I have previously written about the subject of bullying (in school and in the workplace), and I have also written about women supporting each other in the workplace. So now, it's only natural I write about women, stress and suicide in recognition of Suicide Awareness Month.
In this day and age, there is more pressure than ever before being placed on women. From full-time (even part-time) employment, cooking, cleaning, childcare responsibilities, care-giving to elderly parents, the list goes on and on. Women today are expected to do more than ever. If you are fortunate enough to not have to work or to have household help (in the form of a nanny, housekeeper or a partner who evenly splits household responsibilities), this may reduce your stress somewhat. But in reality, most women do not have these options. It's insane. You have to be the "best" parent, the "best" employee, the "best" wife (girlfriend/partner), have the newest model car, be highly educated, thin, attractive... My Lord, how can anyone cope? Women are made to feel inadequate on every level. Just watch all the commercials on TV, they tell you, you will be happier if you drive this brand new car, eat this food, have this gadget, wear these clothes, etc. No wonder women feel it's all too much; you feel like a failure if you can't measure up to these ridiculous standards.
Job problems, excessive stress, crisis, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, child abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual), and a lack of social support are all common risk factors for suicidal behavior. Any one of these things would be terribly overwhelming for a woman to deal with. And then, comes the coping mechanisms: alcohol, too many sweets, smoking, Xanax. I know when I've been stressed to the max, I reach right for the chocolate! (At least it tastes good.) All things that work against you as far as your health is concerned. But what is left when someone feels like these ineffective coping mechanism just don't work anymore?
I worked with a woman who died by suicide. Though I was away on vacation when the call came in, I remember falling to my knees and crying out in utter disbelief. To this very day, I cannot shake it. The call was on a Monday and I had just seen her three days before. She seemed fine to me; we were laughing and joking together. I wonder what was going on with her then? Did anyone see the signs? Was she one of these women under extreme stress?
By all accounts, she seemed to be happy, content, nothing seemed off (at least not to me). I guess you can never truly tell what someone is going through in their life. I know it's true that everyone has a story, and that most people are going through something. It's frowned upon to be negative; you should be a trooper and just plow through. You just cannot know.
I'm sure there are many women who feel that they are not living up to everyone's expectations, always feeling inferior, juggling too many responsibilities and just feeling completely overwhelmed. Sometimes it feels like you are never good enough. Even if you have high self esteem, sometimes it can feel there is always something or someone to come along and try to knock you down. The pressures of society can become too much then comes the hopelessness. And thus begins the downward spiral. I have always had a high regard for myself; however, I have had many obstacles, setbacks, regrets, disappointments, missed opportunities and let-downs. But, I can honestly say that I somehow always managed to go on in one way or another. I think it has helped me that I have sisters, which has helped me deeply understand other women and be more empathetic to other people's struggles. That's all it takes sometimes, a little support, concern, and empathy to help someone get through a bad time and feel that they don't have to end their life. That somehow things will get better; tomorrow may be brighter. Suicide is not the answer.
There are hotlines, programs, lifelines, that can help. Following up with loved ones is just one of the actions that you can take to help others. Also, talk openly with someone, become available, show interest and support, offer hope that alternatives are available. Ultimately suicide isn't anyone's fault, but the commonality of it may be reduced if we encourage more open emotional sharing and normalize feelings of depression that may otherwise by held within and result in suicide]
National Suicide Prevention Life 1-800-273- TALK provides a 24/7 hotline to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
It really saddens me that women feel so much pressure these days. We live in a very "life is hard, just put up with it" society, but that just keeps emotions in and stops people from seeking the help they may desperately need. Which is why I am so adamant about treating others with kindness, empathy and understanding. You never know what anyone is going through; what is going on in their lives. Someone can be having a hard time at their job, have money issues, be unemployed, having issues with their children, siblings, parents (they can be caretakers), marital problems, or be struggling deeply with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety. We should all stand beside one another to help other women out whenever possible. Someday it could be you needing help, and it would be nice to know that someone has your back and truly cares. It can be the difference between saving a life or losing one.
During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.
When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)
This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.
By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.
But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.
I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.
If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?
At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)
At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.
They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.
- Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
- Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
- Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
- Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
- Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.
It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.
So please don't put yourself on mute.
Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.
But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.