When Naina Bhatia (32) had a breakdown earlier this year, she linked it to her recent promotion. While she had been able to manage her own workload, the challenges of managing her team coupled with responsibilities at home had taken their toll, leading to severe burnout. "It felt like I was expected to understand and help everyone - at work and at home. But I wasn't getting any help as such, nor did I think of asking for it," she recalls. Naina's narrative brings to the fore issues that working women commonly face - increased responsibilities at home and at work. Dual responsibilities can increase stress, compromise physical and emotional health, and lead to burnout and lower work productivity. In a typical Indian household, a woman will be found juggling household chores, jobs, and other domestic responsibilities.
Experts throw light on how women leaders can manage their stress better.
Dr Kersi Chavda, Consultant Psychiatry, P.D Hinduja Hospital & MRC, DPM, FIPS, FIAPP, FAPA believes that, in theory, gender has nothing to do with being able to handle stress – both men and women experience stress at the same level. In his opinion, the problem happens in a family setting where a woman has to look after the children or elders and inevitably becomes the primary caregiver. "After a long day at work, the woman has to look after the kids, their studies, cooking, medical needs of the elders, etc. This whole dictum of the woman being the engine of the house is probably what causes a woman to act like a 'superwoman'. And this is what causes the stress to increase," he explains.
An interesting study was conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Researchers played an infant crying sound and recorded the neurological and physiological responses of expecting mothers and fathers. The study revealed that men's physiological responses to this stressor were higher. In fact, most men excused themselves from their ongoing activity as they could not regulate and manage their emotions.
Explaining why that is the case, Samriti Makkar Midha (she/her), Psychologist (Clinical) & Psychotherapist, Co-founder & Partner, POSH at Work says, "Research hasn't proven that women are more emotional. Women express their emotions more as it's a byproduct of how society reacts to men and women's emotional expression. Women are more attuned to listening to others and using a lot of emotional vocabulary. This means that women are likely to express more stress as they are compassionate and available to others. As a result, they might not be able to get their work done on time."
Makkar further reasons that since women are empathetic, people will open up and talk about their demands, stressors, etc. And hence, women managers end up shouldering more responsibilities as they might not want to burden their team members. "If they are in senior positions where they have to delegate work, it means they would need to have those difficult conversations and pull more weight. And they might feel guilty about doing that," she adds.
The question of culture
Women are rising every day as stronger, competent leaders, taking on the extra work that comes with it. But this also implies that there are stressors at the leadership level. Leading a team can be inspiring, rewarding, yet exhausting. Busy working environments can foster hustle culture and leave little time for leaders to check in with colleagues and ensure they're feeling happy, creative and on track. And this is where management teams come into play. "Management teams must recognise and generously delegate responsibilities, allow flexibility and more paid leaves. Transparency, constructive criticism, trust and up-scaling are some important things to keep in mind," says Manavi Khurana, Founder & Counselling Psychologist at Karma Center for Counselling & Wellbeing.
With most leadership teams still being male-dominated, female leaders also feel lonely at the top with the pressure to 'fit in'. Makkar, who works with a lot of female leaders who are CEOs and board members, says that it is nearly impossible for female leaders to be vulnerable and talk about their difficulties on the home front. "If a male leader ends up talking about how he wasn't able to get enough sleep as his baby was crying, the rest of the team will not comment and empathise, but if this would be said by a woman, they will tell her that she isn't cut out for being a part of the leadership team," Makkar explains.
She goes on to say that there are multiple micro-insults and invalidations that a female leader faces, which causes stress. There are backhanded compliments, sexism, sexual harassment, trivialisation of hard work and gender bias that successful women and working women deal with on a regular basis. To mitigate these difficulties, Makkar shares a few resources and tools, saying, "There need to be EAP systems, employee resource tools, build support systems, communities for women in leadership positions. Women need to have allies at the workplace - someone who can call it out while it is happening."
Building gender equity
While the media portrays that there are a lot more female leaders, equal pay is the norm, and there are equal opportunities for women, the reality is much different, according to most experts. Gender equality is a right, but gender equity is not yet a standard and needs to be built into our cultural fold. As Dr Chavda explains, workplaces need to understand that what a woman experiences physiologically and also on the domestic front is different from what a man goes through. "And hence, the management teams at work need to be a little more understanding and supportive of women at the workplace. There can be some flexibility of letting women work-from-home or allowing them to come in a little late in certain situations. And all of this needs to be done without making the woman feel guilty," he adds.
Makkar illustrates the idea of gender equity with an example, "Imagine there's an opportunity to travel overseas for a client meeting. The manager opens it up to the team and asks those interested in travelling to raise their hands. Men will be the first to raise their hands, while women will hesitate. Women won't hesitate because they don't want to travel. But they need to check with nannies, in-laws and parents to ensure that everything will be fine when they aren't there. The manager needs to understand that women need time to make these decisions, and they need to give adequate time."
Makkar believes that situations like these stress women out as basis such instances, organisations label married women and mothers. "The managers will bring up such instances during quarterly reviews and appraisals and say that the woman isn't a go-getter, lacks initiative, takes time to do her job, is unsure of herself and that she isn't driven. All of this negatively impacts the woman's psyche, and the problem with her appraisal and career progression lead to immense stress and anxiety.
Building understanding in the family
Anita Bhatt, 34, decided that she wanted to continue working after having a baby. While there was support from the family, there was still an expectation that she must 'spend enough time' with her child, despite her having a tremendous workload. "There were constant interruptions during calls - be it for deciding the menu for dinner or asking what my son should wear for the birthday party. It became frustrating to a point where I started questioning my decision to continue working," she reveals. This is a common scene in most households wherein a woman's work is trivialised, and it is presumed that she can multi-task and juggle everything.
Arushi Sethi, the founder & CEO, Trijog - Know Your Mind, articulates this mindset by saying that a woman's identity as a caregiver is prefixed and pre-decided. "While women do have expectations from themselves, there are expectations that the society has from them, and when both multiply, stress is triggered," she elucidates. She adds that there is also an expectation from the family that women have to be great and perfect at what they do. "The problem is the words 'have to' as that adds on to the demand," she emphasises.
While a change in attitudes in families is necessary, families need to understand that women need time to wind down and focus on their own needs and their mental and physical health. As women end up multi-tasking constantly, they face anxiety and guilt of not having done enough, leading to stress. Dr Chavda opines that women need to start drawing boundaries and being assertive both at home and at the office. "Women need to stop feeling the need to be a superwoman, and they need to realise that they can't always be available," he says. Makkar stresses that family members need to divide responsibility as there is a lot to be done. "Also, don't shame and guilt women into not doing enough," she says.
Sethi also lists some simple ways to manage stress:
Manage physical health
Do some form of workout atleast for 10 to 15 minutes and eat right
Manage emotional well-being
Take a mind shower by practising gratitude or going to therapy
Stay socially connected
Speak to your friends or family, connect with a loved one
Engage in spiritual practice
Do meditation or breathing exercises