How to Reduce Stress and Retain Women Professionals in the Workplace

October 1, 2020

How to reduce stress and retain women employees

Human capital is a company’s most important asset. Yet many companies lose a disproportionately high percentage of their capital over time: women professionals.

Even though women make up half or more of university degree programs, they comprise a much smaller percentage of executive or C-suite positions. They account for less than 30% of senior leadership globally and less than 7% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.


Many reasons have been given over the years, but they seem to boil down to one: stress. 

How to reduce stress and retain women employees

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Why are women more stressed out at work than men? 

In part 1 of this series, we started unpacking all the reasons that women experience higher levels of stress and anxiety at work than men.

The reasons all seem related to stress in one way or another. Take, for instance, the fact that about 4 in every 10 highly qualified women voluntarily take a break from their careers at some point. When asked why, many women cite other priorities such as caring for children and/or elderly parents and addressing personal health concerns. 

Few of us would argue the importance of these personal priorities. But their importance also gives them heft.

Women feel that heft in two ways. 

First, it adds to a probably already heavy load of personal and professional responsibilities. To manage the load, some priorities – like career aspirations – may be either re-arranged or dropped completely. 

And it’s not hard to predict the end result: a woman’s career is much more likely to look “non-traditional” or “non-linear” compared to a man’s (Moen and Han, 2001). Statistically speaking, it contains considerably more “off-ramps” and, further down life’s road, “on-ramps” back into jobs with poorer pay and less prestige. This process creates emotional and psychological stress. 

Second, women's choices may not always be understood by or align with those of professional colleagues. This can create relationship stress. 

There is often a disconnect between the values traditionally lauded in the workplace – long hours, above-and-beyond effort, and single-minded focus – with a multi-focused meld of career and personal values. This disconnect can create tension in the workplace, which often translates into higher levels of stress, anxiety, and poor health. Women working in male-dominated jobs take more sick leave and experience more health issues than women or even men in female-dominated jobs.

How to reduce stress and retain women employees

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What companies can do to reduce stress for women in the work environment

The following model is adapted from Cornell University researchers Kate Walsh, Susan Fleming, and Cathy Enz in their excellent article, Give and you shall receive: Organizational strategies for advancing women's careers. Their model is a special form of social exchange in which two parties -- in this case, a company and it employees -- offer each other something of equal value and receive equal benefit. 

This doesn't mean that each transaction is or has to be equitable. But over time, each party gets fair value for what they have invested in the relationship.

I call this a  "Win-Win Work Exchange." Someone else will probably come up with a snazzier title, but it works for now.

Win Win model to retain and reduce stress for women in the workplace

Illustration by Pamela Coburn-Litvak

At the center of the model is a fair exchange of “goods” between the organization and women employees. The left shows what the organization can offer (I’ve modified these a little to include some best practices from organizational research):

  • Development
  • Relationships
  • Autonomy and Control
  • Support
How to reduce stress and retain women employees

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Professional development opportunities 

While all stress is stressful, research has long shown that two things especially stress us out: lack of predictability and lack of control. This holds true for careers as well.

For women to stay engaged at work, they need to see a clear career path ahead. And this path must be able to bend around the multi-faceted, more family-centric priorities a woman may bring to the workplace.

This is not to say that men are not also striving for better work-life balance – many are. But research shows that long-term career planning is particularly important for women, perhaps because their career paths seem more easily derailed. Companies “need to be proactive and purposeful in identifying, developing, communicating and implementing a path for successful advancement” to their women workforce (Walsh, Fleming, and Enz, 2016).

How to reduce stress and retain women employees

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Relationships (Role models, Mentors, Executive coaches)

Relationships are also key to managing stress. Providing women with social support in the form of role models, mentors, and coaches will reduce their workplace stress and increase their engagement.

In 2012, Sealy and Doherty interviewed 34 high level women working in six global investment banks. Specifically, they were asked to describe how female role models had enriched or supported their career.

They mentioned several things. Role models provide relatability in the workplace, especially if they share similar backgrounds or hold similar values. As fellow mothers or caregivers, they have navigated the same work-life balance issues that face younger women. They also “[serve] as symbols of hope in providing tangible evidence that some women succeed, that women can retain their uniqueness and still be successful (Richardsen, Traavik, and Burke, 2016).”

Mentoring allows older, more experienced women to pass on guidance and support to younger women. Companies can facilitate this by hosting network events, providing mentorship training, including mentorship in performance metrics, and offering mentor-mentee pairing services.  

Executive coaching has been shown to be very effective in helping women establish a sense of professional identity. In the words of one researcher, this identity helps in “reducing the impact of male norms of leadership at senior levels, managing women’s motivation, and understanding how they could lead with authenticity (Madsen, 2017).” Specialty types of coaching such as “maternity coaching” may help women re-establish their career and professional identity after a family-related absence (Filsinger, 2012).

How to reduce stress and retain women employees

Autonomy and Control 

Through the middle years of a woman’s career, any sense of control may well evaporate as she tries to take on greater work responsibilities while also juggling the demands of children, spouse, and aging parents.

The goal of companies should be to help their women employees get that sense of control back.

When Cornell researchers interviewed 20 female executives about how to do this, they recommended two specific initiatives. First, they advised companies to provide women employees with as much autonomy and control as possible, especially during their mid-career. “Whether it [is] offering flexibility, or simply conveying trust that the job would get done (e.g. whether or not the person was in the office from 9 am to 5 pm), these small efforts on the part of the organization [are] viewed as symbolic and substantive signals of appreciation and value (Walsh, Fleming, and Enz, 2016).”

Second, they recommended that companies create an infrastructure of community and support that may extend beyond the boundaries of the workplace. The female executives gave examples of companies helping their employees find schools, doctors, parent networks, and other non-work resources. Sure, these services have nothing to do with work. But they pay off in other ways: enhanced employee loyalty and commitment as well as increased focus and productivity.  

Such support should also include an “on-ramp” plan to help those who have had to temporarily leave their responsibilities to re-enter the workforce efficiently and effectively.

How to reduce stress and retain women employees

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Flexibility and Support 

At the risk of sounding repetitive, flexibility is key to reducing stress and increasing engagement for women employees.

Numerous flexible work arrangements have been shown to help with work-life balance: reduced work arrangements, job sharing, teleworking or telecommuting, compressed work week, flexible work hours, and parental leave policies (Madsen, 2017).

Companies are much more likely to retain their female employees if they actively reduce the stigma of nontraditional work arrangements. They can do this by promoting a culture of healthy work-life balance for both men and women employees and maintaining positive relationships with those on family/personal leave.

For women, a culture of acceptance in huge. In one study of over 140 women professionals and managers, four work experiences were positively linked to greater work satisfaction and/or psychological well-being: 1) support and encouragement, 2) feeling accepted, 3) having opportunities for training and development, and 4) promoting healthy work-life balance (Burke et al, 2012).


Too often, companies and their women employees feel they must work at cross purposes to achieve their goals. Companies want to protect their investment in human capital; women professionals may be trying to serve their employer’s needs while not compromising their personal priorities and values. 

The tension created in the process can be substantial. When it reaches the breaking point, the women employee often ends up walking away. 

Since neither party gets what they want, this is a lose-lose scenario.

The “exchange” model described here seeks to remove the tension and increase employee retention. When companies give value to their employees in terms of 1) development, 2) relationships, 3) autonomy and control, and 4) flexibilty and support, the employees will give value in return: productivity, focus, positivity, commitment, and loyalty.

That's a win-win.

Burke, R. J., Koyuncu, M., & Wolpin, J. (2012). Work experiences, satisfactions and psychological well-being among women managers and professionals in Turkey. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 8(1), 95-111.
Filsinger, C. (2012). How can Maternity Coaching influence Women's Re-engagement with their Career Development: a Case Study of a Maternity Coaching Programme in UK-Based Private Law Firms. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching & Mentoring.
Hewlett, S. A., & Luce, C. B. (2005). On ramps and off ramps. Harvard Business Review, 83(3), 43-54.
Moen, P., & Han, S. K. (2001). Gendered Careers. Working families: The transformation of the American home, 42-57.
Madsen, S. R. (Ed.). (2017). Handbook of research on gender and leadership. Edward Elgar Publishing.
Richardsen, A. M., Traavik, L. E., & Burke, R. J. (2016). Women and Work Stress: More and Different?. In Handbook on well-being of working women (pp. 123-140). Springer, Dordrecht.
Sealy, R., & Doherty, N. (2012). Role models for senior women in investment banking: Affective and symbolic values. In annual meeting of the Academy of Management, Boston.
Walsh, K., Fleming, S. S., & Enz, C. A. (2016). Give and you shall receive: Investing in the careers of women professionals. Career Development International, 21(2), 117-143.

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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