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We Threw Away Our Girdles In The 60s - Or Did We? Stress In The City In 2010

07 March 2011

As a psychologist in private practice in the Sydney CBD, I see people from all walks of life. In the last six months, increasingly my clients are middle to senior managers suffering from stress and burnout. Each of them are highly motivated individuals who continue to achieve above average results in their work. However, for many, they are on the edge of burnout and feel unable to break free from a vicious circle they have created. With little work-life balance, and a distorted perception due to tiredness, they are unable to think creatively to create solutions to balance their own lives, yet alone offer strategic solutions to superiors or at policy level.

Sadly, many feel alone, ashamed that they are in this situation and unable to voice their concerns since they have 'bought into' the prevailing societal myth that everyone else is coping. The resulting feelings of inadequacy leave many feeling demoralised and questioning of how others seemingly 'have their cake and eat it'.

In November 2010, I sat on the ASPIRE Sustainability Panel for Westpac Women's Markets. Together with Bernie Hobbs from ABC New Inventors and 1 Million Women, and Alison Ewings, Senior Advisor for Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Westpac, we explored what it takes to sustainably integrate our personal and business lives. I questioned whether we do indeed want 'to sustain' our current lifestyles, since what I am seeing in my practice indicates that, for many, the system is unsustainable and inherently dysfunctional. I shared an example from my experience of a female executive, whose juggling act is increasingly typical of my corporate clients suffering from burnout:

A female client who is working nearly fifty hours per week, who has at least one child below the age of five years. She is studying

part-time for a Masters qualification, is undergoing renovation on her existing home or holiday cottage and whose partner is currently negotiating a new overseas job.

For many people, this scenario might seem unusual but I can assure you it isn't. The individual circumstances might change but the elements of career, home-life, parenting, education and pastures-new are typical - they just show up in different ways. Clearly this is not sustainable and hopefully, many employers would be alarmed at the reality of what is happening.

As women leaders, we have an enormous responsibility to lead the way by leading successful and sustainable personal and business lifestyles ourselves. Most people I come across who are on the edge of burnout have low self-esteem despite external accolades of their success. It is because of this that they set impossibly high standards of accomplishment for themselves, whilst ironically being more compassionate towards others they observe doing the same.

It is essential that, as leaders and organisational policy makers we identify and dispel the myths that keep us locked in lifestyles that are simply not sustainable. However, even where our organisations boast family friendly policies, many women - and men - do not partake of the benefits inherit in them - since they have bought into informal myths that 'If I am really a high achiever, I wouldn't need a family friendly policy'.

All trailblazers face the same challenges - to forge a trail that hasn't existed before with unclear yardsticks against which to evaluate the rightness of those choices. It is time to create integrated lifestyle policies that embrace all employees. We are living in challenging and unprecedented times - environmentally, socially and economically. It is our responsibility to 'be the change we want to see in the world'. When we ourselves create lifestyles that embrace a sustainable integration between our personal and business lives, then we can challenge our mothers and grandmothers who said 'We threw away our girdles in the 1960s - but wear them in different ways each day!'