‘Don’t be such a girl’ – how stress is feminised in society

If people don’t tell you they’re stressed, there might be a problem.

In fact, if your employees aren’t talking to you about stress, it could indicate another social problem at play: a tendency to downplay stress for fear of being seen as weak or inadequate in some way (or indeed labelled ‘a girl’ – as my tongue-in-cheek title suggests).

The tendency for people to hide their real self at work is not a new idea. In their recent book, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey make the opening comment that “in an ordinary organization, most people are doing a second job no one is paying them for… spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations” (page 1).

This same phenomenon is what stops us from having real and open dialogue about workplace stress. In 2013, my colleagues and I analysed interview data from 41 stakeholders on workplace stress.  We noticed something interesting about the way that people talked about stress:

When people talked about stress, they conveyed an image of stereotypical feminine weakness that affects only certain (lesser) ‘types’ of people, for example, people with poor coping skills, people who were more vulnerable to mental health problems or people with problems at home.

In other words: we found that stress is feminised in society. (side bar comment: Facetiously, I initially planned to title the study ‘don’t be such a girl’ – how stress is feminised in society’ but was talked away from the idea by my colleagues).

Particularly pertinent to this article, we found that people still perceive stress as an individual rather than organisational problem.  Further, organisations tended to downplay and overlook risks. This in turn, increased worker reluctance to report stressors and created barriers to job stress prevention.

What this means is that, if you hold a position of power in your organisation (and if you are a manager of any level, then this means you), people don’t want to tell you they’re stressed for fear of being labeled as ‘difficult’, ‘overly sensitive’ or – my personal favourite given the recent influx ‘resilience training’ into workplaces – ‘not resilient enough’.

So, as a manager, what can you do?

Don’t ask your employees if they’re stressed because you probably won’t get an honest reply. (“Busy?” – yes. “Flat out?” – Sure. But “stressed?” or “overwhelmed?” – not a chance).

Instead, talk to your people about workload, work hours, lack of control or other prevalent stressors that cause workplace stress and in turn, contribute to the onset of work-related mental health problems.

Or, if appropriate, talk openly about your own experiences of work-related stress. Storytelling is a powerful mechanism for breaking down social barriers to change, particularly by those in a position of power or influence.

If you do choose to talk about your experiences, don’t overemphasise individual factors, like learning resilience or time management skills. Whilst engaging in individual strategies like mindfulness, healthy eating, yoga or cardiovascular exercise can go some way in mitigating the ill-effects of stress, they don’t tackle the problem at its source. And by focusing on factors that are within an individual’s control, we risk worsening the stigma associated with stress by suggesting the problem is one that workers should own.

Instead, highlight the importance of addressing stressors at their source. For example – talk about the importance of having conversations that result in changes to working conditions. This could include working together to agree a realistic workload, prioritising competing demands, delegating or delaying non-core work, reducing over-reliance on email or simplifying decision making processes.

In short, get people to talk about stress more – it is only by talking about the problem that we can achieve real and lasting change.





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