Women shine in times of crisis

Martha Sullivan PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed

We have all been under a great deal of stress so far this year.

Many of us have dealt with rapid-fire change in our companies and work environments, which is testing our coping and communication systems. Outside of work, we have concerns about health, safety and our communities. Every day there appears to be a new threat to monitor and manage.

Layer in the fact that children and young adults are returning to school and many of our co-workers are again juggling a second (if not third or fourth) job as the back-up teacher to their school-aged children or are worried about the health and success of the college-bound aspiring adult. Whether an employer or employee, we are pressed once again to adapt.

Surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation point to this:

“One gender gap has gotten strikingly larger over this period (March 25-30), particularly among parents. Women overall are now 16 percentage points more likely than men to say that worry or stress related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health (53% vs. 37%). Among parents of children under age 18, the gender gap is a striking 25 percentage points; 57% of mothers vs. 32% of fathers say their mental health has gotten worse because of the pandemic. In the poll taken just two weeks prior, the gender gap among all adults was 9 percentage points (36% vs. 27%) and among parents it was just 5 percentage points (36% vs. 31%).”

KFF updated the poll in mid-July. It stated “53% of adults in the United States reported their mental health had been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.” In March, only 32% reported as such.

Studies have been done to understand how we process stress, physically, emotionally and behaviorally. Unsurprisingly, men and women endure stress differently.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this might be due to the way the body processes its stress hormones when triggered.

The human body reacts to stress by kicking off adrenaline, cortisol and oxytocin. Men experience higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol in response to stress, which triggers our “fight or flight” responses. Women produce more oxytocin, which could result in a more protective response, prompting more efforts to reach out for social connection and support.

This presents both a challenge and opportunity for the business community to recognize the new pressures and continue to adapt for the sake of its stakeholders — employees, customers and suppliers alike.

There are many factors contributing to workplace stress — from the nature of the work, the demands of the role, the personalities and culture in the environment and so on. Then there are the hours. How many times have you heard someone boasting about the number of hours they work?

In our culture, we tend to wear our long hours as a badge of courage. We might be complaining, but the message often really is, “look at how hard I work.”

Those gold stars come with a price though — for the person and the company: Fatigue, boredom, errors and non-productive time.

2020 has only added to the workload in some roles and allowed the workday to bleed into the rest of the day in a work-from-home arrangement. Without our usual commute, we’ve claimed those hours as work time. We check emails after-hours and on weekends. We, men and women, balance family responsibilities and return to the desk late in the evening.

Unfortunately, though, the reality is this: The shared burden and responsibilities weigh heavier on women. Women are more likely to manage the household chores, child care and now home-schooling.

While statistics and surveys show women shoulder more of the burden and report more stress, women also shine in times of crisis.

University of Liverpool management school developmental economist, Professor Supriya Garikipati and her colleague at the University of Reading, Professor Uma Kambhampati, analyzed differing policy responses and subsequent total COVID cases and deaths across 194 countries for the first quarter of the pandemic, up to May 19.

The analysis showed that “Our results clearly indicate women leaders reacted more quickly and decisively.” Professor Garikipati further states “Our findings show that COVID outcomes are systematically and significantly better in countries led by women and, to some extent, this may be explained by the proactive policy responses they adopted.”

The context might be different, but it underscores the fact there are steps that can be taken to effectively manage a crisis in a caring fashion. Indeed, there is something we can do to help our co-workers navigate the work environment and stress we face.

Identify what is stressing out your employees

Recognize that we all process and perceive stress differently. Not just differently based upon our sex, but even within the respective sex. There are assessment tools employers can use to identify what factors are stressing out the individuals. The tools help the employee self-identify the factors, which in turn helps the employer set the stage for conversations, accommodation and management strategies.

For example, it’s great to be challenged at work, but when it escalates into a highly demanding job, we can become stressed. We need to be aware of the demands on ourselves and those we manage. Are workloads overwhelming? Is the work well-fit to the skills and talents of the position?

When we are expected to work at high output levels without recognition, we can feel disconnected, unmotivated and even angry. Amending these feelings can be as simple as compensation, a promotion or recognition for a job well done.

When we feel a lack of control, it often is because we have high responsibility but low authority. We can feel as though we are not involved in key decisions that affect our work or have the feeling others do not understand our work. This breakdown in communication can leave us feeling powerless.

The organizational changes we’ve seen in 2020 impact everyone differently. Whereas it might be exciting to some, poorly communicated changes can leave others feeling anxious and uneasy, increasing their stress levels. Of course, your manager or supervisor also can have a big impact on your stress at work.

Good managers push their employees to work hard and stretch but when the pressure begins to hinder your ability to perform, stress begins to increase with the pressure. Social support is important at work where co-workers and peers can support each other toward shared success. When this fails to happen, we can begin to feel disengaged and unproductive.

Build bridges to and for the remote

WFH is a new experience for many of us. We have sent many co-workers home to work while others remain on-site due to the nature of their work. Regardless of whether you’re working at the company location or your home, your work and relationships with co-workers, customers and suppliers have been seriously disrupted.

For those who are introverted and self-motivated, the new work environment might be a dream come true. For others, it’s harder because they are disconnected from their daily social fabric and collaborative energy that fuels their efforts.

The best way to build such a bridge is by understanding how each person best communicates with others and will be most successful in their new work configuration. This can be discovered by asking them or using an outside survey around the remote work environment issues. Once we understand this core information, both the individual and company can work together to improve the probability that the situation can be navigated successfully.

For example, what is the best communication style in her work arrangement? What is her natural style versus her adaptive style? That is, how has she adapted her communication and energy levels to the demands of the job and culture of the company. The more she adapts, the more stress she internalizes.

Rethink how work gets done

Our pre-pandemic processes have been turned on their head, and undoubtedly different processes have been put in place. Chances are these new processes were created and implemented on the fly when work locations and responsibilities were changing under duress. Now might be a good time to take a more considered approach. Pause and consider the work your employees are doing. Initiate an organized effort to map your workflow processes and job requirements to factor in what’s happening now or what you expect to be the workflow in the future. Are there aspects of their communication systems and styles that are helpful or less than helpful?

Our heightened levels of stress are likely to continue for a while. We know there are new and undue pressures facing our workforces, many of which are outside our control. However, that does not give us a pass. We have work to do — work we can do. The question is whether we will step up to the table and do it. Place your money on the female leaders. In the face of stress, they get stuff done.