Workplace stress may be more than a mental nuisance — research shows high levels of stress are often linked to physical illnesses, ranging from consistent headaches to long-term disease. Recent studies have also shown women in particular may be at risk for experiencing symptoms associated with inordinate stress; a study conducted by health and safety consultant Arinite found that women in the U.K. were 1.5 times more likely than men to experience excessive levels of stress.
Randi Protter, a physician who specializes in women’s health at the Capital Health Center for Women’s Health, frequently treats female patients suffering under undue levels of stress that consequently harm their well-being. “In my career I take care of women and one of the biggest issues that I see is stress,” Protter says. “It affects my patients emotionally, physically, and interpersonally.”
Protter will lead a program at Capital Health in Hopewell on how to manipulate, control, and manage stress. The event, presented by the Princeton Chamber’s Women in Business Alliance, takes place Thursday, February 25, from 5 to 7 p.m. Tickets cost $25, $40 for non-members. For more details, visit www.princetonchamber.org/wiba.
Protter says that her female patients experience significant amounts of stress in their workplaces, often related to other responsibilities they assume outside of the office.
“Women wear many hats — we are spouses, mothers, and daughters, and often find ourselves caring and nurturing those in our lives, while simultaneously being productive in the workplace,” Protter says. “We often look at the big picture and multitask significantly. This influences how we interact with our colleagues and in turn how we can support them.”
While some level of pressure might be necessary to compel productivity, it is crucial to prevent stress levels from reaching the point where they compromise both focus and physical health, says Protter. In her presentation, Protter will discuss how women can identify and better respond to high levels of stress. She will also emphasize how leaders can translate their own experiences with stress into creating the most productive workplace for their own employees.
“We want to have women understand how stress works, both the acute kind of stress, the fight or flight response, as well as chronic stress,” says Protter. “We want women to be able to recognize stress in themselves and others and to the best that they are able, create an environment with optimal stress levels for the people that are working for them.”
Protter says an important tactic individuals can employ in order to minimize inordinate stress levels is making a concerted effort to control their surroundings — for example, turning off cell phones when at home, or practicing breathing exercises to regulate the body’s natural response to stress.
“You can only control what you can control,” Protter says. “It’s easy to be connected 24 hours a day. It used to be you would come home and although you might be upset by work, work was still at work, but it’s not like that anymore. Being able to really control your environment is incredibly important — the physical presence of your environment and how you interact with your environment.”
Protter became interested in researching and discussing issues related to stress after witnessing how it impacted her patients. Protter, who has been taking care of women for more than 15 years, started working for Capital Health in 2010 after previously working as the medical director of a health center exclusively for women in Somerville.
“Women have special needs, there are diseases unique to women, and to be able to give them a perspective is an honor and professionally and personally gratifying,” Protter says. “I like that I can take care of women through the spectrum of their lives—I take care of women from 16 and up, so you’re with them through all phases of their life.”
Protter is the only member of her family with an interest in science — her father and brother pursued careers in advertising and her mother worked as a secretary. She earned a bachelor’s of science in biology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MD from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Protter now lives in New Jersey, where she raised her two sons, both now in college.
Protter says her personal experience of working while raising two children has made her cognizant of how life outside of the workplace may engender stress in women.
“So many women are working women, which means that they have a family at home, and when they leave home they are still moms and wives and caretakers for their parents, so when a woman comes into the workplace she doesn’t just leave this all behind and come in and have a perfectly focused day, and then go back to her home life,” Protter says.
Protter believes that the responsibility is not solely on women to control their own stress levels, but on employers and leaders to understand the particular issues at stake and stressors that may be affecting their female employees, in order to foster the most constructive working environment.
“If we can disseminate the information on how stress effects women, and how we can find a balance without burning women out and causing physical and emotional damage, as a society we’ll be better for the wear.”