Women hold themselves to higher standards. While striving to prove themselves in a workplace designed for men, they still carry most of the responsibility for home and family. Stress is a constant companion for many.
Our bodies aren’t built for chronic stress. The spurt of adrenalin, the racing heartbeat, the rapid breathing of a fight-or-flight response: They’re great at infusing us with the resources we need to get away from a hungry tiger. But when they linger day after day, they take a toll on our physical, mental and emotional health.
Spirituality is a rich source of strength for coping with stress, especially for women, according to Dr. Bettie Bertram. A supervisor of special education and English as a second language for the Upper Adams School District in Biglerville PA, she spoke at the University of Nebraska’s conference on Women in Educational Leadership in Lincoln in October.
Spirituality comes from spiritus, the Latin word for breath. Breathing slowly and deeply calms the spirit. We pause for breath before trying something scary, saying something difficult or blowing up at a colleague.
In breathing we send out what is within us and draw in support from beyond ourselves. We connect with a larger context beyond ourselves. Breath is a metaphor for spirituality, which is notoriously hard to define.
Bertram uses the term spirituality in its existential sense to refer to a feeling of meaning and purpose—what we do while we’re here. Some see spirituality as an underlying thread; others call it a filter through which they see the world. It doesn’t have to involve a deity or a religious tradition.
“For me, spirituality is an action verb,” she told WIHE. “The knowledge of spiritual laws is fantastic but it doesn’t give strength ‘til you put it into action.”
Higher satisfaction, lower stress
Spirituality is a relatively new field of study among educators and psychologists. Some medical studies have investigated its role in resistance to stress-related diseases.
Her dissertation research at Duquesne University PA focused on two core questions: How does spirituality relate to happiness and stress? Do women and men differ in how they use spirituality to help cope with stress?
Bertram surveyed more than 30 women and a comparable number of men who were Pennsylvania superintendents or other school administrators. Questions on the survey fell into three categories: spirituality and religion, life satisfaction and work-related stress.
Results were unequivocal, showing a very strong correlation between the three variables. “The higher the level of spirituality, the lower the level of stress. The higher the level of spirituality, the higher the level of satisfaction,” she said.
Religion had similar results, though the people who ranked high on religion in her study weren’t all the same as those who ranked high on spirituality. The two aren’t the same. Spirituality is personal. Religion is linked to practices, traditions and an organized community.
Even more surprising, she found no statistically significant difference between genders. Like many, she’d expected women to indicate a stronger level of spirituality than men. Perhaps women talk about it more, at least when they’re away from work.
Helping women cope
Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton wrote about “virgin time,” time when you aren’t doing things or planning things or thinking things through. It’s contemplative time with no agenda but to be present, open to potential. It’s a time to breathe.
Contemplative time can be a lifesaver for women leaders. Multiple roles subject women to perpetual stress. Most of us come through the big traumas pretty well, but “the daily stressors are what do you in,” Bertram told WIHE.
Last August, after her third stroke, she began scheduling daily devotional time to decompress. Although 10 or 15 minutes in the morning or evening was nice, what really helped was taking the time at lunch.
If your stress builds up gradually and maxes out by the end of the day, she explained, by lunchtime you’re halfway to the max. Contemplative time takes the level back down to zero. Stress starts building again in the afternoon but never reaches the max. That’s good news for health and wellbeing.
Without even trying, since August she’s cut her medications from 14 to 5 and dropped two jeans sizes. “When you reduce your level of stress, you lose some belly fat,” she said.
Taking time for contemplation brings other benefits:
• Personalizes your day . Women spend much of the day getting dragged from one demand to the next. Spiritual time is just for you.
• Deepens self-knowledge. Contemplation and self-reflection together help us discern what’s inside and nurture its growth. “They calm your head and calm your heart to listen to what you’re being told,” she said.
• Clarifies your priorities. A clear sense of meaning and purpose offers a filter to identify your priorities, helping you sort out which of those demands will get your response.
• Improves balance. “Spirituality lends a hand to help you maintain equilibrium,” she said. Women have so many roles, we need to step back. We need to play more.
• Brings out your best self. Spirituality increases our patience with others. “It helps you establish your character, which is what you do when nobody’s looking,” she said.
Spirituality and leadership
Ego-driven leaders don’t accomplish as much as leaders who bring mindfulness, hope and compassion. Spirituality is a powerful tool for growing in leadership. Setting ego aside, the leader can meet challenges with a mind open to the lessons to be learned.
Clear sense of meaning and purpose bring energy to a work group. In effective leaders, meaning and purpose are contagious. They enhance motivation. Workers feel connected by a common mission that goes beyond them as individuals. Connection and transcendence bring joy.
Transformational leadership, mission and vision describe such a workplace but they don’t fully define it. Spirituality refers not only to the leader’s vision but also to the philosophy or framework that underlies it.
Ethics can exist without spirituality—but not vice versa. Spirituality demands ethical living. As spirituality grows, leaders may increasingly find good decisions flow naturally.
Leaders who draw on spirituality to cope with stress are wonderful role models. Others who work with them can learn from example how to live healthier, more satisfied lives.
Along with role models, many studies show women professionals need more mentoring and networking. Spirituality may increase mentoring and networking by allowing women to be real with each other. Opening up can feel threatening in a male-culture workplace. “I think the strongest link is to allow us to trust one another. It’s difficult for us as women to allow ourselves to be vulnerable,” she told WIHE .
Developing spiritual leaders
What are the implications for professional development? It may be as important to cultivate internal qualities as outward knowledge and skills. Indeed, self-reflection is now a component in several leadership development programs.
Can spirituality be taught? Yes, but generic mass-market spirituality won’t give leaders enough substance to deal with the complexity and ambiguity of most issues.
Bertram’s done some research into the spiritual training of seminary students. But since they’re a self-selected group with a spiritual calling, it’s not clear whether similar approaches would work with people who didn’t start out with spiritual leanings.
Seminary evidence suggests that calling can’t be taught but motivation can. Both are aspects of spirituality: “You can refine and redefine your spirituality through calling and motivation.”
In publicly funded schools, spirituality needs to be presented differently. “I can get away with existentialism. I can get away with meaning and purpose. I’m not sure it matters so much what you call it,” she told WIHE.
Several years ago she was teaching in a high school where some of her students were victims of abuse. The high school counselor, knowing she’d had a difficult childhood, asked how she’d gotten through it. Bertram soon realized the role of inner spiritual resources.
She met with the girls who’d been abused and shared her experiences. She didn’t have to use religious terminology or images. She talked about paying attention to your gut. “It’s what you hear in your head versus what you hear in your heart,” she said.
Women who learn to listen more deeply to the heart can grow as leaders. As their stress declines, they can increase in both effectiveness and joy.
Dr. Bettie Bertram