Stressed-Out Female IT Pros Might Be Blaming Wrong Cause

    Are women in IT more prone to stress and anxiety than their male counterparts? Yes. But that’s not because they’re in IT. It’s because they’re women.

    That was my key takeaway from a recent email interview with Dr. Megan Jones, chief science officer at Lantern, a provider of professional coaching and emotional wellbeing programs in San Francisco.

    “We don’t have any reason to believe that females in IT suffer from stress or anxiety-related disorders at a rate that is different from women in general,” Jones said. But Lantern’s research has found that women are 11 percent more stressed and 16 percent more anxious than their male counterparts. And that’s not all.

    “Women are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder as a man is. Anxiety disorders also occur earlier in women than in men,” Jones said. “Women are also more likely than men to have multiple mental health problems during their lifetime. The most common to co-occur with anxiety is depression.”

    The drivers of this anxiety, according to Lantern’s research, probably won’t come as a shock to women in IT:

    • The desire to be “perfect” and fear of “falling short.”
    • The strong will required to stand up for their ideas, which can also lead to an unforgiving view of themselves.
    • The belief that if they are not constantly marking off tasks, they will fall behind.

    So why do women tend to be more deeply affected by the drivers of stress and anxiety than men are? Jones said social factors play a role, but so does biology.

    “The brain system involved in the stress or fight-or-flight response is activated more readily in women, and stays activated longer than in men,” she said. “This is partly due to estrogen and progesterone.”

    Jones cited this explanation from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:

    The neurotransmitter serotonin may also play a role in responsiveness to stress and anxiety. Some evidence suggests that the female brain does not process serotonin as quickly as the male brain. Recent research has found that women are more sensitive to low levels of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), a hormone that organizes stress responses in mammals, making them twice as vulnerable as men.

    I asked Jones how she would differentiate between stress and anxiety in this context.

    “Stress is defined as a general sense of arousal, and is actually difficult to classify scientifically because it is such a subjective experience,” she said. “Anxiety is often experienced as being worried or on edge, and is accompanied by avoidance (of the anxiety-provoking stimuli), and somatic complaints. This overlaps with how some people experience stress, and the difference can be explained somatically—meaning some people really might meet the criteria for anxiety, but describe it as ‘stress.’ This stems from stigma around mental health.” 

    I asked Jones if there’s any difference between what causes stress and what causes anxiety in the workplace. She said there are likely specific “triggers” or “cues” for anxiety and stress for individuals.

    “There are common situations like speaking in front of large groups or being in a high-pressure situation in which you are being evaluated by others that cause stress for many people,” she said. “Stress is often worse when you think that you don’t have control over a situation, or are tolerating a high degree of uncertainty.”

    Jones went on to explain that while we can draw some conclusions about common “stressors,” these “triggers” can be everyday events.

    “The key is how we react to them and how we manage these emotions,” she said. “Another key piece is how severe the stress or anxiety is, and whether it’s repeated all the time. Most of the bad stress/anxiety comes from how well or not well we process events.”

    For example, Jones said, getting a huge project assigned to you at the last minute with very little time to complete it, and that is a high company priority, will likely cause you some stress. The best way to handle a stressful situation, she said, is to think of what a great learning experience it will be when you succeed, rather than thinking of how it will set you back professionally if you don’t succeed. So the way you process events will lead to more or less anxiety. Moreover, short-term anxiety and stress can actually improve performance, but long-term and repeated high levels of stress and anxiety can have negative health implications, like higher blood pressure, hypertension and weight gain, she said.

    Lantern advocates these stress-relieving tactics for high-achieving women:

    • Box it up. To manage conflicting responsibilities, visualize boxes where you can put each obligation when you’re not actively engaged with it. Avoid thinking about something while it is in a mental box.
    • Set values, and stick to them. Decide what’s important to you, and prioritize your time. Draw firm lines with respect to how much time you spend in each area of your life, and don’t start bending them to benefit your career.
    • Create “you” rituals. Experiment with meditative activities (such as working out) and turn the best ones for you into daily rituals. Give your brain a chance to quiet down as you begin and end a busy day.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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