Is the superwoman cult unhealthy? 

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Eight in ten working women feel overwhelmed and exhausted trying to juggle work and other commitments, according to a recent survey by Girl Gang Tribe (GGT), a 500+ network of women who are either running a business or looking to break away from the 9-5.

A fear of failure, imposter syndrome and worrying too much about what other people think of them were the root causes of stress. Around 40% of the women who took part in the survey said they also felt isolated or lonely running their own business.

Need for perfection

Psychotherapist Catherine Asta Labbett, founder of the Girl Gang Tribe, said: “Working with women in my Bringing Sparkle Back coaching clinic, the one thing I come up against on a pretty regular basis is this need for perfection. So many women, who are struggling in their lives, have this need, this drive for perfection.”

The pursuit of perfection is wearing women out, Asta Labbett says.

“The thing is, perfection is a bit of a mask. And it masks fear. We all know that perfection doesn’t exist, so what happens when you strive to be the best and you fail? It validates that feeling of not being good enough and it feeds anxiety,” she notes.

We have to try and work on the premise that our best is good enough, Asta Labbett advises.

Looking after ‘you’ first

Part of the problem, says Ally Maughan, CEO of People Puzzles HR consultancy, is that women try and put other people’s needs before their own. “Women are generally better at taking care of other people but often forget to look after themselves,” she notes.

This issue is often exacerbated when women have a family, especially as women are generally the ones who are still the primary caregivers. Women are also the ones who usually do the bulk of ‘emotional labour’ from arranging childcare, remembering birthdays to leaving work early for parents’ evenings.

The need for flexibility

“When I came back from maternity leave, I didn’t realise I couldn’t just walk back into my job as if nothing had changed,” says Maughan. “I wanted more flexibility and autonomy at that time in my life as everything had changed.”

What we want at work and what we can give to work can vary hugely depending on the stage we are at, says Maughan, and employers should appreciate this by offering more flexibility. “I think it’s essentially about the seasons of life, whether it’s caring for children or parents,” says Maughan.

Being a female leader

Speaking at a recent event on the issues facing women in business today, Jan Lloyd, Chair of Vistage mentoring and advisory consultancy and the former CEO of Covent Garden Market Authority said: “Being a leader and running a business can be quite a lonely place. We have to help and support women who are making that transition and give them the permission to lead.”

Lloyd said too many women wait for permission, when they should actually be trying to set the tone.

“Employees and leaders have different mindsets and ways of operating. We shouldn’t need to wait for permission before we implement new ways of operating,” she notes.

Managing mental health

Our attitude to mental health and the fact that so many women feel they have to put on a brave face at work is also a significant contributing factor, Maughan says: “I’ve certainly had times where I’ve needed specialist help, such as when my mum died,” she notes.

“Lots of things, such as grief, can impact your mental health and affect your ability to work. It’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re a leader but if you open up, it encourages others to do the same.”

We still have a long way to go when it comes to tackling mental health, says Maughan. “We need to look at someone who is struggling with mental health in the same way as we’d look at someone who is struggling with a physical illness or a broken leg. And we need to look at the causes of work-related stress and tackle that.”

Supporting success

In order to stop penalising women for being successful or making them feel like they have to be everything to everyone, we need to stamp out bullying and bitchiness, Maughan says. “We have to call out any sort of bullying or bitchiness straight away.”

Having a mentor or someone that believes in us can also help prevent women from feeling like they have to do it all and be a superwoman, says Maughan. “I have a very clear memory of someone telling me in my first job that they believed in me. We should do the same for other young women working their way up.”

Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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