Women are at most risk of job burnout than ever before – here’s how to get back in control

    Published: 27 October 2021. Written in by Marina Gask.

    A massive 42% of women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce compared to 35% of men – but why is the gender gap in workplace burnout getting wider? 

     After the job uncertainty surrounding the pandemic – and the question of what work will look like in its wake – there’s no surprise that many of us are feeling the strain. Research by Mental Health UK revealed that nearly one in four working women in the UK feel unable to manage stress and pressure at work, with only 44% confident that their employer has a plan in place to prevent them from burning out entirely – and it’s a problem that’s on the rise. According to this year’s Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey, women are even more burnt out now than they were a year ago, with the problem escalating much faster among women than their male counterparts.

     Of course, employee burnout, or chronic stress, is not a new phenomenon, but three-quarters of HR leaders think the risk of falling prey to it has increased potentially due to the ‘e-presenteeism’ brought about by mass home working during the pandemic. Research by The Office Group found that 32 is the age UK workers are most likely to experience burnout, with contributing factors including working longer hours and being unable to separate work and personal life – something which has become increasingly difficult while WFH.

     Factor in family life and there are even more pressures to deal with. Analysis from workplace culture consultancy Great Place to Work and healthcare start-up Maven found that mothers in paid employment are 28% more likely to experience burnout than fathers in paid employment.

     ‘Apart from workload, women may have a number of factors behind their stress including job insecurity, increased caring responsibilities and the pressure of home-schooling children,’ explains Elaine Carnegie, founder of workplace wellbeing and mental health consultancy BeingWorks. Financial worries can contribute to a sense of overwhelm. A recent study showed that 87% of women felt financial worries were a contributing factor to their stress.

     ‘As we move to a hybrid working world, part of burnout prevention is not to impose a one-size-fits-all approach in the workplace when statistics point to such significant gender differences,’ suggests Carnegie. ‘The impact of the pandemic has been fragmented in so many ways, with women facing particularly challenging sources of stress from the blurring of lines between their personal and professional lives.’

    Spot the signs

    The key to dealing with burnout is taking it seriously. ‘Don’t ignore the signs of burnout that could cause further harm to your physical and mental health, as well as affecting your ability to meet the demands of work,’ says Carnegie. Burnout typically has these distinct characteristics: feeling exhausted even after a good night’s sleep or time off; feeling detached from work, negative or even annoyed with colleagues; ineffectiveness, lack of accomplishment and a feeling you can’t be successful. ‘Other features of burnout are lower immunity, headaches, muscle pain or discomfort, self-doubt, reduced motivation and feeling like a failure. You may find yourself withdrawing or procrastinating,’ she adds.

    Create boundaries

    According to the Mckinsey report: ‘Without clear boundaries, flexible work can quickly turn into “always on” work. More than a third of employees feel like they need to be available for work 24/7, and almost half believe they need to work long hours to get ahead. Employees who feel this way are much more likely to be burnt out and to consider leaving their companies.’ The key to preventing burnout is creating healthy boundaries and communicating them. ‘Understand what you need to feel happy in your work and what you will/won’t accept from others is key. If you’re struggling to express your boundaries, a good way to start is proactively setting them. Ask yourself: “Do I have the time and energy to do this?” and if it doesn’t feel right you need to start saying “no”,’ says Carnegie. 

    Adjust your perception

    ‘For those of us who weren’t raised with a woman heading the household from a financial point of view, we haven’t had a role model for our present-day lives as working women,’ says Laura Thomson, a workplace facilitator, future world of work consultant and co-host of the Secrets From A Coach podcast. ‘While dads relaxed when they got home from work, our mothers, who ran the home, never sat down. So even after a long day of work we don’t relax – we start doing life admin.’ Becoming conscious of the pressures we put ourselves under is important to be able to initiate change. ‘Think about what it means to look after yourself. You have to create a plan for how you are going to achieve a work-life balance, which means knowing how to relax.’ Try meditating (use Headspace to get started) – combined with low-intensity walking, it’s been proven to calm nerves and improve low mood.

    Concentrate on one thing at a time

    ‘Imagine that each thing you have to do is a box: work, exercise, cook dinner, reply to a back log of WhatsApp’s and so on,’ says Amanda Hainline, author of Feel Better in Five Minutes – An Empowering Guide to Gain Control Over Your Emotions. ‘Instead of opening one box at a time in our mind, we open several at once, bouncing our energy back and forth between them.’ This can soon lead to overwhelm, which hugely contributes to burnout. Instead, imagine all the boxes in a row in your mind. ‘See that they are all open and imagine closing all of them. Sit with that feeling for a moment. Everything is contained – all the energy in your life is put away. Take a few deep breaths. Now pick one box and open it. This box should be whatever you are going to be immediately addressing. Leave all the other boxes closed. This allows your energy to be directed into one place.’

    Think ahead

    If you have stressful times ahead, behave like experienced sailors do when they see rough seas ahead – plan a bolt hole. ‘Do a three-month scan of your horizon. How much turbulence is there likely to be? Plan the time when you can have a refuge point every three weeks, whether it’s a small bit of self-care or even just sitting down with yourself and having a check-in,’ advises Thomson. ‘A moment of calm allows you to recoup every few weeks.’ Practicing mindful meditation can help to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps regulate emotions, as well as reduce the fight-or-flight response. Use your senses to be present in the moment. Look around: what do you see? Close your eyes: what do you hear? What can you physically feel and smell? Adjusting your mindset for the stormy seas ahead will also help enormously: ‘Think of all the skills and resilience you’re going to be building over the next three months. Rather than thinking, “Oh no, this is going to be dreadful!”, make tweaks to your schedule so you cope better and emerge feeling stronger – not overwhelmed.’

    Make a plan B

    The McKinsey research indicates that one in three women have considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce this year, and four in 10 women have considered leaving their company or switching jobs. If your current role is leaving you burnt out to such an extent that you’re considering leaving, go back to basics and think about what really matters to you. ‘It’s really important to identify with your meaning, values, purpose and goals,’ says Carnegie. ‘Decide what would make you happy and how you might be personally fulfilled,’ says Andi Simon, a corporate anthropologist, founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants, and the author of Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business. This might mean rethinking your priorities when it comes to career, family and lifestyle. ‘Know what matters to you and how you want your story to develop.’

    Vitality offers mental health support with private health insurance. If you’re a Vitality health insurance member, log into Member Zone to access the mental health hub.