On Having the Courage to tell the Blokes to get the Coffee

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For every 1,000 people at work, 80 more women than men burn out – in large part because they fail to secure their own oxygen masks before assisting others.

The New York Times: Madame CEO; Get me a Coffee

At a recent meeting of more than 30 CEOs, gathered to discuss how the gender gap might be closed, only one person, Richard Branson, took notes. It turns out he’s pretty unusual – in meetings, men almost never take notes and when note taking is required, it’s a woman that almost always takes them. This is because it’s women who tend to do the “office housework” and apparently that does our careers no good whatsoever.

Now, I find this interesting, as I have never thought about note taking as office-housework. I take notes because otherwise I’ll never remember what was said and, seeing ideas everywhere, I am constantly scribbling in my notebook. I have no idea how else I’d connect my thoughts and ideas together and have found referring back to notes from years ago a Godsend for my current venture. I’m not quite the voracious list-maker I used to be; on occasion I just go wild and go grocery shopping without one. Nevertheless I’m intrigued; have I held myself back because I enjoy being the office Mum?

Women help more and benefit less from it Cheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant state in the New York Times article. The desire to be a team player, to be nurturing and communal, can lead us to dedicate too much time behind the scenes to mentoring, giving career advice and helping colleagues with their work. In contrast, results oriented men who help will do so publicly, turning up to optional meetings for example.

In support they reference a study, undertaken by New York University psychologists Madeline Heilman and Julie Chen in 2012 which found that when men performed “altruistic citizenship behaviour” (such as staying late to help a colleague with a meeting) this positively enhanced their evaluations and recommendations for promotion. On the other hand, it was less optional for women – if they did not behave altruistically in the workplace, their evaluations and recommendations would be negatively impacted.

So, it appears, so in the home, as in the office, someone has to do the mundane tasks that keep the show on the road, and that someone is usually a woman. But if we enjoy being the nurturer, being communal, is this really so big a deal?

Yes, it is. A really big deal. Helping behind the scenes is more time-consuming – whilst our male colleagues exhibiting PDH (public displays of helpfulness) ensure that not only is their helpfulness visible, it is efficient, leaving plenty of time for them to ensure they get the results that count when it comes to promotions.

But what really struck a chord with me, is that if we’re performing “altruistic citizenship behaviour” at the expense of caring for ourselves, there is a psychological price to pay. A meta-analysis of 183 studies on burnout – Gender Differences in Burnout, concluded that 54% of women and 46% of men experience burnout as feeling emotionally and physically depleted. I couldn’t describe the way I felt leaving one particular job any better.

Psychologist David Ballard, of the American Psychological Association describes burnout as “an extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance”. Feeling emotionally, mentally or physically exhausted is a clear sign of burnout and if we want to continue to care for others and avoid this, we need to shift our mindset, to one that prioritises self-care. Caring for ourselves, whilst it might seem at odds with behaving altruistically, ensures we have the energy required to influence, and to ultimately give more.

Whilst self-care can have many manifestations, it isn’t about cramming a pilates class into an already crazy schedule (then beating yourself up because you cancelled it, again). Letting yourself do whatever you want – reading a book, walking the dog, whatever your body feels like it needs in that moment is self-care. Not what you feel you should do, that won’t work.

Kristin Neff, professor in human development at the University of Texas and author of Self Compassion says a critical component of self-care is having self-compassion. Instead of judging our mistakes harshly and taking the “stiff upper lip” approach to our own needs, we need to act towards ourselves, the same way we do when we help a good friend; with compassion for the pain they’re feeling, for the mistakes they’ve made, for the imperfections in their humanness.

So did being the office Mum hold me back? Maybe, but I’m going to be kind to myself and not beat myself up. Note to self though: the blokes can book the flight, hotel and restaurants for our next workshop.
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