressions enables women to tell what a nonverbal infant needs or what a bigger more aggressive male will do.
  • A woman who is isolated is at risk to threats; whereas a woman in a group with other women is protected (e.g., think of lionesses who hunt together)
  • Being emotional and being able to identify emotional nuance gives “Stone Age women a heads up to potential danger and thus avoid the consequences to themselves and protect their children.”

In a nutshell, the primitive female survival brain says – lose connection and you’re dead.

High Profile Jobs and Women’s Biology

High achieving women pursue and land high profile, high responsibility positions. These types of roles typically require:

  • Long hours
  • Heavy travel
  • Fast-pace (with tight deadlines)
  • Ever changing priorities
  • Huge scope – large number of direct reports, additional responsibilities outside of the “job”
  • Availability and access 24/7
  • Events after work

It’s usually women “of a certain age” that the stress of the job starts to take its toll and it can generally be linked to changes in the status of her personal life. Consider your capacity like a pie. When you were single, you were able to direct that whole pie to your career. When you fall in love, according to Brezendine, the cells in your brain begin to divide between career and attachment to the relationship. In other words your capacity pie is now split in two. When you have a child, brain cells are forced to divide again. Your capacity pie is now split into three or more depending how many kids you have. Sadly, it appears biologically we don’t get a bigger pie or a second pie of capacity….only one. And the cold hard facts is that extra accountability requires testosterone and women only have a fraction of what men have.

Now let’s talk about the mommy brain. When women have children, it changes their brain. Literally. According to Brezendine, “It’s nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species.” Have a child and their chemicals imprint upon you which is why for so many women returning to the workplace after having a child creates total meltdowns.

The fact is that we can’t have it all…or can’t have it all to the high standards we have to come to expect from ourselves and our work. Or maybe we can’t have it all at the same time. But we try…oh yes we try.

We try to be the perfect mother and the perfect career woman and always feel like we fall short as our kids are the only ones without the fresh baked goods for the bake sale or without the permission slip that HAD TO BE SIGNED TODAY!!

We feel like we are failing because we are not advancing as quickly as our male peers because we are making the choices to leave work early to attend the school play or care for the sick child. 

We often take on that second shift when we get home at the end of the busy day to run errands, cook and help with homework. 

The fact is that life becomes more complicated when you are juggling multiple responsibilities in different areas of your life. It is one thing to go on a business trip when you have a full-time partner at home to handle everything while you’re gone. If you don’t have that, a business trip becomes a logistical challenge having to figure out childcare and a variety of other details. That Enjoli woman has done us a huge disservice because we are set up for a ideal that impossible to achieve given our biology. 

Help wanted

The solution isn’t for women who really want to work, achieve and create to stop working simply because they don’t FEEL that have any other options. The key is getting help.

  • Help for your burnout and reversing the impact that is having on your body.
  • Help with your responsibilities and all that you have on your plate.
  • Help with getting to clarity on what really matters most.

And helping with creating positive change for the next generation of women. Like the suffragettes and feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan paved the way for women to even ascend to the type of positions we now hold, it is our job to advocate for positive change in our own worlds first and then the workplace through our example.

The Solution: Success On Your Own Terms

Creating success on your own terms that is not just for you. It is an act of public service for our future generations of women who need us to crack the code on how to show up in our work in the fullness of who we are – with our inborn and feminine strengths. If we cannot find workplaces that supports our innate biology, we need to create our own.

For you, there are no perfect easy answers. You have to figure out what works for you.

For the workplace, we need to stop dancing around the reality of our gender differences. We should not be making women men nor should we be making men women. It is to blend and honor both genders because we need the masculine focus and bias for action and the feminine intuition and bias for inclusion.

It is an amazing time for women in leadership. Glass ceilings are starting to shatter. We can only capitalize on the opportunity that it creates if we can figure out how to accept and then transcend the realities that we are dealing with.

For Reflection and Action:

  • Are you experiencing unusual amounts of stress and exhaustion? 
  • Do you think you could be dealing with the medical condition of adrenal fatigue (aka burnout)?

If so, let me give you three suggestions:

  1. Take action to reverse your burnout. Don't wait. It's a medical condition that left untreated will only get worse. Find a integrative health doctor (like my favorite Dr. Sangeeta Pati at the Sajune Clinic in Baldwin Park, Florida) who will take your symptoms and treatment seriously. 
  2. Use your burnout as a catalyst for you to transform your career into something that better supports your natural wiring and gifts. Burnout can be a gift that invites you into greater success on your own terms. 

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