By Nina Grunfeld

Last month, research carried out over fifteen years on female Danish nurses found that, like men, those who felt themselves to be highly pressurised at work were at almost twice the risk of heart disease as those not under pressure.

So, what to do? We know that women in the workplace feel under stress a lot of the time. They feel overwhelmed by work and frequently under-confident.

Below are 5 ‘rules’ for creating a workplace environment in which women can flourish:

Rule 1: Ensure female colleagues feel confident in themselves

There’s an enormous pressure on women (possibly real, possibly imagined) to ‘fit’ into what is frequently a predominantly male environment, and yet the female members of staff have also been hired for their skills and what they are bringing to the workplace. Three typical complaints we have recently heard from women in the workplace are:

I haven’t found my style of leading, I keep trying to emulate my boss but it doesn’t feel right.

I feel so different from my male colleagues - they don’t understand me and I feel discriminated against.

What’s the point of me changing? The men I work with won’t change.

As you can hear, these women were united in their lack of confidence brought about by their lack of understanding of who they were and how they fit into the puzzle that is work. In each case, the woman was able to find an answer through Life Clubs.

Once the first woman — who hadn’t found her style of leading - realised that her beliefs about leadership were based on assumptions rather than facts she felt confident to lead in her own style which deep down she knew was far more effective than the style of her boss.

Through simple personality typing, the second woman — my male colleagues don’t understand me - understood that she needed acknowledgement in a way that her particular male colleagues didn’t. From that moment on she saw that she could give herself the appreciation she wasn’t getting from them or even just accept that they were different from her and not look to them for positive feedback.

The third woman — there’s no point in changing, the men won’t - soon became aware that it doesn’t matter if the men around change or not: what’s important is that she was able to change, not by accommodating to her male colleagues but by becoming more confident so that she could tackle whatever is thrown in front of her with ease and self-assurance.

Rule 2: Ensure individuals understand how to manage their time

Many women feel they have to work twice as hard as their male colleagues in order to be ‘rated’. They feel overwhelmed by work and may well have the pressure of having to organise a second life too - that of home and family. Three other types of complaints we’ve heard are:

My boss gives me so much to do I’m here ‘til late every night.

I haven’t been on holiday for four years as I’m worried they won’t be able to cope if I do.

I lurch from one deadline to another.

Again with these three women, the underlying message is under-confidence, but in this case it’s overlaid with a lack of understanding of time management skills, which simple training could help with.

For the first woman — who works late every night - it was essential to learn when it was appropriate to say “No” and how to say it as there was always work for her to do. Once her boss realised that she was serious in her new requests he started prioritising what he was giving her so that she could leave on time.

Through realising that her perfectionism and desire to control was creating an unbalanced life for her, the second woman — who hadn’t been on holiday for four years - started looking outwards and saw who else both in (and outside) the organisation could help and support her. She began both relaxing and delegating freeing herself up for outside pursuits.

By learning how to plan, set goals and break them down, the third woman — who lurched from one deadline to another - found her days calmer and easier to manage.

Rule 3: Ensure open lines of communication in every direction

Communication is key in terms of stress. Much insecurity is caused by colleagues not understanding their roles, fearing for their future, not having clear guidelines on tasks and not feeling that work is a friendly environment. Frequently employees mention lack of recognition, difficult colleagues and a lack of involvement in the decision making processes that influence their jobs.

Vericore, a manufacturing division of Novartis, ran Life Clubs for their staff to help with employee engagement as they noticed a drop in morale after redundancies had been made. As Jane Souch, head of HR, commented “The outcome of these sessions was that employees who had worked together for as many as 10 years, and in some cases even 30 years but had never spoken to each other, finally got to know one another and felt more included having not previously been given the opportunity to form these relationships. The feeling of camaraderie and team working was increased throughout these sessions, and subsequent motivation. We now have a happier working environment and workforce and ultimately we believe productivity will follow suit.”

Rule 4: Ensure all staff have a good work/life balance

Frequently HR feel that the ‘life’ part of an employee has little to do with them, and yet it’s an essential part of their work life. Colleagues not performing well will often be having issues at home and, although they may be seen to be putting in the hours at work, may well not be achieving much. Three case histories we have seen at Life Clubs are typical of much of the causes of stress at work.

I have to work so hard that I have no time for social life. It makes me resent work.

I’m feeling stale at work. It’s always the same things to do.

My child failed his mock GCSEs and I know it’s because I’m always stuck at work.

At first sight, this first woman’s complaint — I have so much work that I have no social life - appears a typical time management issue, or possibly one of perfectionism. But it turned out that this particular high-powered woman was really working so hard because she disliked the place where she lived and didn’t want to invite anyone round. Once she moved house, her social life improved and she became happier and more fulfilled at work, with the result her productivity increased as did that of those around her.

The second woman — who felt so stale at work - hadn’t taken a holiday for years as she didn’t have anyone to go with. She’d put so much of her energy into her work that she had no social life. Once she realised that it was her lack of social life that was getting her down, rather than her work, she pushed herself into taking time off work and returned feeling re-energised and creative.

As for the third woman, being a working mother is never going to be easy, but it helps to know what you can and what you can’t change. This woman was blaming work for a problem that she could do something about. In the end she got her son some extra help from the school and understood that she’d have to stop worrying about him because he was now old enough to look after himself.

Rule 5: Ensure a safe environment in which to work effectively

People feel happy and stress-free if they’re listened to, understood, praised, in the right job for their skills and if there are opportunities for growth. Being able to learn and stretch yourself, either through training or personal targets can be inspiring. Making sure you challenge the assumptions of your team about their views on work, their views on their colleagues and their views about themselves in work is vital. So often employees are stuck in their minds as much, if not more, than in reality.

If you can motivate and help employees take care of their physical and mental well-being they will benefit. Gym membership, meditation groups and internal healthy eating options have worked for others and might work for your team.
Finally, promote an atmosphere of calm. A decluttered desk, a focus on one task at a time, an understanding of how to appreciate your own achievements and a feeling of gratitude will all help create a stress-free environment in which women will thrive.

Nina Grunfeld runs Life Clubs www.lifeclubs.com, an organisation which goes into the workplace and helps employees (both male and female) understand themselves better so they have a clearer way of thinking. They work with teams, for diversity programmes and throughout entire organisations. Life Clubs also works for charities and for the NHS. Life Clubs hold monthly breakfast seminars for HR professionals to come and see what they do, network and eat a delicious meal. If you’re interested in attending, contact nina@lifeclubs.co.uk.