Stressed at work? Learn when to say “no.”

Posted by Shelly Eweka.
“A woman’s work is never done.” The old proverb rings truer now than ever before, with technology blurring work-life balance beyond recognition. It was recently estimated that 50% of employees check their email before getting out of bed in the morning.1 Juggling caretaking with breadwinning duties, it’s no wonder that working moms are feeling so stressed out.
I get it: Letting emails go unchecked can be even more stressful than obsessive checking—taught to be watchful, attentive we’re so afraid of seeming unresponsive. What we should really be afraid of, though, is adapting to the new normal and prioritizing work over the rest of our lives. The bedroom is a sacred space dedicated to peace, rest and intimacy.
Being the nice, obliging, approachable team player who works round the clock without complaint, can only be bad for productivity in the long run, when your emotional health is compromised and you end up feeling disengaged, put-upon or close to burnout. It’s on you to negotiate boundaries.

Work-life balance: Learn where to draw the line

Take that half day to see your kids’ show at school; embrace the richness of your role as mother and career woman; be as considerate, accommodating and generous towards yourself as you would be to another working mom on your team. When someone isn’t happy at home, or feels they aren’t carving out enough quality time with loved ones, anxiety can spill over into the office, making it toxic. Work-life balance has to be calibrated by you and you alone—it’s like a set of scales with thankless family members and oblivious managers continually heaping responsibilities and demands on either plate. Like the allegorical Lady Justice, you’re the one holding the balance—but you’re not wearing a blindfold. You can see where the line must be drawn, and that may include re-negotiating your employee benefits, including flexible hours and vacation.

Life hacks for handling stress

  • Remember you’re in control. Much of the stress we experience is self-induced. When your manager asks for that 100-page report by noon, it is in your power to negotiate a more realistic deadline. Your inaction, rather than the report itself, is the actual stressor. In my experience, if you’re doing your best, your manager will see that and appreciate that you’re doing a great job.
  • Be mindful. Some of my coworkers close their eyes and do breathing exercises at their desks when work becomes overwhelming. Perhaps you’ve heard of “mindfulness”—the practice of paying attention and finding inner peace, with roots in Buddhist traditions. Well, more companies are now offering mindfulness training programs, perhaps as a cost-effective way to make employees more productive and focused. Duke University estimated that their mindfulness training program saved them $2,000 a year for each employee in healthcare costs, and an increase of $3,000 in productivity, per person.1
  • Talk it out. Personally, I’m a big believer in talking through problems with my husband and circle of girlfriends after a bad day at the office. It’s rare for me to make any big decision without talking it through first. Fortunately, I have a diverse group of confidantes—for example, a nurse who’s good with health issues, a fashionista friend to advise me on how to dress for success.

Are your psychological needs being met?

Some argue that meditation can perpetuate stressful, even intolerable conditions by creating a culture of acceptance. 1 Rather than use mindfulness as a coping strategy for unreasonable demands, it may be more reasonable to resist the situation itself. Many jobs nowadays simply fail to meet our need to belong or our need to feel valued. If you don’t feel that you’re doing something with purpose, making a difference, your job isn’t meeting a fundamental human need.
You’d think that the higher up you are on the corporate ladder, the higher your stress levels, right? Surprisingly, there’s evidence to suggest that the more responsibilities you have, the less stressed you feel and the lower your risk of having a heart attack.2
That’s because humans need to feel their day-to-day lives have meaning, and the less autonomy you feel, the less control you have over your work; the harder it is to create meaning out of it. So, if you work in an environment that makes you feel unappreciated and controlled, the more likely you are to feel stressed—and depressed. Changing your environment to something less stressful—perhaps by changing jobs—may be your only solution.
That doesn’t mean take a step down—quite the opposite. Too often we equate high-pressure, hectic jobs with stress—but experience has shown me it’s the high-power jobs that are the most fulfilling—as long as you’re being rewarded for your efforts. And if you don’t ask for what you’re due, you probably won’t get it handed to you on a silver platter. Traditionally, women have been reluctant to “lean in,” but since starting out around 25 years ago, I’ve witnessed an interesting shift in attitudes towards women who want more.

Male bosses, bossy women

For most of my adult life I’ve worked in finance, a male-dominated world where aggression and ruthless competition are often considered virtues. In order to get ahead, I needed to be assertive—but there were times I was called “screechy” or “emotional” for having the temerity to raise my voice. Whenever a man raised his, he was usually deemed dominant, powerful, effective—and commanded instant respect. Fairly neutral qualities like self-confidence and self-assurance are looked upon favorably in one sex—denoting strong leadership—but with suspicion in the other: She’s “pushy,” “overbearing,” “catty”—or worse.
Held up to a male standard of professionalism, successful women often face extra scrutiny and pressure to demonstrate that they’ve earned their place alongside the boys in the boardroom; eyeing each other as a threat, I’ve noticed a depressing lack of solidarity among women within male-dominated professions.
I’ve managed men who didn’t like taking direction from a woman, but also women who (consciously or unconsciously) viewed authority and competence as male qualities, and didn’t want a woman boss either. Career women get it from both sides: There’s pressure to perform like a man up against the more subtle (and sexist) pressure to be less forceful (read: more feminine).
However, being an ambitious woman has less of a stigma attached to it today than when I began my career—it’s important not to lose sight of the incredible progress that has been made in just a single generation. TIAA is preaching it and leading the way in many respects. Employers elsewhere are doing their part to change the culture, and society at large is becoming more mindful of sexual harassment. Positive changes are afoot. There’s been no better time in history for women to realize their potential and rise to positions of power. Sexism still persists, creating unfair obstacles and a whole lot of stress—but remaining disempowered and disengaged, leaning back (rather than in) can lead to more stress in the long run.
1 “The Coping Economy,” Dissent magazine, Winter 2018,
2 “Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?” The Guardian, January 2018,
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February 2, 2018