Women face higher rates of workplace burnout and exhaustion than their male colleagues due to factors including greater family pressures, fewer promotions, and having to do more work for less money. The COVID pandemic has made this situation even more inequitable.
The World Health Organisation defines burnout as ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,’ characterised by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
- Reduced professional efficacy.
WHO emphasises that ‘burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.’
Ultimate life shift
After struggling with burnout, Deb Harman from Ultimate Life Shift made it her mission to learn as much as she could about the syndrome.
She says burnout is preventable if we take the time to manage ourselves in the workplace, let go of people-pleasing and set firm boundaries around the role we do, and the times that we are prepared to work.
‘Women are more prone to burnout due to our beliefs, most of which were learned in childhood,’ said Ms Harman.
‘As girls we were taught to please others, it is our role in life to make them happy so when we grow up, we become “people-pleasers” which means we find it difficult to say no. As people-pleasers we fail to set boundaries so those around us don’t understand what our limits are so we are pushed until we burnout.
‘Living with burnout I felt like a failure, I didn’t know what was happening to me, I just knew something wasn’t right, I had lost passion for everything in my life, I didn’t want to go to work, and when I was there I went through the motions of my job, but really didn’t care about what I was doing, all I wanted to do was get out of there,’ she said.
‘When the contract ended, I went to my doctor, he told me I was suffering from burnout and told me to rest for five weeks.
‘I tried to fight it, I wanted to get on with my life, but I ended up taking his advice because I just couldn’t do anything else, I had brain fog and I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I even struggled to have a conversation.
‘I started a journey of learning how to avoid this happening in the future, prioritising my own needs and managing my time so that there is time to relax and have fun each day.’
Deb Harman is now an NLP Master Practitioner, Relationship Coach, Hypnotherapist and Author with Ultimate Life Shift. Find out more here.
While workplace burnout is certainly not restricted to women, the pressure to ‘have it all’ is worse for women, with traditional roles still often expected to be filled along with additional workplace pressures.
The ‘always on’ nature of many modern workplaces, allied with social media technologies, has exacerbated the situation, with UK, US, Canadian and Australian studies all ringing alarm bells, particularly for women employees with more than one child.
Emotional exhaustion is a real risk, with long term threats to health and employability rising the longer it goes unaddressed.
If workplace burnout is affecting you, it is the responsibility of your employer to do something about it. If those around you show signs of burnout, be an ally and speak up. Toxic workplaces affect everyone sooner or later.
In practice, unfortunately, individuals often have to act to protect themselves, so look out for the signs in yourself and others, and act before it’s too late.