Supporting the Emotional and Physical Needs of Women in Uncertain Times: A Panel Discussion With Dr. Robyn Jones and Laura Long

During Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s Nov. 4 Women of Color and Their Allies event, Dr. Robyn Jones, senior medical director of women’s health at Johnson & Johnson and Laura Long, Vice President of Operations, Performance and Compliance, National Equity Inclusion and Diversity at Kaiser Permanente discussed the specific life challenges women face in the workplace. Topics of the conversation included women’s changing physical capabilities, caregiver responsibilities, financial instability, mindfulness, and family disintegration. Johnson & Johnson is a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Hall of Fame company for topping The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2018; Kaiser Permanente is also a Hall of Fame company, having top the Top 50 list in 2016. Carolynn Johnson, CEO of Fair360, formerly DiversityInc, moderated the session. Here’s a look back at their conversation.

Johnson: A shocking 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September 2020 alone. Women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic than jobs held by men, with women making up 54% of the overall job losses in the country. The impact of Black and Latinx women is even more severe. With all this new stress, instability and societal unrest going on in the country, plus our role as caretaker and provider in our families, it’s obvious our mental and physical health can suffer, especially if we don’t take steps to protect it.

Here to share their tips and coping mechanisms for reducing stress, supporting good mental health and for helping all of us feel more empowered in our lives during these uncertain times, Dr. Robyn Jones, senior medical director of women’s health at Johnson & Johnson and Laura Long, vice president of operations, performance and compliance, national equity inclusion and diversity at Kaiser Permanente. Ladies, welcome and thank you both for joining us. 

The first question I have for you is about the pandemic and the election, both of which have changed all of our lives this year. Our world has become so turbulent and chaotic and there’s so much unrest. How have you been dealing with all that’s going on and what kind of impact are you seeing in other women, especially women of color? 

Long: It’s definitely overwhelming. How much more can we take? For me, the most important thing you can do right now is pause and practice self-care. I was caught off guard a few months back when somebody said, “Laura, how are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, I’m doing great.” They said, “What are you doing that brings you joy?” And I could not think of one thing. And that was a shocking point for me to say, “I’m powering through it.” It made me think: “How am I modeling this for other people? How am I showing up? Am I covering to say, I’m okay on the outside, but not so much on the inside?” As I was having conversations with other women across my organization, especially women of color post-George Floyd, I was hearing the despair, the exhaustion, the depression, signs of being overwhelmed. It made me recognize that we needed to emphasize more and more on self-care: pausing, catching your breath and recognizing that, we might be superhuman sometimes but we also have to pause and give ourselves space and grace to breathe — and to ask for help if needed.

Johnson: Well said, Laura, thank you. Dr. Jones, I want to ask you the same question. First, how are you doing and how are you seeing these current times impact other women, especially women of color in the work that you do?

Jones: I’m doing great. And I sincerely mean that. And Laura, I think I felt like we collaborated on the answer to that question because I’m also a huge proponent of self-care and now is the time. Our lives are not one-dimensional as women. We are doing so many things at the same time and we have to figure out how to focus and plan and manage all of these things more now than we ever did before. And we do have to learn and remember to say, “no.” As much as we all want to be super women, even super women need downtime. And we need to be sure we’re getting that.

We’re presented with all of these “stressors” and we need to figure out how to respond to them — when we should and shouldn’t react to them. It’s important that we educate ourselves, we take a moment to focus, we hold our loved ones near and that we have gratitude for everything that’s happening right now — good and bad. Because we can learn something even from the bad. It’s all going to change us in some way. It’s all a part of maintaining our best selves — helping us continue to be rational and have a sense of calm, knowing that this too shall pass. We don’t know when, but it’s not forever.

Long: it’s so important for us as women to also be able to say “no.” And what struck me when Dr. Jones mentioned that is it reminded me the conversations I’ve been having, especially with women of color. These women have taken on some of the burden of trying to explain systemic racism or how it’s a lived experience. And that’s an incredible burden on top of your existing personal and work lives. It’s important for women to emphasize and to know that you don’t have to take on everything. It’s OK to say, “not right now” or “not at all.” That’s something we don’t do very well — especially women of color. We love to help. We love to be there for others. But it’s so important for us to also take care of ourselves.

Johnson: That’s so true, thank you! Moving on to our next question: There are thousands of people out of work currently as a result of COVID-19, especially women and again, women of color. The problem is so severe, some are calling it a female recession. How have you been helping women to deal with the stresses and uncertainties of this new normal? 

Jones: I have to let out a big sigh when you say that. We’re 50% of the population. And we have over 50% of the burden of COVID-19, whether it’s because of the work that we do in paying positions or the work that we do as caregivers or mothers or educators. So, for me personally — and I share this with my friends and my relatives — the key is circles. Sister circles are so important for helping people deal with stress right now, whether we’re virtual or whether we’re just staying in our little pod.

Women are the majority of the workforce. We tend to have multiple jobs — even multiple paying jobs. We may or may not have continuous health insurance, if we have insurance at all. We can’t be sick. We can’t take a day off. We may not have sick leave. It’s so important that we share these challenges as well as our wins with others. It may just be one person who you’re close to, but it’s so important. You can’t do all the heavy lifting all by yourself, so you’ve got to look at who or where you can turn for emotional assistance. It’s OK to ask for help.

Long: The intersectionality of who we are and how we show up can’t be left at the door. Having a collective community and being able to have discussions about how real our problems are and being able to acknowledge them is healing in and of itself. Knowing that you’re not alone, we’re not alone as women. At Kaiser Permanente, we’ve seen a lot of informal groups develop. Our business resource groups have been very instrumental in creating community and creating resources. That’s kind of the mission that we’re on right now: listening to our workforce, listening to our women and saying, “what are your biggest challenges? What can we do to help?” 

Jones: Although we don’t provide healthcare at Johnson & Johnson, we are a healthcare company. So, we’re always looking to be our healthiest. The past year, our health and wellness groups have provided tips, workshops, seminars — a number of different positive forms of self-care. And I can’t say it enough: it’s so important, especially working at home without your colleagues, having to be on virtual meetings, just having to be able to gear switch and be prepared all day long. The management of all that is part of a self-care regimen.

The other thing that we’ve done really well at J&J is allowing our employees to volunteer. For example, I’m a physician even though I haven’t worked with patients in a long time. But in the beginning of the pandemic, I still had the opportunity to volunteer two to three days a week doing COVID-19 testing in Philadelphia where the Black and brown communities were not being tested adequately. That opportunity to go and volunteer a certain number of hours over the previous months has been awesome and it also provides a means for taking care of ourselves, being able to reach out and help others.

Johnson: Mindfulness often comes up as one of the most successful methods for dealing with times of stress like we’re undergoing now. For those who don’t know, can you explain what mindfulness is, how it’s practiced and how you can put it to use in your life? 

Long: I’m so glad you asked this because I’ve been practicing mindfulness and meditation regularly over the past four years. For me, it’s just a time to reset. It grounds me. It’s a time to concentrate on the present with my body and to focus on my breathing. We forget sometimes that we need to breathe, and we need to breathe intentionally. I generally practice my mindfulness in the morning, but it doesn’t have to be anything super regimented at a certain time every day. You can do it in one or two minutes; I do it for about 15. Think of it as a guided meditation. You could use an app such as Calm or Liberate or you can do it on your own. Either way, just find a calm space where you can sit down, put your hands on your legs and focus on your breathing.

Jones: There are a number of easy breathing exercises you can try, such as “three relaxing sighs” which is three big deep breaths followed by a loud exhale. There’s another called “four, seven, eight” where you inhale while counting to four, hold your breath and count to seven, and then exhale while counting to eight. The benefit with these techniques is that when you focus on your breathing, you’re not focused on anything else. 

Long: These techniques have helped me so much during times of crisis and high stress. It helps me focus on the moment. I get anxious when I worry about something that’s happened or when I ruminate on something that I could have done better. Or when I think about the uncertainty of the future. Catching myself in these moments and just breathing can help so much. It’s free, and you can do it anytime and anywhere. You can do it in the office or in your car — you don’t have to have a sacred space. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it.

Jones: I’ve been practicing mindfulness for decades. It’s all about paying attention to your body in a special way: being in the moment, being focused and being nonjudgmental. And it’s good for more than just relieving stress. Mindfulness has been shown to help with many medical conditions including high blood pressure and chronic pain. I know Laura’s familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s a Vietnamese monk who developed a similar mental release you can perform while washing the dishes, where you focus entirely on washing the plate and nothing else. Just that momentary focus clears your mind.

You can also do something similar when you are eating. Most of us just think about getting to the end of the meal and how we feel afterwards. If we focused on the actual sensation, the touch, the feel, the taste, the smell of every bite full that we take, it would make eating an even more pleasurable experience. When you’re doing things mindfully, it really does help you to slow down your thought processes so that you’re in control again and not just reacting. You can respond to things the way you really want to. And that’s the ultimate in self-care.

Jones: That’s incredible information. Finally, before we conclude today, I want to ask you what gives you hope or keeps you going in these chaotic times. What helps you to refill your battery for the future?

Long: I would say collective community gives me hope. So does purpose. We recently hosted a conversation with the motivational speaker Molly Fletcher, and she talked about how purpose suffocates fear. When you stop and think about what your purpose is — in the middle of all the chaos —focusing on the positive and directing our energy towards our purpose really does suffocate fear. When you’re grounded on what you’re meant to do and what you want to do, then somehow fear, even though it’s still there, ends up taking more of a backseat. As for collective community, seeing folks wanting to just support each other also gives me hope. No matter what is happening in the world, we have each other, and then kindness will prevail.

Jones: For me, recognizing our resilience is hopeful. It really has sustained me. And as Laura mentioned, that community that we have, and learning about yourself and knowing that you can succeed. Figuring out what it is you’re taking away from situations and what you’re giving away — what you want to keep, incorporate and what you need to deflect. And all of that contributes to resilience.

We have all bounced back already from so many things throughout our lives. And this last year has been a true test. I know we’re exhausted. But it’s OK. I have to bounce back again. Yes, you do too. But we can do it. And when I say “can” it’s because you are able. You are willing. Because we’re all going to get past this. This will be in our rearview mirror before we know it. And when you look back at everything we all will do in our lives, this is just going to be a blip. It’s going to be quite memorable, but still just a blip.

Johnson: Well said, and great words to end on. Thank you both for your time today, for your beautiful smiles, you’re uplifting spirits and what you shared. We deeply appreciate you. 

*Note: quotes have been edited lightly for length, clarity and readability.


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