• Autumn Paone

Why Women Are More Likely to Burn Out

Occupational stress is prevalent all over the world in working men and women alike. Many of us with or without traditional jobs are prone to the onset of burnout. If you have significant responsibilities, you’ve likely teetered on the edge of the burnout abyss. Many men and women have significant responsibilities in the workplace. Why, then, does it seem that women teeter on the edge more often than our male counterparts?


One of the more well known studies conducted research on 2,026 workers in Canada. The study indicated that women are more susceptible to burning out, and the researchers hypothesized why. Obviously, there are environmental and individual sources of burnout that are not gendered. For example, taking little to no breaks, poor exercise/diet routines, and disruptive sleep patterns contribute to this all-encompassing fatigue. However, workplace inequality and work/family conflict are two main reasons for the disproportionate amount of women suffering.¹


It’s no secret that as women, we are still fighting to be seen as equals in the workplace. Naturally, there are inherent differences between men and women; this is not inherently bad; in fact, it’s good! The problem arises when those differences are viewed in the light of strengths and weaknesses. As an example, here are a couple of common myths you may have heard of before:


  • Women are more emotional. Therefore, they are less capable of making the tough decisions of a leader.

  • Men show little to no emotion. Therefore, they can easily make objective decisions and lead a team effectively.


Absurd, right? As I’m sure most are aware, it’s the society we live in. Unfortunately, this is only one example of how we assign strengths and weaknesses based on gender alone. Google image search “CEO”; while it’s refreshing to see some female faces, results are overwhelmingly men. I’m sure this isn’t surprising to you, so how does it contribute to rates of burnout between genders?


The aforementioned study suggests this: women have less decision-making opportunities. Initially, you may be thinking...okay, but wouldn’t that reduce burnout? That makes sense on the surface level, but ultimately it leads to less control. Women still have responsibilities and endless to do lists, similar to their male colleagues. Their male “equals”, however, may have more of a say in what gets done when. This offers more flexibility in their schedules, and perhaps places more stress on the ones who do not get to decide.


Another factor in this phenomenon is that women are less likely to rise to those decision-making positions. One study reported men’s promotion rates to be 2.2 percentage points higher than women’s, controlling for extraneous and confounding variables, such as performance ratings.² Conversely, a 2019 Forbes article states that there are more college-educated women in the workforce than college-educated men.³


These contradictory stats should be a huge wakeup call, but we still are advocating for change. In the meantime, the gendered effect of decision latitude will likely continue to be disadvantageous for women.



Illustration by Nadia Mokadem


The second explanation offered is that women are more likely to experience work/family conflict. The evidence points to the fact that, in the short run, more domestic activities actually reduce likelihood of burnout;⁵ men with prolonged work hours get less of a “break”.


I know what you’re thinking: “domestic activities” are not a break. Taking care of kids, doing laundry, cleaning, cooking, and cleaning again are not my idea of a break either. However, there is something to be said about the “switch up” - the break in monotony. While it isn’t necessarily restful to go home and do the wash, it also isn’t sitting at a desk staring at a screen. Hence, a “break” from the work life that switches things up.


So what about the long run? This is where burnout rates for women surpass that of men. While this home and work life “balance” may offer a shield at the beginning, it tends not to be an actual balance. The shield dissipates and exhaustion creeps in; women are attempting more often to stabilize two separate entities. Where men may only, or at least mostly, have to worry about the work life aspect, women throw family and home into the juggling act as well.


Consequently, they may miss out on career opportunities, such as promotions or networking, due to the extra responsibilities.This is added future stress as the feeling of a dead-end job creeps in. It may have taken longer, but burnout prevails.


It feels as if all the cards are against us, ladies. How can we avoid this pure exhaustion, if it’s even possible? Well, of course it’s possible, we’re strong and capable women! The answer is not to be bitter towards the fact that you decided to have a career and a family, and your partner gets more leeway. It’s amazing and celebratory; you are awesome for doing that.


Instead, the solution is much happier and much simpler: you have to remember the value of yourself.


We want to take care of everything. We want to be Wonder Woman: fierce, fearless, and never backing down. We want to take care of people. This is a good thing, but only if you are included on the list of who you take care of. The key to avoiding burnout is not avoiding yourself; it’s the opposite.


For some reason, society teaches us that we are selfish when we take a moment for relaxation and self-care. The weight of the world may be on your shoulders, and you’re just expected to carry it with a smile. Well what if I told you that you are selfless for taking a minute alone to do what you want to do?


Think about it logically: how can you take care of everyone else when you yourself are burning out? The simple answer is that you can’t, and no one should expect you to! I’m sure you’ve heard the word “boundaries” thrown around before, but what does it actually mean? To set boundaries you must practice 2 things:


  1. Learning when to say no: I know you could do it all if you put your mind to it, but you don’t have to do it all. Know when to pass along and when to deny responsibilities.

  2. Prioritizing your own mental health: it should be a no-brainer, but it’s the one thing we always neglect. You need physical activity, a nutritional diet, and time away from the screen. Disconnect to do something that makes you happy and do it at least twice a week.


In addition to setting boundaries, create time every day to relax alone and with loved ones: we are social creatures. To be truly content and functioning optimally, we require social interactions. In COVID times, it’s especially hard. If you live alone or cannot see your family physically, set up weekly check-ins or virtual dinners.


These things should be priorities in your life. In a world that is constantly searching for a quick fix, it’s hard to slow down and put effort towards a solution. However, your responsibilities won’t disappear and the world won’t stop. Time to do what you love away from work is never going to just present itself. It is hard to make the fix, but no one else can do it for you. I promise it will be worth it.

References

  1. Beauregard, N., Marchand, A., Bilodeau, J., Durand, P., Demers, A., & Haines, V. Y. (2018). Gendered Pathways to Burnout: Results from the SALVEO Study. Annals of Work Exposures and Health, 62, 426–437. 10.1093/annweh/wxx114

  2. Gorman, L. (2007). New Evidence on Gender Differences in Promotions and Pay. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2. Retrieved from https://www.nber.org/digest/feb07/new-evidence-gender-differences-promotions-and-pay

  3. Elsesser, K. (2019). There Are More College-Educated Women Than Men In The Workforce, But Women Still Lag Behind Men In Pay. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2019/07/02/now-theres-more-college-educated-women-than-men-in-workforce-but-women-still-lag-behind-men-in-pay/?sh=21a55cb54c31

  4. Beauregard, N., Marchand, A., Bilodeau, J., Durand, P., Demers, A., & Haines, V. Y. (2018). Gendered Pathways to Burnout: Results from the SALVEO Study. Annals of Work Exposures and Health, 62, 426–437. 10.1093/annweh/wxx114

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid.

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