Women in Health & Safety
Imposter syndrome: 4 health & safety professionals on how it’s affected them
Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments and gives a persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved because of one’s own efforts or skills.
Women are particularly likely to experience it (and there has been much research done to understand why – there are links to further reading about that at the end of this article). So, I’ve interviewed four women about their experience of the condition. I’ve asked them how it makes them feel, what they do to manage it and how employers can help.
Interestingly, through the course of these interviews and other informal conversations, I’ve noticed a lot of health & safety professionals feel the need to have such a wide breadth of knowledge and be seen as an expert in so many different areas, which is sometimes contributing to imposter syndrome. I’ve also become aware of just how common it is, affecting people at all stages of their careers, no matter their level of seniority or outward confidence.
This interview is part of a series for Women in Health and Safety. As a member of the committee my goal is to amplify the voices of women in the profession. Some of the topics covered affect women more than men. Some are deeply personal. It’s my belief that we bring our whole selves to work and therefore should be able to talk about all sorts of issues that affect us, day-to-day, in a work setting.
Two things have struck me throughout this series. 1) We all have so much in common. 2) People are often very willing to open up, if they’re given a safe opportunity to do so with someone who is willing to listen without judgement. So, my hope is that issues discussed in this series resonate with readers, perhaps making some feel less alone, perhaps even giving some the confidence to share their own stories. I also hope readers will be encouraged to check in on colleagues, talk about the whole selves we bring to work and be there to listen.
Imposter syndrome came up in a conversation with friends and Donna realised she had been experiencing it herself. Despite professional achievements and regular assurance through her work, she had doubted her confidence, both professionally and personally. Through Donna’s professional coaching, she has helped her turn negative feelings into a positive force. In this interview, she explains how imposter syndrome affects her, and how she is learning to manage it.
Donna is Group Risk Officer at Caesars Entertainment UK, a casino company. She is responsible for risk in EMEA, including the UK, and subsidiaries in Egypt and South Africa. She has developed and implemented a new risk management framework for the business and reports into the board. She also covers health & safety and environmental management. She started at Caesars in November 2019 and previously worked at Sky, at EY for System Concepts and Lockheed Martin.
After years of feeling she wasn’t fully equipped to do her job (despite being so), Alice stumbled across a social media post about imposter syndrome and it immediately resonated. After further research, she identified herself as having ‘The Expert’ type of imposter syndrome (There are five different categories of imposter syndrome, which you can read about here). Like others who fall into this category, she is extremely knowledgeable in her field but can feel less experienced if she doesn’t always have the answer. In this interview Alice describes how she’s had to push herself out of her comfort zone and rationalise her thought processes to manage her imposter syndrome.
Alice is a HSQE advisor for CAF Rail UK, an organisation that manufactures and maintains rail carriages for projects around the UK. Alice’s background is Animal Science, and she fell into a health & safety role at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Whilst at the charity, she discovered a passion for health & safety, got her NEBOSH Diploma and has stayed in health & safety ever since.
Ann has experienced imposter syndrome on many occasions. At times, it’s been linked to PTSD and a desire to avoid confrontation. She has also found herself feeling less worthy when sat around a meeting table with others paid more than her. Ann has spent years working to keep her imposter syndrome under control, and in this interview shares the physical & mental techniques she uses to tone down her stress response.
Ann has over 20 years of experience in managing workplace wellbeing, health and safety. She has worked across multiple sectors after leaving behind a molecular biology research career to follow her passion for promoting safer work. She has held various roles throughout the higher education, health promotion and consultancy sectors, as well as supporting professional standards through IOSH and other professional body committee roles.
10 days into a new job at a new company, Beverly found out she was pregnant. Not long into her new role, she went on maternity leave. Her baby daughter arrived in March 2020 and Beverly took eight months off. But when she returned to work, she had completely lost her confidence and was questioning her ability to do the job. In this interview, she talks openly about how her confidence was knocked and what is helping her find her feet again.
Beverly is a Global Health and Safety Manager for DAZN, a live sports streaming company, where she manages all health & safety responsibilities as a team of one. She has been at DAZN since June 2019, and prior to that worked for Peabody, a housing association in London.
When did you first experience imposter syndrome?
Donna Walker: “I’ve always experienced it but never recognised what it was until fairly recently, I’d been at Caesars for a few months, and I’d been given the opportunity by the business to have professional coaching not long after going into a new role – Group Risk Officer. It was a new role for the business and new role for me, my background was in health & safety and not broader risk. By chance, I was involved in a conversation about imposter syndrome, and I realised that’s what I had been experiencing.”
Alice Brewster: “I had it for a few years before realising what it actually was. A year or two ago I saw a post on social media about it and it massively resonated.”
Beverly Coleman: “I had it when I came back to work after eight months on maternity leave. Like many women, I’d spent the whole time focused fully on my child, not thinking about work, and when I came back, I felt like a shadow of my former work self, I’d lost so much confidence in my ability to do my job.”
What does imposter syndrome feel like?
Donna Walker: “I get a nagging feeling about my ability to do things. I feel anxious, or I’ll just overthink a situation. I can have negative thoughts about situations coming up or conversations that I’ve had, and it builds up. I always want to do the best in any situation and my drive can make me feel like I haven’t done my best.”
Alice Brewster: “The social media post I saw described it well for me – feeling like you’re faking your job and the panic of being found out. When I read that post, I had a lightbulb moment of ‘Oh my god, it’s not just me that goes into work and thinks someone’s going to find out that I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing’.”
“The weird thing is, no one’s ever questioned that I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s only me questioning myself. I know this is in my head, so I just have to try to convince myself.”
Ann Diment: “It made me feel that I wasn’t enough because of my mental health challenges. I’d imagine what other people might think of me, rather than what the reality might be.”
Beverly Coleman: “When I came back from maternity leave I couldn’t get my head back into health & safety. So much had changed since I went away (because of the pandemic). I questioned whether I knew anything about my job. I’d have to really sit down and think before sending an email because I didn’t want to sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about.
“It’s been a challenge to gain that confidence back and say, ‘I do know what it is I’m doing’, especially with projects that were started and spearheaded by my maternity cover and I hadn’t been involved in.”
In what situations have you got imposter syndrome?
Donna Walker: “It’s hard to identify a trigger. I could go into a meeting one day and feel absolutely fine but go into the same sort of meeting the next day and have had a sleepless night worrying about it.”
“It could be meeting new people, doing video presentations, or working on something that I haven’t done before. Last year I was asked to do a bunch of videos for the company about returning to work following the lockdown. The HR director asked if I could do it and immediately, I thought, yes, no trouble at all. But then I went away, and I started to feel ‘eek’ about. I still did it and it was successful, but the process I personally went through raised my anxiety, I now realise that I can channel than into positive energy.
“As health and safety professionals we are required to have such a massive breadth, especially when we look at things like the IOSH competency framework, your behaviours and so on. I think that can make it more challenging.”
Alice Brewster: “Going into meetings where I’m likely to be asked questions, I start to panic that I’m not going to know the answer.”
Ann Diment: “When I was doing higher level, voluntary work with IOSH, I had imposter syndrome around the fact other people around the table were being paid a lot more than I was. That made me feel like I wasn’t as important as them. But looking back at it, actually, I was wrong.
“My imposter syndrome was also linked to my PTSD and when you’ve got PTSD you want to avoid confrontation. I have worked in Academic settings where there were a lot of egos, and confrontation seemed like part of the job – it couldn’t be avoided.”
Beverly Coleman: “Because I’d been on maternity leave for so long, not thinking about work, there was a lot that I’d forgotten. People would say things like ‘it’s part of section 37’ and I’d think ‘ok, what is section 37 again?’ It takes a while to get back up to the same level that you were at when you left. Add to that, I was still getting up in the night with my daughter and I’d wake up feeling exhausted, but still having to try to be alert in meetings.”
Has imposter syndrome stopped you from doing anything?
Donna Walker: “I don’t think it stops me from taking on a challenge. But it might change the way I have a conversation with someone – I might talk too much or not ask a key question because I’ve been nervous about it.”
Alice Brewster: “Career wise, I’ve taken sideways steps, applying for jobs that I was comfortable with even though it wasn’t really what I wanted. When I eventually went for a job that was a big step up, I got it and realised it wasn’t outside my capabilities after all. It made me think ‘have I stalled myself for years by not doing this sooner?’”
How do you manage your imposter syndrome?
Donna Walker: “I don’t think it will ever go away, it’s just a case of learning how to manage it. The first way I do that is by having plans in place prior to going into nerve-wracking interactions or challenges. In those plans, I’m clear in my mind about what I want to achieve.
“I also make sure I reflect after doing something challenging, such as a big meeting. I’ve realised I should own my achievements. By that I mean I should have personal, internal recognition. And it does help to write these things down to make it more real. I ask myself – ‘did I achieve what I intended to achieve? Is there something I could have done better?’ The challenge can be telling yourself that it’s because of your drive and determination that you’ve achieved something, not by luck. By owning my achievements, I give myself more confidence for future.
“Professional coaching has also really helped me. I’ve been working with Rob Olorenshaw at Motion Learning and he’s shown me three ways to manage imposter syndrome.
- Manage it. Document success stories over your lifetime. This helps give you the affirmation that you’re good enough.
- Name it. Make friends with it or tell it to go away and have a positive mantra for when it arises – that could be words, a theme tune or something else.
- Embrace it. See it as a force for good, something which spurs you into action. Channel the negativity into positive energy. (I’ve used this one a lot.)
“Now I look at anxiety and negative feeling and see it as my drive to achieve. It’s all about turning imposter syndrome from a negative to a positive.”
Alice Brewster: “I tend to over-prepare for meetings and will go in with a lot of background information. I try to pre-empt what the questions are going to be. I also now try to accept within myself that saying ‘I don’t know right now’ is a suitable answer – especially with health and safety needing such a massive scope of information.
“I resonate with the expert side of imposter syndrome. So, I have a lot of faith in qualifications – I have qualifications coming out my ears, as soon as I finish one, I’m on to the next.
“And now that I’m now more aware of my imposter syndrome I have conversations with myself to try and rationalise my thoughts. I might see a job description and the immediate voice says: ‘you’re not going to apply for that’. But I now step back and think more logically about why I should/shouldn’t apply for it, rather than accepting that immediate, negative reaction.”
Ann Diment: “Because my imposter syndrome was linked to the fact that I was hiding mental health challenges, when I told my story it removed fear for me.
“I also draw on the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and find breathing and tapping helps me. It’s like acupuncture without the needles. When your fear/stress response is activated, the first thing that you lose is creativity. By tapping you send a signal to your amygdala, which sends out all your stress response. And it’s like a dimmer switch, tuning it down. You see a lot of public speakers gently pressing their fingertips together or tapping their hands – that’s what they’re doing.
“And you can ask yourself ‘If I do this, what’s the worst thing that could happen?’ Imagine it, think about how you’d respond if the worst were to happen and that helps you feel prepared for that worst-case scenario. Then imagine the best thing that could happen. On balance, you might even find you can visualise the best thing that could happen better.”
Beverly Coleman: “At my company a colleague had set up a group for parents coming back from maternity/paternity leave. It was a safe space where we could talk about how we were feeling. That was helpful in making me understand that was I was going through wasn’t unique.”
Is there anything that employers and managers could do to help colleagues with this?
Donna Walker: “Definitely. Looking at the IOSH competency framework and going back to the behaviours piece to open up dialogue. Managers can help people become more aware of what they might be experiencing. They can look out for people in their team who might seem nervous and help them with it.
“I spoke to my own manager about my feelings of imposter syndrome, and he was immediately supportive, he’s been brilliant. When I told him what I was feeling he reassured me that a lot of people experience it. Having that conversation helped me see it’s not just me. He advised he to ‘channel the butterflies into positive energy’, easier said than done but a good starting point for acknowledging.
“Managers could acknowledge there can be a male/female dynamic to this. I’ve read and heard imposter syndrome is apparently more common in women. I think that will come down to the fact men have traditionally been seen to be more suited to senior roles and women would be in supporting roles. Even though a lot of work has been done around gender bias, there’s still an undertone of it this, sometimes at an unconscious level. For example, I talk to my Mum about people in Senior roles and she immediately refers to them as him/he. We laughed about it the other day and she said, ‘Oops I’ve assumed that again’. She knows but it’s just engrained in society at times.”
Alice Brewster: “More awareness of it would be a big help. I stumbled across it on social media but might not have found out about imposter syndrome otherwise. It needs to be talked about and not stigmatised. A lot of people struggle with it and maybe aren’t even aware that they struggle with it, they might just have this little voice constantly nagging at them without really understanding why. Managers should enable teams to have open conversations about it and talk about how it affects them.
Ann Diment: “Treat people like human beings, not numbers on a spreadsheet. Be compassionate and create a culture that respects the individual. Teach people self-compassion, helping them to value themselves.
“Some companies in Silicon Valley started each day with a gratitude exercise. The first thing every employee did in the morning was send an email of gratitude to another work colleague, telling them something they were grateful for about that person/what they had done. As a result, productivity and team wellbeing shot up.”
Beverly Coleman: “Understand we will need time to adjust back into the role after maternity leave and could have confidence issues when we come back. Also let any woman going on maternity leave know their role is understood. Make sure there is a proper handover, whether it’s to another colleague or maternity cover. When that doesn’t happen, if you’re somebody who takes pride in your work, in the back of your mind you’ll be thinking, ‘Am I going to come back and find things have been done the way I’d have said they should be? Will they know what I was trying to get across?’ And if the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’, that can have a big impact on your confidence.”
5 Different Types of Imposter Syndrome (and 5 Ways to Battle Each One) – The Muse
Imposter Syndrome Prevalence In Professional Women and How To Overcome It – Forbes
Why imposter syndrome hits women and women of colour harder – BBC
How to Overcome ‘Imposter Syndrome’ – The New York Times
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Read more from this Women in Health & Safety interview series.
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