As some would agree, there are two types of women in the white collar workplace. Those who do a job. And those who chase a career. Some points are common to both. The expectation of a compensation worthy of their time, designation, for one. The need to get ahead, for another. But when it comes to performance, the gap yawns wide. The job holder works because she has a job, often floating through it, doing the required whatevers, and hoping at times to get away with even less than the minimum expected of her.

The reasons could be many. Ranging from pure lack of interest in the job to stresses at home. In the latter case the workplace is often just a getaway, with the bonus of a pay packet for the hours spent away from a stressful home environment. The career chaser has aspirations. Higher designation, greater responsibility, more visibility among peers and superiors and of course a proportionate improvement in lifestyle.

The career chaser is the one who needs watching. She comes equipped with some character traits that she has nurtured early in life. High goals, strong self-criticism, and performance anxiety.

As an Indian study pointed out, of the approximate 77 per cent of Indians who displayed at least one symptom of stress, with one in every third Indian struggling with stress and anxiety, ‘younger Indians, particularly from the Gen Z cohort, were more likely to be affected by stress, anxiety, and chronic illnesses.’ And women reported higher levels of stress than men in the same age group and social strata.

Fighting the competition

Indeed as mothers and teachers can see, it starts early. Especially in girls. Perhaps as a school or college student, she realises the need to fight the competition and come up trumps. She works harder, in the process driving herself to a point where she is constantly trying to be more equal than her peers, in everything connected with her studies, her looks, her body image. At this point, moments of anxiety-related exam-stress, are forgotten once the stressful period passes.

But unknowingly, she has got on to a treadmill that she will not get off from for the next decade at least.

So, she continues this in the workplace. Where, unlike as a student, the external forces are not in her control. Office politics, personal prejudices of superiors and co-workers can cause setbacks despite her performance. Tipping self image, making her push harder. It is something high-achiever women believe: that it is a man’s world still, and one must run twice as hard to stay in the same place. So, foot on accelerator, they push on.

Adding to her raised cortisol level could be other non-work factors; for a woman is, unlike a man, never an island. She invests more deeply in relationships (no, we are not counting the exceptions to the rule), and could be buffeted by ups and downs in her interactions with a significant other, an elder, and of course children and their physical and emotional needs. Being super mom is part of her package, as it being the insta-worthy hostess and home maker.

Such women, studies show, are twice as likely to be hit by anxiety disorders. The likelihood of depression is 2.5 times higher too. Because even as they drive themselves down the road they have set on, the negative feelings they encounter are quietly internalised. Physical signals like neck or back pain are straws that add their weight. As a mental health counsellor puts it, ‘the overwhelming sense of being burdened by the responsibilities of home life while trying to advance — and often just maintain a standard of excellence — in their career’, can cause havoc with her health.

Additionally, many report feeling that their male partners are not shouldering an equal share of their responsibilities, which exacerbates their frustration, stress levels, and overall well-being, significantly impacting their mental health, as a counsellor recorded.

This is not to scare women into giving up their careers. Or to entice them to give up their search for excellence. But to alert them to the need to find ways to de-stress; through hobbies, me-time ‘trivial’ pursuits, group or family holidays where responsibilities take a break, yoga… A large percentage of women admit that part of their stress comes from the fact that no one else close to them is aware they are stressed. ‘The process of sharing your emotions with someone you trust actually builds your inner strength and emotional resilience, giving you tools to cope better in future’, says a counsellor.

So time to stop. Take stock. And course-correct for those who feel this rings true for the state they are in.

The writer is a Consulting Editor with Penguin India