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Could a simple ‘no’ be the answer to women’s health?

National statistics tell us that the top four killers of women in Australia are dementia, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease (which includes stroke) and lung cancer.  

Ask working women what they are concerned about, however, and there is little talk of heart attacks or stroke.  Instead, it is the day to day battle with exhaustion and overwhelm that pre-occupies them.  My own workplace surveys of female employees have found that stress, tiredness and making time for self-care are top struggles for women.  Studies confirm that tiredness is a pervasive theme in women’s health research:

  • Approximately 55 per cent of young and middle aged women complain of constant tiredness, according to the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health  which involved 27,000 young and middle aged women.
  • Almost one in two Australian fulltime working mothers say they are extremely tired or completely exhausted on a regular basis, according to the Australian Work Life Index Survey 2010.

In other words, half of our adult females are on the brink.

These surveys were conducted before the pandemic.  Imagine what women’s energy reserves are like now. Since COVID-19, working women have been taking on even more  unpaid domestic duties and suffering increased domestic violence – a trend that’s sadly been observed after many large-scale disasters, including bushfires and cyclones.

If we are serious about protecting the vitality of women, a massive cultural shift is needed on many levels.  In the meantime what can we women do to restore our most precious resource for living – our energy?

Discipline, a healthy lifestyle and pampering are often promoted as the answers to  overcoming stress and tiredness.  There’s nothing wrong with focusing on these, but there’s a higher order skill that’s required.  And that’s the ability to say “no” more often to the demands of others.  This is something that many women struggle with.

“I don’t want to let others down,” is a common refrain I hear from the women I coach, when they explain why they weren’t able to finish work on time, or why they said yes to another project or social engagement they really didn’t have the capacity or desire for.  (Decoded, “I don’t want to let others down,” really means: “I don’t know if I can tolerate the discomfort I might feel when I change my patterns and others react to this.”)

Worry about being perceived as selfish is another reason women find it hard to set limits. That’s despite the fact that making space to attend to our own health and wellbeing is a self-responsible act that prevents others from having to step in and pick up the pieces when burn out strikes. 

These inner resistances, though powerful, can be overcome when we stop and honestly take stock of the costs of over-riding our natural limits.  The psychological toll is that  we end up living in resentment, which is a sure-fire way to erode our vitality.  Repeatedly pushing on despite tiredness also keeps our sympathetic nervous system ‘always on’, elevating stress hormone levels, which over time white-ant the very foundation of our wellbeing. 

If you are tired of feeling tired, and want to practice the art of healthy boundaries to create more space in your life so you can cook more nourishing meals, incorporate more physical activity or take a nap instead of throwing down another coffee, here’s one suggestion to get you started.  Look for opportunities to use the pause button. (Oh, and do get your iron checked – deficiency affects between 12 and 18 percent of ‘healthy’ women.)

Here’s how it works:

Using the Pause Button

  • Next time someone asks you to do something for them, if you have any measure of doubt or know your pattern is to always say then regret it later, realize you don’t have to respond immediately. Press pause and say – ‘Leave it with me, I’ll get back to you.’ Let the person know when.
  • While pausing, consult your body.  What is your internal response to this request?  If you feel rising stress, resentment, even panic in your body, these are all signs that you are already working at your limits.
  • Ask yourself whether this activity aligns with your priorities.  If you don’t know what your priorities are, spend some time reflecting on them, possibly in conjunction with your manager or a trusted friend.
  • Reflect on the consequences of saying ‘yes’.  Ask who else or what else will be affected, and are you OK with that?
  • Consider if there any conditions that would enable your involvement, such as sharing the role or additional support.  If so, see if you can negotiate them.  
  • If you decide ‘no,’ remember that you are saying no because you have a bigger yes burning inside.  That bigger yes is a commitment to stand up for the needs of the loyal servant that is your body, knowing that when we feel nourished and spacious, everyone around us benefits.

No apologies required.

By Thea O’Connor, workplace wellbeing advisor

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