Mental health, feminism, kindness and the workplace

Disclaimer: This article is written from my perspective and experiences as a woman. It is not intended to be exclusive or put forward the idea that females are the only ones with mental health issues – that’s a whole other topic. I’m also not a mental health professional so this is not intended to be professional advice. I implore you to speak to someone qualified if you are reading this and struggling yourself.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week and the theme this year is ‘kindness’. It’s important. We need to talk about it.

I have a lot to say on mental health generally, it’s a topic close to my heart and if you’ve been following my content for a while (or know me at all) you’ll know that I’m passionate about feminism. Back in March, I wrote an article for International Women’s Day that was very emotional and touched on why or how we are saying the right things, but as a society we are failing to remove inherent biases that exist between men and women. In the article I also mention the importance of displaying kindness to other women. You can read it for the finer details because I need to try and keep this piece as concise as possible. This does form a nice segue into today’s topic: the importance of kindness within the workplace to help reduce mental health pressures for females.

As women in the workplace there are often unique situations and feelings we have to combat, especially if you are in a male dominated industry. It’s something which I’ve felt throughout the last seven years but only recently have started to understand it for what it is.

Starting out there were immense feelings of intimidation which resulted in stress and anxiety. This was no ones fault (except, maybe, our entire history as humans), it was down to the fact that there were a lot of men with very strong characters and very few women. I should point out I had some phenomenal women as role models within my immediate team and as managers. The thing is when you’re starting out you feel as though you need to prove yourself. Prove you can cope. Prove you’re not ‘weak’. Prove that you can do what men can do.

You don’t talk about that constant fear of not being enough and feeling so out of place in the role you’ve worked so damn hard to get to. Impostor-syndrome sets in, sleep is interrupted and emotions run high. To an extent, the desire to prove yourself can act as motivation – I thrive in high-pressurised environments – the problem is it can quickly become imbalanced. How do you recognise when to stop so that the anxiety and stress doesn’t interrupt your sleep and cognitive function?

As you progress, or certainly as I have, in your career you find ways to reduce the feelings of intimidation. My confidence grew as I did and I found techniques/methods to help me along the way – you can read about how I learned to assert myself in the workplace here. I don’t think the feeling of being an impostor ever really leaves you, but you can often find ways to quieten that inner voice that tells you that you shouldn’t be here. That’s when you really start to feel performance pressure. It isn’t enough to simply fit in and be able to do your job anymore and, to quote Taylor Swift, “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man”. The reality is for many women – based on my personal conversations and experiences – the anxiety around needing to perform is often coupled with frustration and stress that no matter what they do, a man would get there quicker. It’s a never ending cycle.

Then comes the women against women. There are limited amounts of women in leadership positions – for example, on a team of seven leaders, let’s say one is a woman and the rest are men. Like it or not this gives the perception that there is only one role for a woman at that level, vs the six for men. So, even if you have a gender equal workforce, the aspiration of that workforce is not necessarily equal. It may have started that way but our unconscious biases creep in due to lack of representation. It creates the feeling of competition amongst women, instead of amongst the whole pool of employees. Going back to the example : instead of all 70 employees (35 female, 35 male) aspiring for one of the seven roles – a 10% success rate – you end up with 35 women aspiring for one role (2.8% chance) and 35 men aspiring for one of six roles (17.1% chance). While this may not be the reality, the perception that this is the case is everything. Inadvertently, it can make women feel like they are competing against each other which can produce even greater feelings of being alone, instead of the ally-ship and camaraderie that we should be experiencing by supporting each other.

FYI, I work with and am friends with some of the most kick-arse women around and am SO lucky to be part of a group of truly inspirational people that really do build each other up.

So how does this link to kindness?

Well, the reason it was chosen as this year’s theme is because kindness is an antidote to isolation and creates a sense of belonging. It helps reduce stress, brings a fresh perspective and deepens friendships. Kindness to ourselves can prevent shame from corroding our sense of identity and help boost our self-esteem.  Kindness can even improve feelings of confidence and optimism. If we can remember to show kindness to women in the workplace and build genuine friendships, maybe we can help reduce some of these pressures, stresses and feelings of anxiety. If we, collectively as women, can come together and support each other  then maybe we could increase our collective confidence, lessen the feeling of being alone in these thoughts and break through some of the inequality in the workplace that still exists.

It’s not a cure-all/fix-all solution but it is a step in the right direction.

Remember if you are struggling with your mental health you should talk to someone – some great resources can be found at the below links:

Why passion is important

There are three reasons why passion is important in the workplace:

  1. It means you genuinely care about success
  2. Provides an internal motivation
  3. It is outwardly obvious and gives you authenticity.

Too often people, particularly women, can get caught up around skill sets and knowledge when it comes to applying for jobs or deciding on next steps in their careers. The thing is though, I’m a firm believer that every opportunity you take should teach you in some way. You need to be learning and to do that you need to take on roles/responsibilities that are beyond your current experience or skill set. This is where passion comes into play.

Story time: once upon a time I was a student applying for my first internship. I studied Psychology at university but attended a university renowned for business, so there was a huge focus on getting an internship. They would put on career days whereby companies would come in, tell you why you should work there, talk about the application process and give you freebies. Nine out of ten companies told me not to apply for a role in marketing or PR because I didn’t study business. Oh, how I wish I had a crystal ball at that point in time to show them where I am now. More fool them though, it gave me such a fire in my belly and that’s when I first used the phrase: you can teach me anything you need to but you can’t teach someone else to have my passion.

I didn’t work for one of those companies – nor would I want to work for a company that judged me solely on my choice of degree. The thing is, it’s my passion that keeps me going when things get tough and I think that’s the same for most people. When you truly care about something it makes it personal for you which gives you a whole different level of motivation to do the very best you can. It means that you care about the outcome for whoever or whatever you are working for – a company, your clients, yourself. At the end of the day, wouldn’t you rather with someone who genuinely cares and is going to try their best to get the best outcome?

Now onto the third point I make – authenticity. Now more than ever people want to make connections with other people and brands that represent their own passions/values, even if it’s a B2B engagement (I bang on about this a lot, I know). Thing is, when you’re not passionate about something people can tell. If it isn’t something you believe in at the core of yourself then it is damn obvious – unless you a very accomplished actor in which case maybe you should rethink a career in Hollywood. From a personal branding perspective, investing in causes that you are passionate about will draw people to you. You’ll radiate enthusiasm and that person wondering whether or not to invest in you, will feel that. You’ll be remembered and even more so, remembered for the feeling that you evoke in other people.

Obviously there are occasions where skills & knowledge have a greater role to play and by no means am I trying to say that passion is all you need. But next time you’re weighing up whether to go for a job, take on a new project or client, ask yourself if it’s something you’re passionate about. Because if it is, chances are you’ll make it your mission to learn all those skills that are required, you’ll immerse yourself fully into the role and do everything you can to better yourself & the outcome for that client/project/company.

How to assert yourself in the workplace (virtually or not)

I had initially written this piece before the lockdown but actually, now is a great time to try out some of these techniques and build your confidence from the comfort of your own home. It can be less intimidating to speak up when you’re not physically in the room with the people – a baby step for asserting yourself.

A regular discussion I have with my friends and women entering the workforce is how to assert yourself in the work place – particularly if you work in a male dominated industry. Throughout my teenage and young adult life I had part time jobs ranging from being a lifeguard and swim teacher, to being a student ambassador at university. These were roles which needed confidence and, at times, a thick skin. The comments I received as a young female lifeguard, particularly from men, were horrendously sexist, uncomfortable and humiliating. I will never forget one occasion where a group of (I would guess early twenties) men decided to break almost every rule the pool had, whilst hurling comments at me about how much water would it take to make t-shirt see-through and if I would give them mouth-to-mouth if they pretended to drown. This was loudly. In front of the rest of the fairly full swimming pool and café area. This was a defining moment for me though – I could either breakdown or I could ask them to leave the pool and centre due to continuous rule breaking and harassment. I went with the latter and when they refused, the duty manager was called and dealt with them. They were banned from the centre for life.

It’s not a pity story. This was the moment, aged 16 or 17, that I realised I had a voice that I had every right to use. It was this moment that I started to develop my passion for feminism and, without knowing at the time, was the catalyst for me wanting to do more to help women.

Flash forward to 23 year old me starting my first role as a graduate in a male dominated industry. I worked in a mixed team but the sales team I was aligned to was predominantly men – very strong-minded and confident men. I felt so nervous to speak up in meetings and very under-qualified. I didn’t know how to gain that confidence to speak up and give my opinion. I admitted this to someone I worked with who told me that I had valid opinions and needed to assert myself more.

Well, from that point on I did everything I could to make sure I had something to say and no matter how uncomfortable I felt, I pushed myself to be more assertive. The key was making sure that what I said was well founded and thought out – it simply isn’t enough to say something for the sake of it. Five years later I was described as “fearlessly vocal with well positioned opinions” and now find myself advising other women on not letting the fear keep you quiet.

But, how? I thought back to my time as a lifeguard and realised that the reason I felt able to assert myself was because I knew my stuff, I knew I had the backing of the senior staff, I was there to do a job and I knew it wasn’t right. And from that realisation, I was able to pull in my learnings and form three top tips:

  1. Be prepared: ahead of each meeting make sure you take some notes around the subject area and do some brainstorming on topics that might come up. If there is an agenda start to think about what you know around each point. If you know and have a good relationship with the owner of the meeting, reach out for more clarity if you aren’t sure. If your manager is going to be on the call you can also ask them for more information – a good manager should be supporting you. Then, once you have some notes, reassure yourself that you have got this. Half the preparation is telling yourself you can do it – you were hired for a reason and that reason is for your knowledge, experience and opinions. Even if that is different to your peers – diversity is a recipe for growth.
  2. Get an ally: someone you know can back you up in the meeting or, if you’re struggling, open the floor up for you to speak. This person should be someone you trust and can be totally honest with. It can be someone you overtly speak to before the meeting for guidance, advice and to let them know your thoughts ahead of time. If you’ve prepared for the meeting beforehand why not chat about it with your ally – “I was thinking about that meeting on Wednesday about how to increase our awareness in this area, what do you think about expanding out to try this tactic…”. Sometimes just having a person you trust in the meeting/on the call can help give you that confidence to put yourself out there.
  3. Challenge yourself: set yourself a goal of volunteering one idea at an upcoming meeting, tell a friend and then ask them to hold you accountable to it. This way after the meeting, they’ll be expecting you to let them know how it goes. Being accountable to someone else can really help you push yourself out of your comfort zone. They don’t need to be big challenges to begin with – start with meetings you’re more comfortable in first of all and build yourself up.  

The final piece of advice I can give you when you’re feeling out of your depth is get to know your co-workers. Building a relationship with people, finding out if they have children, what their hobbies are, what they’ve been up to at the weekend etc. can make them seem more human and less intimidating. It’s much less scary to talk to people you already know because they value you as a person.

Do you have any other tips?