Health organizations are beginning to recognize burnout as a worldwide epidemic. By some estimates, burnout costs employers well over $100 billion every year and endangers the health of millions, striking without warning and affecting a majority of today’s workforce.
But some recent research suggests that women may burn out faster than men.
To reduce burnout rates at your workplace, it’s useful to understand the unique pressures women face at work and at home and how they can lead to burnout.
What Is Burnout?
We might say we’re burnt out anytime we’re tired at work or overwhelmed by a big project. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is a specific syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The symptoms of burnout include exhaustion, negativity and cynicism about work, and reduced professional efficacy.
Job burnout is common. A Gallup survey from 2018 found 23% of employees report feeling burned out often, while 44% report feeling burned out sometimes.
Yet, the condition can go underreported and untreated—despite physical and psychological consequences that include heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, type 2 diabetes, depression, and insomnia.
Burnout Among Women: By the Numbers
In 2018, researchers from the University of Montreal dug into data from a study that followed 2,026 workers (about half of whom were women) from 63 workplaces for four years.
The researchers concluded that, while both men and women experience burnout, gender shapes the “environmental and individual pathways to burnout.” The lead author of the study explained, “Our results show that there are differences between men and women because, from the outset, employees are subject to different working conditions depending on their gender.”
A recent Harris Poll survey revealed that while about the same percentage of women and men reported feeling burned out in their work life, 35% of women told the Harris Poll they felt burned out at home, compared to only 25% of men. 48% of the women surveyed said their burnout is so extreme it keeps them up at night.
Why Women Burn Out
Do all women experience burnout? No. That said, there are certain stress factors that these studies have observed to be more common in women, contributing to an epidemic of burnout.
What accounts for the different burnout rates and causes among women? Unequal treatment in the workplace is, unsurprisingly, a big factor, according to the researchers at the University of Montreal.
Women are more likely than men to hold positions that “offer little latitude in decision-making.” Women tend to have less authority at work than men and less control over their jobs. Women also have less opportunity than men to exercise their unique skills in the workplace.
Other researchers have found that women get less credit for their ideas at work than men, and thus, are overlooked for leadership opportunities. After years of unfair treatment, feelings of helplessness and despair are understandable—and are key contributors to burnout.
For many, the eight-hour workday is dissolving. Smartphones and other digital tools enable a constant state of connection. Workers of both genders feel pressure to be available at all times of the day, reading email before bed, chatting early in the morning, and participating in conference calls while walking the dog.
This blending of work and home life can hit women harder. Women often take a greater role in childcare and housework than men, spending almost three times more hours per week on household chores, yet the expectations to keep up with work are the same.
The Harris Poll we cited earlier reported that 63% of women overall say they feel like they’ve worked an entire day before arriving at the office. For women in the “Sandwich Generation,” who care for children and aging parents, the number climbs to 73%.
Neurological Differences Between Men and Women
Stress researcher Heidi Hanna says that men and women are “neurologically wired” to process stress differently. That difference might be a reason why stress accumulates in women in different ways.
When women encounter stressful situations, Dr. Hanna says, they may be more likely to “tend and befriend,” while men are more prone to “fight or flight” patterns.
“From my work with thousands of women in business, I’ve seen the majority of women nodding in agreement when I suggest that, for many women, our natural inclination in periods of stress is to focus on what we can do to help others,” Dr. Hanna told us recently. “And this is positive in a lot of situations. But it can also keep us from taking care of our own needs and building in enough recharge time so that we can sustainably help others.”
While men want to solve their problems as quickly as possible or avoid them altogether, women often ruminate on a challenge. Women naturally try to see things from multiple angles, Dr. Hanna says, and think about how various outcomes will affect other people.
These are prized skills in the workplace. But as women internalize their stress, it can build up and present itself in symptoms such as chronic fatigue, pain, digestive issues, anxiety, and depression.
“This may lead to a vicious cycle of having less energy to cope with the increasing demands over time, losing a sense of purpose or meaning at work, and getting stuck in survival mode,” Dr. Hanna said.
How to Help Your Female Employees Avoid Burnout
When people burn out, they start looking for new jobs. In one survey, nearly 40% of 2,000 American workers said they were considering leaving their jobs because of burnout. How can you keep your valuable employees on the team and help prevent and alleviate their burnout?
To start, you can help the women at your company feel heard by making time for regular check-ins: Gallup says that employees whose managers are always willing to listen to work-related problems are 62% less likely to burn out.
Additionally, consider management training to help your leadership team examine and work on unconscious biases in your workplace that may be holding female employees back from positions of power.
It’s not enough to encourage more women to step into leadership roles—your organization has to create a culture that supports work-life integration and does not penalize women for the fact that they may have more family responsibilities than your male employees do. Dr. Hanna points out that it’s not always possible to minimize the demands a woman faces in her day. But employers can do a much better job helping women build in time and space to recharge.
“The workplace is an ideal setting to support energy management and stress mastery, because at work, we have a built-in social support system, shared meaning and purpose that we can tap into to fuel our spirit, and programming for training and development that can integrate stress mastery as a win-win for the individual and the organization,” Dr. Hanna told us.
Corporate wellness programs can help women (and everyone else) recharge by:
- Encouraging healthy habits, such as exercise and proper nutrition, through fun wellness challenges.
- Creating stress-free zones with relaxing atmospheres for employees to unplug and unwind.
- Bringing in instructors to teach meditation, yoga, and other stress-reduction techniques.
- Promoting the value of regular breaks.
- Providing free access to life coaches who can help employees set and achieve goals to balance their work and home lives.
Work-related stress is unavoidable. But in small amounts, stress can be a useful motivator. It is when stress becomes constant, that it leads to burnout.
By learning about what stressors your employees face, and which stressors may be more prevalent among different segments of your staff, you can build programs that help your employees respond to stress in a way that benefits their health and the health of your company.