Ahead of International Women’s Day we asked some top thought leaders in the industry – from former professional footballers to heads of wellbeing to psychologists to CFOs – to imagine writing to their daughters, giving their advice for women navigating work with their wellbeing intact.
What was starkly apparent was the commonality of one particular theme: the importance of being comfortable in your own skin. Our interviewees urge women climbing up the ranks today not to “mould themselves” to “fit in” for anyone, or any organisation – something many regretted doing, or had seen others doing.
This begs the question – if we truly created workplaces where women felt like they could be themselves, would this create the U-turn in women’s wellbeing that is so desperately needed in the current climate? (See this article on female burnout).
That, however, is for another feature… For now, soak up these words of wisdom on how to navigate the workplace, as a woman, with your wellbeing intact.
1. Don’t should all over yourself
Lesley Woods, Chief Communications Officer (External Campaigns), Ministry of Defence, Directorate of Defence Communications
“Define what is important to YOU, and what measures of success YOU will live by. Not those of others.
Don’t ‘Should’ all over yourself – I ‘should’ be applying for promotion, I ‘should’ do as others have done before me. What else ‘could’ you do instead?
Don’t dim your light or minimise yourself to make others more comfortable.
Look for the feeling of belonging somewhere, rather than ‘fitting in’.
Be kind as you climb in your career, even to those who would stand on you to step up themselves. This is important for your own piece of mind.”
For more on Lesley, see this profile here.
2. Do not let big personalities undermine your opinion
Nick Pahl, CEO at Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM)
“I have 3 daughters, two at University and one 10 years old, so this is a pertinent question for me.
I see women often being the force behind inclusion in the workplace, which could be seen as perverse. There is also a risk that the responsibilities of inclusion are reduced to a ‘HR-y, lesser role’ and that there is a lack of understanding (and appreciation) within the whole organisation of the responsibilities of inclusion.
My advice to women who find themselves in this situation, or in a company who views inclusion like this, would be to not let big personalities undermine your opinion and experience, and seek support from other women and people you trust within the workforce.
We all know there is a lack of balance of workloads between genders with (mostly) women picking up both home and work responsibilities. This can mean they need to multitask to such a degree that they have a higher risk of burning out. I’m personally not perfect in this area but my advice is we need to set boundaries and aim to get more even task-sharing at home!
When I discussed this issue with my daughters, it came up that women’s workplace health can be compartmentalised into specific issues such as ‘fertility’, ‘maternity’ and ‘menopause’, masking general sexism. This approach via specific life events for women can then play into a classic sexist view of women as ‘over emotional’ or that women’s health issues in the workplace are in opposition to workplace productivity.
I am hopeful that the younger workforce are more aware of the need for workplace equality, less gendered in their approach and have greater resilience and strength to make positive change in the workplace.
It was really refreshing for me to hear my daughters views – if you have the chance, do ask younger people you know what they would like to see improve in workplaces.”
3. Know yourself (especially the weird bits)
Adah Parris, artist, futurist, storyteller, activist & Chair of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England
“It’s taken me to 51 years old to fully understand and be confident enough to know that the more I am unapologetically myself, the happier I am.
So the best advice I can give is to get to know yourself.
See it as an experiment to have different experiences, take yourself out of your comfort zone and learn about yourself. Some of the best things I did in the past were pottery and belly dancing, for example!
I’d tell my younger self, or the younger generation of women, to embrace the ‘weird’ parts of yourself, celebrate them. That’s what makes you, you. I now embrace my neurodivergences; my dyslexia, ADHD and autism. I’ve stopped worrying about stuff I don’t understand.
The labels are helpful to explore the nuances of things but we can also get caught up in labels. My advice would be not to. Explore and then remember that there is no ‘one size fits all’ to or for anything. Instead, be curious, about yourself and others, actively seek out wonder, awe and playfulness. Show gratitude and appreciation for the little things.
Trust is also huge, trust yourself and look at who you trust. Do they all look and think the same, do they have similar lived experiences? If so how can you have a world view if you only have a narrow perspective? How can you diversify the knowledge, wisdom and lived experiences of those whom you trust.
Explore different ways of being and seeing. This will help develop your empathy and compassion, both at work and in your personal life.
Oh, yes, and don’t believe everything you see online. And remember to exhale.”
For another interviewee, Head of Inclusion at East West Railway Company Caroline Eglinton embracing her neurodiversity, see here.
4. Abandon the illusive quest for perfection; no one has it all
Hannah Pearsall, Head Of Wellbeing at Hays & Ambassador, Lets Improve Workplace Wellbeing
“I have 2 daughters, so this topic is close to my heart. I would say to them, entering the workforce that…
Despite what you might think nobody has it ‘all’, we’re all just trying our best, as soon as we accept this and abandon the illusive quest for perfection the sooner, we can start learning to love the life we have.
Being a working parent is a continuous juggling act of competing priorities, as one ball is flying high in the air, another is about to come crashing down unless you are ready to catch it and throw it again.
I am not just talking major balls – family, health, work, friends – it’s also the endless list of seemingly minor balls that take up huge amounts of mental capacity:
kids birthday parties…
fitting in exercise…
booking the dentist…
if you switched your hair straighteners off this morning…
the warning light on the car dashboard…
hobbies (what are they?!)…
the perennial ‘what to cook for dinner’…
how to limit the kids’ screen time…
changing the beds..
taking the bins out…
writing your will…
reading for fun…
You get the idea!
The advice I live by and share frequently is from Glennon Doyle in her amazing book Untamed: ‘Being human is not hard because you are doing it wrong, it’s hard because you are doing it right!’. Knowing this made me instantly feel better and is something I remind myself of often!”
For more on Hannah, see this profile here.
5. Challenge unreasonable demands
Sarah Wilder, founder and inclusion director at mpm included
“If you are overwhelmed, don’t assume that it’s because you can’t hack it. It is highly likely that it is actually because of scope creep and unreasonable pressure that is being placed on you beyond your actual role.
I learned this the hard way by driving myself close to a breakdown in my 20’s… Learn from my error, challenge unreasonable demands with a well thought out demonstration of what you are doing, based on your job description versus the demands, and if you are not heard: get the hell out of there to somewhere that values you properly!”
6. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries or be assertive
Andy Agg, group CFO, National Grid
“I have a daughter near her career starting age, so I’ve thought about what advice I could share with her and others of a similar age… This is what I came up with…
As a woman embarking on your career, it’s important to prioritise your wellbeing in the workplace.
Take care of yourself by setting boundaries and finding ways to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help or support from your colleagues or your boss. Remember it’s okay to prioritise your mental and physical health and doing so can actually lead to greater success and satisfaction in your work.
Also, don’t be afraid to be a strong, assertive woman in the workplace – it’s what will set you apart.
Always remember you are capable and deserving of success both professionally and personally and don’t let anyone make you believe that you are worth any less.”
For more on Andy, see this profile article here.
7. Avoid a soul-sucking role (even if it pays handsomely)
Dr. Frances Greenstreet, Founder & Lead Psychologist, Alpine Psychology & Female Founders Wellbeing Academy
“My niece is 7 years old and dreams of being a footballer.
In reflecting on what my advice would be to her on navigating the world of work today with her wellbeing intact, I realised that there’s a lot she can teach me!
She already knows how to be her true authentic self, has the confidence to step out against stereotypes, and uses her voice without fear in male dominated spaces. I wonder if she will still be the same by the time she’s 18?
Whether the discourses, narratives and expectations of society will have shaped her future steps? Whether she will still prioritise happiness and joy over expectation and the known path?
This is what I would say to her based on my experiences, especially coaching female founders around looking after their wellbeing…
Find a job that feels meaningful and aligned with your values as this will bring you more happiness than a soul-sucking role that pays you handsomely.
Talk to yourself with kindness and fierce compassion – you are more than enough, your voice matters and you don’t have to know everything, be everything and do everything all the time to have great impact.
Trust that rest and reset is the fuel of productivity. If you develop the habit of building these moments into your days you will have more energy for all areas of life. Surviving until your next annual leave is not a sustainable long-term option for any career.
Be realistic about your capacity and accept help. Not all time has to be filled. It’s ok to say no, to step back, to decline an opportunity – even if you know you could do it really well. Finding work life flow is a superwomen power – yet the cape cannot be worn 24/7. No one is perfect – aim for good enough and let go of any guilt, it is not yours to carry.
Actively notice, savour and celebrate things that go well and reflect on, accept and learn from things that don’t. When you learn how to stop difficult emotions sucking you into inaction, perfectionism or self-sabotage, you can free yourself from all stuck points and become truly unstoppable.
We are more than just our job titles. Life is more than just work. Your mental wellbeing is more important than you think.”
8. You are not defined by what you do
Clarke Carlisle, former Premier League football player turned equality, diversity, inclusion and mental health campaigner (and our keynote speaker at the Watercooler in April)
“My advice for my four daughters in the workplace would be the same advice I’d give anyone…
That you need to have that whole, 100% understanding of yourself, so that you don’t anchor your self-esteem into success in that one workplace, or that one job, or that one industry. None of that dictates your whole vocation or career. You are not defined by what you do.
Historically, when people have asked who I am, I’ve said ‘I’m a footballer’. But football was never who I was, it was always what I did.
We actively encourage our five children to discover who they are. We’ve taken our focus away from achievement. All I’ve ever asked of them is that they apply themselves, give things their all and try and enjoy themselves, because that’s ultimately what it’s all about. I hate the term ‘happiness’ but, at a young age, that’s how it’s understood and you have to apply yourself to be happy.”
For more on Clarke, see this profile interview here.
9. Always put your wellbeing first. Always
Shivani Uberoi, Founder of The Wallflower Academy & former Head of Women in Leadership at Sky
“Don’t try to fit in by changing who you are, instead invest time in networking and finding your community, who you can be your whole self with.
Know your worth, speak up for what you deserve and always put your wellbeing first. Always.”
10. Learn the skills to look after your body and brain
Amy McKeown, Workplace Wellbeing Strategist, Consultant & Mentor
“I have an eight year old daughter and I’m gearing her up for working life already with her wellbeing intact, by doing things like teaching her how to play Minecraft and buying her an electric guitar (meanwhile her friends are playing the piano and doing ballet).
Because, as a woman, you need to understand technology because it’s where the world is going in terms of AI, and you’ve got to be comfortable being surrounded by men.
I’m also making her ask for things; she wanted a part in the school play and I made her go for the lead. She didn’t get it but she got another part. I don’t care what part she has, just want her to understand whether she’s settling for something. And to have the confidence to go for opportunities and to ask for things.
Why am I doing this?
Because as a woman in the workplace you need to push yourself forward. Unfortunately, it’s a constant pushing forward and it’s a really fine balance between this, and pushing yourself forward too much, as for women pushing yourself forward too much can also have negative consequences.
I’m also trying to give her the skills to make sure that she sleeps properly, drinks enough water, eats properly and knows how to look after herself, body and brain. We talk about emotions, boundaries, health, et cetera, so she can truly understand, from a young age, her physical and emotional needs.
I know from mentoring women in the workplace that these are essential skills many of us haven’t learnt before starting our careers.
The other important piece of advice I’ll tell my daughter is to figure out her own value system.
Ah, and one more big one: support other women.”
Read Amy’s take on rethinking women’s health here.
11. Find your voice and use it
Lucy Vallis, Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing, Save the Children UK
“Don’t mould yourself to fit into how you think you should be, or how you think ‘they’ want you to be. Women are so good at masking (which I know all about, having ADHD). But my basic advice would be: don’t.
I’ve had senior managers who tried to mould me into what they wanted and – yes, you do need to be respectful in this situation – but you also need to find your voice and use it, and be authentic and true to yourself.
People won’t always like you for this and I’ve been called rude, difficult, opinionated and other things.
But it’s not about being nice.
To me, it’s about being honest and being able to fail. I’d say, find a place where you feel like you can fail and it’ll be perfectly OK because your senior managers will know that this is all part of the journey.”
12. Be kind to yourself
Daniel Chan, Global Workplace & Wellbeing Lead, dentsu international
“Throughout my career I have been surrounded by strong, compassionate, and knowledgeable women leaders. My advice is what I have learnt from them and would give others.
Believe in yourself, you are no different from anyone else. Be you and only you. Be kind to yourself, there will be setbacks but those will make you stronger and lead to your successes.”
13. Light a fire in your belly (yes, even if it makes you work ’til 3am…)
Simon Blake OBE, Chief Executive, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England
“In any conversations I have with young people about work I always want them to think about finding that thing that lights a fire in their belly and have a mindset that means they take every opportunity that you can to learn, try new things and grow.
As we continue to create a new world of work, I hope we can coalesce around the idea that work designed well can be so good for our mental health and inspire us. I don’t think it is right to create not a world of work where there are strict rules about what we will and won’t do, what is good for all of us or bad for all of us.
I was recently doing some leadership development for talented young professionals and someone asked ‘I was up till 3am doing a pitch last night, what would you say about that?’ I responded with something like ‘Did you get that punch the air feeling when you were done. Were you happy with it?’
They looked puzzled. We had a conversation about it being OK to work late every now and then to get things done; it is when the expectations are too great and we feel overwhelmed or out of control that it is a problem.
We can be too quick sometimes to label some things right and some wrong, or unhealthy and unhealthy. To me, it is really important we find our spark. If we work to strict one size fits all rules for mental health, we may not do those things that energise our soul.
Ultimately it is all about balance – creating a balanced life which work fits into.”
You might also like:
New webinar: Closing the Gender Health Gap – Addressing women’s health at work
Amy McKeown: It’s Time To Rethink How We Approach Women’s Health and Mental Health
We need an honest conversation about female burnout: it starts here
What I wish for other working mums, this Christmas and in 2023