In April 2015, Milan-based Erika Ferszt, 46, was the global advertising, media & digital director for Ray-Ban. Ferszt spent her days launching worldwide advertising campaigns, managing teams on different continents and attending glamorous events with celebrities like Jude Law and Gisele Bündchen. It was a dream job but ultra-stressful, and Ferszt was making plans to dial back her workload.
Then, weeks after being given a clean bill of health at a complete physical, Ferszt started losing the vision in her right eye during a high-powered business meeting. Yet a 10-day hospital stay that included a battery of diagnostic tests revealed no underlying conditions, which led doctors to blame Ferszt's vision problems on one thing: stress.
Coming at women from all sides
Stress is up across the board these days. New numbers show that 44% of both male and female workers report feeling more burned out in 2021 than in 2020 (34% said the same). But it's harder for women, the majority of whom feel like things are worse for them than they were before the pandemic.
If you've seen the photos of women trying to work while kids play underfoot and dirty dishes languish in the background, you know addressing chronic stress, and burnout needs to happen right now.
In the workplace, women are experiencing stress because of a longstanding gender pay gap and a lack of access to easy pathways for advancement or a 'broken rung' on the ladder to management, which results in fewer women being promoted to managers than men. And in terms of compensation, women in the U.S. earn only 82 cents for every $1 made by men, which results in about 80% of women feeling weighed down by job and money stress.
Add to that the demands of an 'always on' work culture, made worse by the pandemic, that's particularly hard on women, many of whom were juggling careers, homeschooling, and family responsibilities all day, every day. According to research from McKinsey, mothers have been more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for housework and caregiving during the pandemic — and they're 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an additional three or more hours per day on housework and child care. Any guesses about who's also handling more of the responsibility of remote schooling?
"Women aren't in one place, like the office, nor are they in the other, meaning home," explains Jennifer Moss, author of the forthcoming book "The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It." "That's leading so many people — with women in particular — to feel overwhelmed with chronic stress." And even making women feel less ambitious about their careers.
If stress isn't managed, it can contribute to both physical and mental health issues. When the body is stressed, it releases hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which supply the energy and awareness needed to get through a tense situation. But when the body remains in a prolonged stressed state, the excess of hormones can lead to digestive issues, anxiety, high blood pressure, and weight gain. It can also lead to menstrual cycle changes, decreased fertility, and even hair loss for women.
Researchers don't yet know all the reasons stress affects women more so than men. Still, part of it has to do with the fact that women's cognitive functioning is hardwired to reflect more deeply on situations, seek more approval, and lead women to want to be in control of things. Women are also predisposed to a higher risk of depression, making it harder for women to cope with external stressors.
What to do about it
The truth is, some of these stressors can't be relieved without considerable changes, like flexible work hours and better parental leave policies. But stress management techniques and innovations can help.
Studies show that regular exercise reduces stress levels and calms the nervous system. Yoga, gym classes, jogging — take your pick because they all help. And since accountability boosts commitment and follow-through, new apps like 99 Walks aim to connect users with others in your area so that exercise can be combined with socializing (which also reduces stress). Win/win!
Eating well is essential to managing stress. So choose foods that include Omega-3 fatty acids (such as walnuts and salmon), plus foods with magnesium (leafy greens and soy products) over junk food, which can be calorically dense, but low on nutrients.
Selective technology use
Mindless scrolling through your phone late at night really can disrupt your sleep, so limit electronics before bed to help encourage your body to wind down into sleep. If you are still having trouble getting into the sleep zone, new tech innovations that don't require looking at a screen are worth checking out.
Meditation apps, such as Headspace, Calm and Happy Not Perfect, promote relaxation through calming music and sleep stories (some of which are read by celebs like Harry Styles, Kate Winslet and Idris Elba). Or, if you need more help, there's also Maven, a women's telehealth app that provides remote access to integrative health practitioners including sleep coaches, psychologists, nutritionists and career coaches, and Happyify, a mindfulness app that offers games and webinars to uplift and soothe.
Finding someone who can help you sort through the stressors in your life and make a plan to manage them can be another excellent stress-relieving strategy. Many clinics offer treatment on a sliding scale, and universities with graduate programs in psychology or social work often offer free or low-cost treatment options with students.
Another important new resource: Online therapy apps like TalkSpace and BetterHelp offer e-sessions for individuals, couples and teens with various fees for monthly subscriptions or one-time sessions. The online community 7 Cups also has 'sharing circles' and forums organized by topic in addition to tele-therapists and community members who have become 'trained listeners.' So, know this: There is help out there, and unlike the days of reclining on a therapist's couch, it's only a few clicks away.
We're at a critical point when it comes to the impact of stress on women, but it's also leading to change. After leaving Ray-Ban, Ferszt (who regained her vision) created Moodally. This app uses scientifically backed audio and visual content to help shift moods and create a more positive mindset. And Moss believes we could be on the cusp of a well-being reboot. "Let's not waste the crisis [of the pandemic]," she says. May it at least be something "we can use to measure what we've learned, and what good can come from something so traumatic."