As we’ve read in so many headlines in the past several months, the mental health of professionals and executives has taken a strong hit since the pandemic began. In one recent study by health insurer Bupa Global, for instance, nearly eight out of 10 corporate executives have experienced poor mental health during the coronavirus crisis, prompting a number of them to re-evaluate and improve work-life balance.

But is work-life imbalance alone that the culprit? In my career, executive and leadership coaching work, I am seeing so many professionals who are struggling emotionally, physically and mentally in new ways that they are unsure how to address. While some of these challenges are indeed related to work-life balance difficulties, much of what is being experienced emotionally is about more than “balance.” It’s about fear, uncertainty, sadness, experiencing a loss of control, social isolation, giving up joyful activities that were meaningful, fearing for the health of their loved ones, dealing with the rage, division and instability we’re seeing in our country, and more. 

Whether we’re struggling with true work-life imbalance, or other emotional issues that make us exhausted, drained or anxious, how can we process those feelings in a way that will be helpful? And how can we grab control of our lives and find new ways to juggle everything we’re dealing with? First, we need to understand what work-life balance is and isn’t.

What is work-life balance really?

Each of us needs to define work-life balance in the way that helps us achieve basic wholeness, health, authenticity, wellness, self-nurturing, and sense of satisfaction and reward and fulfillment with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

I’ve seen that for so many women, work-life balance is extremely difficult to achieve, even in non-pandemic times, but right now, women are being negatively impacted to a far greater degree than men. Work-life balance has been a challenge for women for many years, given how they are conditioned from an early age to not put themselves first and honor (or even identify) their own needs and wants, let alone speak up about them.

We live in a patriarchal world that has shaped this dynamic and in this type of system, girls and women face serious societal and cultural pressure to be pleasing, vulnerable, emotional, accommodating and malleable, as opposed to the “masculine” stereotypic ideal of being strong, assertive, confident, dominant and invulnerable. From an early age, girls and young women are discouraged from being assertive, speaking up powerfully, and from putting their needs in front of others’. This often leads women to develop weaker boundaries that make it difficult to say “no” to what they don’t want or no longer want to tolerate or accept.

My research over 10 years has revealed that there are 7 damaging power gaps that 98% of professional women face today, and one of the top gaps is Gap #3: Reluctance to Ask for What You Deserve. Of the over 1,000 women I’ve surveyed, a full 77% indicate experiencing this gap. When we feel we can’t ask for what we want and deserve, our ability to balance our lives, responsibilities and desires will suffer.

For many women I work with, work-life balance represents these things:  

1) I have control over what I say “yes” and “no” to, at work and at home

2) I feel good about my choices and I’m not over-ridden with guilt, confusion, and resentment over what I’m doing or not doing

3) I’ve stopped “perfectionistic over-functioning” – doing more than healthy, appropriate and necessary and trying to get an A+ in all of it

4) I’m conscious and intentional about what motivates me to act as I do, and I’m good with those motivations

5) I’ve overcome my addiction to working myself to the bone and trying to please everyone but myself

6) I’m clear about how my behavior impacts others and I feel I’m a positive role model for my partner, family, children, and others

7) I’m open to constructive feedback about my behavior from those I trust, and I modify appropriately when the need for more balance, wholeness and wellness emerges in my life.

When people can say “yes” to the above statements with surety and clarity, it often means that their life is unfolding in a way that makes space for the following positive outcomes:  

– I’m dealing head-on with my responsibilities in an empowered way

– I’m doing what’s necessary to keep me feeling well, nourished, respected, in control and able to handle my challenges in a proactive way

– I’m coping well with my stress and I nurture and restore myself as a regular practice

– I’m open about when I need help

– I’m doing what I need to to stay afloat, but also planting the seeds for my future self 

– My personal life, work life and family life are, overall, satisfying and rewarding

Without strong boundaries and the ability to shape how you work and how you manage your life outside of work, your mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health suffer. In working with thousands of people, I’ve had a special lens into the top regrets of mid-career professionals. One of the most damaging regrets is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard and missed out on so much.”

So many men and women in mid-life share that they regret missing out on being in the fabric of their children’s lives. Or they missed the chance to have children. They missed the opportunity to build true intimacy and closeness with their spouses, family and friends. They missed experiencing adventure, travel, enjoyment, vitality, learning, spiritual growth – not having the chance to stop and relish life, nature, good health, peace, or relaxation. They sacrificed so much to pursue work goals that now feel meaningless and empty.

I’ve seen that too that when people get to the end of their lives—in their 80s and 90s—they’re not thinking at all about the work goals they strived so hard to achieve. They’re thinking about love and family, about the people that matter deeply to them, and how they made a difference to these people. And they deeply regret what they didn’t do with and for these loved ones.

How is the current pandemic affecting our work-life balance?

Unfortunately, mothers are still shouldering the bulk of the caregiving, even though most fathers are now at home full time. As unpaid caregivers, women are still performing 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).  

Almost half of fathers with children under the age of 12, however, have contended in a recent survey that they are spending more time on childcare than their spouses. Yet, only 3% of wives reported that their spouses are doing more

To actively create more work-life balance and emotional health, below are several key strategies: 

Start standing up and speaking up about what you need

Research shows that women still assume the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities, even if they work, and even when they are the primary breadwinners. This overload is extremely difficult to thrive through.

We have the personal power to change this dynamic. It boils down to prioritizing with courage and conviction what matters most to you, then building the sufficient boundaries to shift your focus away from what matters less. Shed the need to do it all perfectly and embrace help from all those who will give it. And learn to trust that you aren’t meant to handle everything yourself, and live two or more lives within your one. 

Identify where you can take action to ask and empower others—your spouse, children, colleagues, subordinates, etc.—to take on more responsibility, wherever possible and appropriate. An essential corollary to this is freeing yourself from guilt and shame about needing and wanting help and remembering that getting help is a way of saying “yes” to what matters most.

If you find this shift in attitude and behavior challenging, it’s helpful to examine why you may believe you’re the only one who can do all that you’re doing. Get support from someone you trust and respect, to see what may be holding you hostage, keeping you chained to your need to do it all, and perfectly.

This type of honest self-exploration often leads to discovering past traumas and subconscious beliefs that no longer serve you. Perhaps your childhood was insecure, and your parents weren’t reliable or there for you, leaving you feeling frightened and alone. Maybe your authority figures or teachers demanded perfection, withholding acceptance or love unless you showed them evidence of your perfection. Or perhaps your self-esteem was beaten down so that being in control or perfect was the only way you knew how to survive.

Address what you fear most

While fear sometimes motivates us to make positive change, it can also keep us stuck. In my past, I had deep fears that bad things would happen if I didn’t control everything at home, and those fears kept me angry, resentful and worn out.

We all have fears. They’re a necessary and helpful component of human existence. But the more locked away your fears are from our conscious thought, the more they drive you to behave in unsatisfying, self-destructive, and limiting ways—without your awareness or consent.

If you’re finding it impossible to enjoy your life and figure out your top life priorities (let alone honor them), I’d take a look at your deepest fears. How are they driving and limiting you, and wearing you out?

What do you fear most? Death, rejection, success, pain, exposure, vulnerability, sadness, separation? Bring this fear into your awareness and talk to it. Get to know it and live with it.  Confront what frightens you the most and embrace it as a friend. Only when we face our fears directly, with open hearts and minds, and the willingness to feel our vulnerability, can we deal with them more effectively.

Get help from others

Receiving help from other people in your life is essential. We can’t do what we dream of and live happy, rewarding lives without support. If managing everything on your plate is overwhelming, reach out and ask for help.

I love the concept I learned in my training as a therapist: “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.” When we overdo for others, we rob them—our children, spouses, or colleagues, friends, and employees—of precious opportunities to directly experience their own competence and power. To create new balance and wholeness in your life and work, ask for (insist on) the help you need and deserve.

Make joy and fulfillment the barometer

If how you felt every moment of every single day was your barometer for “success,” how would you be doing? Is all this crazy running around, exhausting yourself and driving yourself to distraction, bringing any peace, joy, or fulfillment at all? Can you even be present in the lives of your children or loved ones if you’re driven and obsessed?

The obvious answer is “No.”  If experiencing the world in a fully present, alert, and alive way, and feeling joy using your abundant natural talents could become your measure for a life well lived, what would you need to do differently?  This month, make joy, fulfillment and well-being your measure of success, and observe how you operate differently in doing so.

Close your power gaps

As so many men and women are facing the 7 damaging power gaps I mentioned above, identify which gap(s) are impacting you most today. Then, take one microstep this week—one small, doable step—to address this gap.

Briefly, here are the 7 gaps:

#1: Not recognizing your special talents, abilities and accomplishments

#2: Communicating from fear, not strength

#3: Reluctance to ask for what you deserve

#4: Isolating from influential support

#5: Acquiescing instead of saying “STOP!” to mistreatment

#6: Losing sight of your thrilling dream for your life

#7: Allowing past trauma to define you

Decide once and for all that you deserve to live a joyful, fulfilling and balanced life, and commit to doing what’s necessary to become the most powerful, impactful and healthy version of you. Then get on the brave pathway to becoming that most powerful you, every single day,  even (and especially) during this pandemic.

Kathy Caprino is the author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professional women build their leadership and career success in her Career & Leadership Breakthrough programs.