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: