Episode 57: Women, work, and stress

February 23, 2015

“I didn’t share what was happening with my family or my friends...I would just march forward like a good soldier to go to work and do good things there.” - Jen Yip

"Typically it’s harder for women to say no....So when they do say no they go, 'Oh my gosh, I’ve just said no, that person is going to hate me." - Marjorie Hirsch

27 minutes.

Jen YipYou may have noticed professional women are stressed out. In this show we talk about why and aim to bring some relief. First we meet Jen Yip, a Broad Experience listener who lived a stressful existence for years, but kept going because plowing through was the only option she knew - until she started to crack.

Then we hear from therapist and corporate consultant Marjorie Hirsch, who has some advice about how to cut down on stress. This includes tackling stuff women tend to be bad at, such as saying no, setting boundaries, and asking questions that'll make your life easier.

Further reading:

Jen Yip works in technology and business development in San Francisco.

Marjorie Hirsch is a psychotherapist in New York.

Here's the American Psychological Association's 2015 report Stress in America.

Here's an NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll from 2014 on Americans and stress. 


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, how stress affects women – at work, and everywhere else.

“I didn’t share what was happening with my family or my friends for quite some time, and I would just march forward like a good soldier to go to work and do good things there.”

And what we can do about it…

“It’s about communicating what you need and want in the right language, but it’s also about asking questions, trying to figure out a way to get what you need.”

Coming up – managing stress in the 21st century workplace.

One of the most common things I hear female friends and colleagues say is either that they’re crazy-busy or they’re stressed, or both.

The latest stress survey from the American Psychological Association was released in early February. It says women continue to report higher levels of stress than men. In one statistic, 51 percent of women said they’d lain awake at night in the last month due to stress, versus a third of men. 

Now I’ve read various articles where the writers say look, stress is not a bad thing. It’s a normal bodily response to adversity – it keeps us on our toes and helps us get things done. I get that. But many working women are overwhelmed by stress, it’s affecting their health, and they need help digging out.

In this episode we hear one woman’s story of extreme stress – and we hear from a therapist who sees a lot of clients withering under the more mundane strains of modern life. She offers some solutions.

First to Jen Yip. She works in technology in northern California and she’s quite recently emerged from a stressful existence that went on for years.  Work was a  contributor to this. But for a long time, she didn’t acknowledge that. She was too busy plowing through. 

Before we talked about that situation, I wanted to know about her upbringing – who had raised her and what hopes or expectations they had for her future.

“My mom came to the US as an immigrant around the age of 11 or 12. My father was born and raised in Brooklyn so I’d say I’m sort of a 1.5 generation Chinese and I felt like we had a lot of high expectations growing up, myself and my siblings. Education was certainly a very important priority in our family. Being able to support ourselves and successfully build out a career, and then as a woman in a fairly traditional Asian-American family the expectation was that we’d get married and have a family as well. So I think the bar was set fairly high in many respects for myself and for my sisters.”

Jen did all that was expected of her. She exceled academically, she did a lot of athletics, and she played the violin and piano. She went to a good university and eventually to an excellent business school as well.

And even though Jen herself says she didn’t feel marriage and kids were right for her, she did actually get married quite young – it was part of that road map her parents had laid out. She’d met her husband in college, they were together for several years, and they got married when she was 26. But a few years into the marriage his work situation took a turn for the worse, and serious problems began to crop up…

“The man I married was a kind and wonderful person at heart, but he also was struggling with his own demons. He had sort of a dark past and a challenging upbringing and it wasn’t something that he openly talked about. He’s also Chinese-American, and generally the idea of reaching out for help or seeking some kind of therapeutic or psychotherapeutic resource, there’s a stigma attached to it. But nonetheless we were together, we did get married, we never had any children and we had some hard times together. He was struggling with alcohol and what I what describe as a depressive spiral he was never able to recover from.”

But as he struggled with his addiction and she struggled with what all this meant for their relationship, Jen echoed her husband’s approach in that she didn’t ask others for help.

“I didn’t realize it until many years later that I was and continue to be very, very effective at compartmentalization.  So I think a lot of my upbringing and also the athletic training I had, I tended to look at a challenging situation and think okay how do I get through this and get onto the next play? That was also very much how I approached work and I came to understand that was my approach to life in general, and so during this time when things were starting to get really challenging on the home front with my husband I would compartmentalize what was happening at home not only between my work life and my home but also within my personal life. I didn’t share what was happening with my family or my friends for quite some time and I would just march forward like a good soldier to go to work and do good things there. And I wound up pouring a lot of my energy and my passion into my job which again, reflecting back on this time, it was probably one of the most successful in terms of accelerating my career and stretching my professional muscles and moving upwards.”

She was working for a series of media companies in New York, but while she was doing brilliantly at work her marriage was crumbling. It seemed like she was OK on the surface, she was sleeping just four hours a night. She was also partying pretty hard. Still, at this point none of this seemed to be taking a toll on her health.  

In the mid-2000s her marriage ended, and she moved out to San Francisco in part to further her career in the media and technology space. She had also begun a new relationship.

“Basically moved out here and started anew. But about 6 or 7 months after I moved out here I did get word that my ex-husband had passed away. And so after that point I carried the grief with me, again compartmentalizing, and thinking okay that’s part of my past, it’s done now, I can move forward. But I really -- I have myself maybe days to grieve and did not deal with the baggage of the entire experience, of unwinding that relationship, being in a new relationship. “

She says she was like a bullet train – full speed ahead on action, but completely disconnected from her emotions.

Meanwhile at work she seemed to be thriving initially, taking on more challenges – at this point she was working for a startup. She says the leadership team was pretty dysfunctional, and office life was fast paced, there were lots of difficult decisions to be made…and quite a few disagreements…

“…and every conversation was a very passionate one and it was often myself with the three co-founders who are all men, or talking in a small group of stakeholders, again, predominately male, there are a lot of raised voices, a lot of ‘in your face’ type of communication styles that’s very off the cuff.”

She says some conversations turned into verbal boxing matches – she had to raise her voice, and although she’s a straightforward person, doesn’t have any problem with that…looking back the whole thing was wearing. It’s just that she was so used to dealing with the stress it almost didn’t register with her. Oh, and she was still sleeping four hours a night.

She left that firm and joined another startup. This was a big, well-funded, global company. And here things finally got on top of her…the atmosphere was so thick with politics she says, you needed a chainsaw to cut through it.

“I would say that there was some drama that I had walked into sort of unbeknownst to me, or there may have been a part of me that was choosing to ignore it. And again I had not chosen to deal with the emotional baggage related to my ex husband’s death, the relationship that I was in when I moved out to SF was starting to unravel, again due to a whole host of different reasons, but I chose not to focus on the relationship or my home life. I poured myself into work for better or for worse. So the executive team, again, entirely male, three co-founder team, actually based in Asia, and I would describe -- for better or for worse I would describe it as a boys’ club. And further to that a sort of a Harvard Business School / McKinsey boys club so there’s a little bit more that goes with that as well. So the executive team was not able to commit to a singular focus with what my business unit was meant to do.”

Which made life tough for her and her team – people she felt responsible for. At this point she finally began to crack. She says she’s never been much of a crier – but one day a tear slipped down her cheek in front of a colleague. After that, they came regularly.

“During the moments when I felt my stress had come to such a high point that I couldn’t collect myself because that previous cycle of being able to compartmentalize, take a breath and move forward with my day, soldier forward -- that wasn’t working for me anymore, or it just wasn’t there for me to tap into as a coping mechanism. So there were many, many moments, which a lot of people on my team still, they would find it a shock if they were to discover this now, that I would leave a meeting or walk away from a conversation or a call and I would have to break down for maybe a minute in privacy somewhere, bathroom, conference room, anywhere I could be alone. Just cry it out for a minute, gather myself, and then go back in and move forward.”

At this point other things were going wrong – her relationship imploded. She had a flu-like illness every few months. She put off treating a benign cyst because it seemed like too much of a time suck.

She also began to notice that if she did sleep more than 4 hours a night she felt like an entirely different person.

Gradually she started to change her lifestyle.

These days she works for herself. And she says it’s taken the last three years to turn herself around. To build up a support network in the Bay Area, which she never had before, to start to respect her body, to become mindful and self-aware, and to shed old habits and behaviors. Which she’s still working on.

So I asked when she looks back on her experiences does she see how she dealt with all this as particularly female – or could a guy have reacted in just the same way?

“I actually read a book recently that articulated it very well. I wasn’t able to think about it in these terms, but my tendency after any situation whether it’s professional or personal is to do post-mortems in my head. I don’t put it down on paper and do a post-mortem for myself but I’ll replay the scenario over and over, how could I have do this better, how could the outcome have been different, why did I do this, why did I say that? And I tend to live in that past moment and replay it over and over and over and if I felt I made a mistake I would actually beat myself up for it. And I don’t think men do that as much as women.”

That book she’s talking about is The Confidence Code by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. Jen says their discussion of women’s tendency to re-examine their actions really hit home.

“I felt like I got punched in the gut when I read that because I’m like, that is me. They spoke to a WNBA coach who described the difference between a male basketball player and a female basketball player and it resonated strongly because I did play basketball as a kid, and they said that if a guy makes an error during the play, fine move on to the next play, and that’s how I was coping by compartmentalizing, but off the field or the court, or during my spare time, during my sleep, my brain in just constantly replaying those scenarios and I know that contributed to my lack of sleep because I could not turn my brain off enough to rest effectively.”

She says that is still a challenge. But she’s getting better at it.

So as you’ve heard Jen’s way of coping with a lot of stress was to just keep going. She wasn’t asking anyone for help. She wasn’t sharing the burden of what she was going through.

But she may be unusual among women. Psychotherapist Marjorie Hirsch has her own practice in New York. She also works a few days a week at a big corporation as their on-staff counselor. She says yes, the professional women she sees are frazzled…

“I actually myself have a magnet and it says, ‘Stress happens when your mouth says yes and your brain says no’. Women typically are more prone to being helpful, kind, considerate, thoughtful, and it’s part of their biological makeup as well as their tending to other people.”

That means we’re likelier to take on more because we don’t want to disappoint someone. And taking on more work of all kinds usually means more stress.

AM-T: “I suspect that women will say, I’m so stressed about this, I suspect they’re more vocal, and I wonder if the men even articulate it.”

“Actually men are coming in and they say it slightly differently. They’ll say I have so many people pulling at me…you know. One client said my wife gives me a list of stuff to do when I get home from work. And so it’s trying to manage everything and having the time to manage it. So they think of it more as ‘honey dos’ – honey do this, honey do that, etc. A woman thinks it is their responsibility to make sure everything gets done – and if honey doesn’t do it, they’ll do it, they’ll make arrangements to have somebody come in, they’ll have to leave their job, be there to make sure the person gets into the apartment to fix something, and go back to work…”

She says even with a female couple, each person tends to fall into a traditional role in the relationship – the woman who works less, she says…she will be the one to do traditionally supportive things, like letting in the plumber. 

Marjorie sees women clients who are worn out caring for children and older parents on top of their jobs, women who are single working parents, single women who get lumped with other people’s work around holidays because, the boss says, ‘you don’t have a family – you’re available.’

She says there’s something her clients could all do more of to cut down on stress, particularly at work: ask questions.  

“That’s the most important thing and I’ll give you an example of this. One of my clients was very upset because her female boss keeps emailing her all weekend, the entire weekend. And I said to her, does she expect you to answer the email. She said I have no idea. I said well why don’t you ask her. So Monday she went in and she said, ‘I have a question, do you expect me to answer the emails you send? She said absolutely not. I’m just sending them to take them off my plate so I’ll remember that you’ll remember to do them during the week.’ If she had not asked the question she would have had no personal life. But because she asked the question she was able to get a different kind of answer and a different kind of interaction going forward.”

AM-T: “So that suggests that some of managing stress is about communication…”

Yes, very much. It’s about communicating what you need and want in the right language. But it’s also about asking questions, trying to figure out a way to get what you need, and to really identify what you need. Because we don’t always know what we need.”

Marjorie says another stressor people complain about is the stream of emails and texts they get all day – each apparently begging for an immediate reply.

AM-T: Yeah, I mean talk about that , the tyranny of email…I miss stuff because my inboxes plural have so much stuff coming in…

I try to get my inbox down to one page by the end of the day, so that visually it’s not so crowded. What else do you advise people who are in these very packed lives to do?”

“Well I just had conversation with a client this morning, and her husband is also working, they have two kids, a reduced hours nanny, she commutes and hour each way – so does her husband – and I said to her are you having any fun? And she said, huh? You need to have fun, you need to laugh, to have a sense of humor, because it’s the first thing to go when you’re stressed…nothing’s fun. You’re irritable and you can’t ‘even concentrate on fun. I told her you and your husband have to go out on a date. You’re not allowed to talk to the kids. You’re not allowed to talk about the kids. You’re not allowed to phone the nanny to see if the house burned down. She said when am I supposed to fit that in?  I said, well, if you have to skip something like extra food shopping, go have breakfast and then go food shopping. So we’re used to go, go, go, or we collapse. Or people are sitting watching TV and they’re making lists in their mind about what they have to do…when’s this gonna get done, when’s that gonna get done…what’s gonna happen if we have a snowstorm? What I tell people is don’t keep catastrophizing. Don’t generalize, oh, this is gonna be awful when this happens. No, you will deal with whatever it is one step at a time. But if you’re not present for living your life it’s gonna be problematic. 

So you still have to have a bit of downtime. It’s like sleep. You need a little downtime and you have to figure out how you’re going to have it.”

AM-T: “Hearing you talk about this makes me think about boundaries. And this ability to set boundaries is something I detect I’m not that good at…all the email, and that physical person who wants something from me…I think either men are better at ignoring stuff or better at drawing boundaries…this is my theory that women are not as good at that.”

“Absolutely, your theory is 100% correct. Typically it’s harder for women to say no. It just is because they’re meant to do everything. So when they say no they go oh my gosh, I’ve just said no, that person is going to hate me, they’re going to think I’m inept, whatever the setting is, or – for sure – I’m a bad human being and I’m not the loving, warm, female spirit, you know? No, that’s absolutely not true. You are not only allowed to say no but if you do not say no you will be a drowning human being.

“So sometimes with emails I say to people, if it’s really important but you know you can’t do it right at that moment send them a message and say you are in the middle of something, you will need to get back to them on Friday. Put it in your calendar to get back to Harry on Friday. Then they have the expectation that you will get back to them but that you also read it, didn’t ignore it, and then they’re not going to send you 12 emails saying so, what happened, why didn’t you respond? So people also I f you say to them ahead of time, and you manage the expectation, it’s easier to set a boundary. It’s also OK to say to someone, you know, I’m actually not good at setting boundaries, so I’m practicing this year and I actually can’t do that. People would like an explanation. If you can give them an explanation it helps. Some explanations they’re not entitled to because it’s personal – so you say, I really wish I could do that but I can’t, maybe we can do this instead. So you give them an alternate plan, and some people really appreciate that you didn’t give them 100% no. Let’s think of game plan B.”

She says more people, but women in particular, need to think about making time to do things that are truly important to them – to silence that voice that tells you to give everything to work and family. Recently she had a couple of female clients in corporate jobs both say to her, you know what I wish I was doing? Painting. Marjorie said well why don’t you pick up a brush?  

“Those are the things that actually reduce your stress. Creativity reduces your stress. Doing something helpful, somebody said they wanted to volunteer recently. That’s helpful, it gets you outside of yourself and you think about other people. There are so many different things – asking for help is important. Giving help is important. Finding out what would make our life more manageable and easier and saying, do you think you could do this? Or trading off if you have a child and saying could you take my child Tuesday from 2 to 6 and I’ll take yours Thursday from 2 to 6. Saying to a boss, how would you feel about this? It’s so important to ask questions: I was thinking of doing this, would it be better to do it Tuesday or better to do it Thursday? So that people feel they have a little bit of input but not total control over your decision. So any kind of stress reduction, you know the typical journalizing, yoga, exercise, reading, singing, humming, dancing in your house, whatever makes you happy, it gets your endorphins going, and it actually helps you be a happier person.”

Marjorie Hirsch. Thanks to her and to Jen Yip for sharing her story earlier.

This episode of the podcast has been supported by MailChimp. I’m grateful to them for lending some support to the show. I produce The Broad Experience newsletter using Mailchimp – you can sign up for that on the homepage.

I’ll post more information about my guests and some links about stress under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

Thanks again to April Laissle for her help with this episode. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.