My friend had a heart attack a few days ago. We laughed about it, saying it wasn’t a heart attack at all. All she had was a broken heart.

The thing with her is that like most women today, she can manage everything. She does everything. She is a wonderful mother, a compassionate friend, a hard-worker and an understanding colleague. She takes care of everyone so no one thinks she needs to be taken care of also.

When women work, we are judged against the same standards as men are. We work as hard, we travel as much, we work the same number of hours. Everything is the same of course, because we also want equal pay. On top of that if you work in a fragile context, you are living on Adrenalin where you can see your value-addition every day, where your carry the burden of your supposed indispensability 24 hours a day. We push ourselves, because we are committed, passionate people. Problem is that if you are a woman, you also feel the pain and suffering of people around you, maybe more than you should. You probably worry about the health of your colleagues and the people of the country you are here to serve. As women we carry a little bit more than most men do.

But most importantly, we also run the house. I may work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week but I am the one organizing groceries, buying meat, setting the weekly menu, making sure my kids have a balanced diet, their fees are paid, play dates are arranged, sufficient hugs and kisses are given and they are happy, kind, and loved. Basically, I work 24 hours a day and on top of that I am a mother and a wife and the home-maker. I see my colleagues worrying about how to nurse their babies when they return to work, or taking time out to attend the PTAs and doctors’ appointments. A  friend from work recently confided that she was on the verge of ending her marriage because of the constant expectations of perfection from all sides – to be a professional and to be a wife. I never see men struggling to find this balance. 

How much of that is understood in the work space? Very little, because men do not and cannot understand what they have not learned. Women do not talk about it because few of us see our role as mothers and wives as a burden. We see it as our life. So every little bit of us, intellectually, physically, emotionally is stripped away until there is nothing left to sustain us. Until there is nothing left to help us move forward.

At what time did it become uncool to say, I am tired and I need a break? At what time did we say that it is brave and masculine to hide your pain and suffering? At what time did we decide that pain and suffering has no space in the workplace, where we spend most of our day?

We have created an environment where everyone takes pride in being strong, independent and brave. We need to not bring our emotions into the work space. We judge others who confess to be weak and vulnerable. We do not support each other. We mock those who admit to having flaws. We forget that we are not robots. We forget that we are human.  

We need to change our expectations from women in the workplace, but mostly, we need to change our expectations from what is a healthy work-space. We are not Adrenalin junkies. It is NOT cool to always be busy, to always be working, to hide the pain and to push through. It is ok to set boundaries and limit ourselves so we can be there in the long-term.

My belief is that management is willing to help if we raise the issue. How many of us will raise the issue? Not many, for fear of being judged, for fear of being considered unprofessional. We need to have stronger peer-support systems, stress counselling but mostly we need to create an environment where it is cool to ask for help, where it is cool to say, “I need a break”. Where it is appreciated when you ask for something instead of giving all the time. Where we are allowed to have flawed, vulnerable human beings in the workplace rather than over-achieving robots.

Perhaps the solution is for men to be involved parents with more empathy. A world where the definition of masculinity includes not just protection or provision; but affection, care and empathy. Perhaps if men had the same responsibilities in the home as women, our workplace and society would be different.

My friend has a broken heart because she gave this world everything she had, and the world gave her little in return. The office continues as it always does, the kids go to school and cope with her absence, everyone moves on in their life. The world continues to give nothing, she continues to receive nothing.

We broke her heart.

How many more hearts will we break?

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