How to build more resilience among women in the workforce

Building trust and resilience for femal and digital leaders

It is important to consider that any attempt to improve resilience among staff will need to take into account women’s unique challenges and individual needs, write Stuart Taylor and Peta Sigley

Despite enormous support for greater diversity in leadership, the representation of women in senior roles is growing slowly at best. Worldwide, women only hold one out of every four leadership positions. In Australia, nearly three-quarters of organisations have a male-only team of key management personnel, and we often see headlines around businesses and organisations grappling with the issue of gender diversity.

And while many organisations are increasingly investing in building gender-balanced leadership profiles, there are a number of converging factors that create unique obstacles for women when they’re climbing the corporate ladder. According to Rose Garner, senior director of health promotion UPMC WorkPartners, it’s for this reason that women require a higher level of resilience to counteract traditional obstacles at work.

The majority of working women worryingly lag behind their male counterparts on almost all factors of resilience; this is a pressing trend we’ve observed year on year in our annual global reports around the state of resilience in the workforce. The fact is, women are experiencing the chronic symptoms of distress far more than men – a consistent finding we’ve had since 2009. 
The results of our survey this year found females were more likely to be self-critical, to neglect their physical health, and feel overloaded or stressed in the workplace.

However, these findings are not surprising given that females are forced to deal with a number of conflicting personal, professional and systemic challenges that are not as commonly experienced by their male counterparts. To put these challenges into perspective; studies show that single-parent families account for a significant number of family units, with women heading 90 percent of these families. Working women with children under six years of age have recently doubled, with a staggering 68 percent in the workforce.

“Females are forced to deal with a number of conflicting personal, professional and systemic challenges that are not as commonly experienced by their male counterparts”

Where stress spills/crosses over from home/work
It’s because of these realities that working women are more susceptible to experience the crossover and spillover effect. Crossover or spillover occurs when the stress from work or home impacts our stress levels and performance in other domains of life. While at work, thoughts bubble below the surface of what is being missed at home and visa-versa. For the main caregivers in families – which proportionally still remains to be women in majority – this effect can, in turn, drive a sense of guilt, resulting in higher levels of withdrawal, vulnerability, confusion, and self-doubt.

These findings pose the following questions: When female participation in the workforce is at an all-time high, how does the workplace need to change to adequately support employees? Do high expectations of women lead to self-criticism and compromise self-care? Which factors in our current working environment erode resilience in females?

The architecture of a sustainable high-performance organisation is a resilient workforce, however, a unique challenge for organisations today is that they must acknowledge that women are dealing with systemic challenges that have not previously been issues in the workplace. Whether a case of correlation or causation, what we can see is that as female participation in the workforce has increased, the issue around managing work in the context of a personal life has also risen in prominence.

What can HR and employers do?
Therefore, for HR professionals, it’s important to consider that any attempt to improve resilience among staff will need to take into account women’s unique challenges and individual needs.

“Where people feel comfortable to attend to their family needs, they’re less likely to be affected by the crossover and spillover effect because they’re confident that everything else is under control”

Employers can begin by building a framework that considers the individual needs of their employees, supports the person as a whole, and aims to foster resilience in all areas of their life, not just in the workplace. For every initiative that is implemented in the workplace, employers should have a simple question or a short list of criteria that helps them frame the impact of each program. For instance, “Is this program going to grow our people’s resilience and make them more productive?”

This simple approach is what businesses can use to build a culture of trust in the workplace, and grow resilience in the organisation from the top down. Where people feel comfortable to attend to their family needs, they’re less likely to be affected by the crossover and spillover effect because they’re confident that everything else is under control. That includes initiatives such as offering flexible work hours to support external family responsibilities or policies that support employees’ personal lives. After all, resilience is best built through a number of positive lifestyle practices.

Employers will be pleased to know that on the whole, women typically respond more positively to resilience interventions than males, especially in terms of improving their levels of overload, worry, distress symptoms and fatigue.

And when faced with challenges, resilient women show strength in their ability to minimise the impacts of distractibility, disengagement and avoid a space of self-absorption. With a resilient workforce, the result is female leaders who are happy at work, tactically agile, and lead with purpose and optimism.

Peta Sigley is chief knowledge officer and co-founder of Springfox.