Reimagining empowerment: women, wellbeing and work

The wellbeing at work message is landing. From adopting flexible working practices for all to being mindful of mental health, good employers know that safeguarding employee wellbeing generates organisational wealth.

Panellists and chair at the Oxyzn Empower HER HR networ event March 2024

Pictured: Eleni Kostakou, Christina Garidi, Stefania Triantou, Alexandra Kafka.

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Positive workplace cultures that support employee wellbeing promote engagement, retention and high performance. These highly engaged organisations perform better by providing the conditions for individual and team motivation and personal growth.International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month in March offered a timely focus for conversations in the wider context of inclusion around refining workplace wellbeing policies, practices and networks for everyone.Among the thousands of in-house and external networking events to celebrate was Oxyzn’s energising EmpowerHER HR networking event at Home Grown members’ club in central London. The panel discussed ways to break through glass ceilings – either structural or self-imposed – and focused on empowerment and what it means today.  To talk about the links between wellbeing and career growth, panel chair, Alexandra Kafka, CEO and founder of workplace wellbeing platform, Oxyzn, was joined by Eleni Kostakou, corporate wellbeing architect, Stefania Triantou, talent acquisition specialist at Cisco Meraki, and business coach Christina Garidi, TEDx speaker and founder of Eudaimonia.

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Reimagining empowerment

“Today’s event is all about women’s empowerment,” said Alexandra Kafka, introducing the panel. “Why is this an important topic? It is because we want to celebrate and honour this month the way we should. In our business, Oxyzn, women’s health is one of our hot topics and pillars. We prioritise women’s wellbeing and health in every programme we offer.”The conversation’s starting point was making the concept of empowerment relevant again. “The term empowerment has become a buzzword and therefore lost its meaning,” said Alexandra Kafka, who, through the corporate wellbeing platforms she founded, supports thousands of people every day to maintain balance at work.“With Women’s History Month in full swing, there are so many examples of women’s empowerment. To me, it feels like everywhere there are positive stories in business, in politics and popular culture. Women and women’s empowerment have worked their way into culture. Today, women like Beyonce and Taylor Swift are celebrated by their fans for their female empowerment.“This is all great, but I personally feel women’s empowerment has become something of a buzzword. My invitation today is just to remind ourselves that empowerment only has meaning when we look beyond buzzwords and ask exactly how, who and what it proposes to change.“Women are in the workplace and, despite the gender pay gaps and lack of women in senior levels, they are happy with their lot were it not for the stresses and strains. Yet a Gallup poll showed 77% of women said they burnt out in the past 12 months.”The signs of burnout include being drained of energy; feeling hopeless, unmotivated and detached and negative, as well as imposter syndrome and an inability to make decisions (‘analysis paralysis’). The panel unpacked how, by taking a more mindful approach, people can build resilience, self-awareness and the skills to process and grow from the full range of emotions workplace stress can trigger to become empowered, fully present and realise their potential.

Can stress at work power career growth?

“We can all name the causes of stress and anxiety in the workplace, including a lack of time and a toxic culture,” said Christina Garidi of Eudaimonia Coaching. “But the symptoms of stress are always going to happen. Stress puts self-worth at risk when you seek external validation to self-soothe. If you build up your self-worth, your validation comes from within. The first sign is asking for help because you deserve this.”Looking after your wellbeing is fundamental to professional success. “You can’t take care of anyone if you aren’t taking care of yourself,” said Eleni Kostakou, who is passionate about helping companies develop their people cultures through coaching and wellbeing.For people working in HR, line management and senior leadership roles, this role modelling becomes especially important when promoting wellbeing policies, flexible working, signposting people to employee assistance programmes and when designing benefits employees appreciate individually and collectively.“Finding the right tools to help you navigate and digest these emotions and be unapologetically yourself means you make wellness a non-negotiable,” said Alexandra Kafka.Nurturing self-worth and exploring which tools and techniques work for you are important steps towards overall wellbeing, empowerment and career success. This includes working on self-limiting beliefs, awareness of external pressures like the ‘rise and grind’ and ‘hustle’ cultures that play into imposter syndrome and the misconception that perfect balance exists, said Christina Garidi. Instead, it is about having the skills to adapt and be present and allowing yourself to fail sometimes.

Building a golden circle

Nurturing your professional networks, as well as support outside of work, are part of this toolkit. A ‘golden circle’ of mentors, sponsors and peers can offer a safe space for reality checks, explained the panel. Networks are also vital for sharing experiences that will help challenge narratives – both your own and others – around what it takes to achieve your goals, including practical advice on international opportunities or updating skillsets.Cisco Meraki talent acquisition professional Stefania Triantou said networks and workplace cultures that accent and support personal development are key to enabling people to navigate towards their goals and achieve their potential. Mentors can help focus your learning and development while having a sponsor “who knows your worth and who will advocate for you in a room of opportunities” are important to have in your golden circle.“Setting individual SMART goals is also important,” added Stefania, whose approach to recruitment is to hire, develop and empower. “These quick wins and small steps help to build confidence. What if we turn imposter syndrome around and embrace it as something good for us? Something that helps us try harder and recognise that sometimes our insecurities are useful for making us get out of our comfort zone and into a growth mindset.”It's also ok to not know your purpose. “Don’t be disheartened if you haven’t found it yet,” said Stefania, who has worked in the tech sector for six years and understands the career and job-seeking challenges women face. “Seek opportunities and find someone in your network who can help you learn new skills. The more you do it, the more you change and learn more about yourself. If you are working in a company, ask how they can help you. If you don’t drive it, it isn’t going to come to you by itself.”

Empowering others

Asked what empowerment and success look like for women, Eleni Kostakou said defining success for yourself is the first step. Then it is working out how to embrace all the emotions of being a ‘human being’ as well as a ‘human doing’, then aligning yourself to your career purpose through goal setting.Christina Garidi agreed and “doubled down”. She interprets empowerment as a three-stage process. First, this is recognising your value and that of what you do. Second, is finding where you belong. Third, is earning respect through these first two steps and then empowering your network to do the same. “What you find valuable in your work, others will also find value in,” she explained. “Then you will naturally attract your golden circle, from where you can empower others.”From the outset, “this means asking the right questions of yourself,” said Alexandra Kafka. It is also where effective coaching and mentoring as part of the golden circle comes into its own. “Be bold, curious and inquisitive,” said Stefania. “It’s extremely important to have a growth mindset.”"We know that stress and anxiety can mess with our minds and bodies, affecting how we think and even how our hearts work,” concluded Alexandra Kafka, wrapping up the evening of networking with HR professionals from large global retailers, tech companies and the public sector.“In my inner circle of clients and partners, eight out of ten females are stressed out with their jobs, obsessed with their careers, or feel like they can’t connect with normality. The other day, one of my very good partners said that she keeps sitting in work meetings fantasising about walking away and never coming back. This isn't just a fleeting idea — it's a concerning reality.”Yet having workplaces and networks that empower women to look after themselves, find value in what they do, and support others changes mindsets. They also improve health, performance and workplace retention in a world where women still face year-round barriers to progressing their careers.
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