Why women are more at risk of burnout

This International Women's Day, Gosia Bowling, Emotional Wellbeing National Lead at Nuffield Health, explains why women face an increased risk of burnout, and what employers can do to close the burnout gap.

The last two years have had a profound impact on how and where we work, and how our lives are organised. The pandemic introduced new stressors, increasing the risk of exhaustion and burnout. While it appears that the pandemic is finally loosening its grip on society, many stressors remain indefinitely and will continue to place strain on employees struggling to balance home and work demands. 

A growing body of research has indicated that while all employees faced an increased susceptibility to stress and burnout, this risk was faced disproportionately by women. Studies such as the McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s Women in the Workplace report, and research from Montreal University reveal a growing gender gap when it comes to workplace burnout. 

International Women’s Day invites us all to reflect on issues relating to gender equality and to challenge the barriers women continue to face. There is a growing concern that progress towards equality, has been massively impacted by recent times, with hard fought gains being reversed.  

Data taken from the mental wellbeing platform ‘87%’, as reported in HR News, says that Women are 23% more likely than men to struggle with poor work-life balance, and 45% more likely to suffer from work stress. Less than half of women rated their current job satisfaction, motivation, and productivity as “good” post-pandemic. Burnout is now becoming so prevalent that one in three women have considered downshifting, or leaving the workforce altogether during the past year.

Why are women even more at risk?

There are a range of factors that appear to increase the risk of burnout for women. The way societal structures and gender norms interact play a substantial part. Childcare demands at home soared during the pandemic, but these responsibilities were not shared equally, with women doing three times more unpaid childcare than men.

As reported in the Independent, research from University College London shows that women who live with men continue to do the majority of the housework, with traditional gender norms remaining strong when it comes to household chores. Women, for example, are five times more likely than men to spend at least 20 hours a week on chores.

The mental load 

As well as undertaking an unequal share of these practical tasks, women are also more likely to carry the additional burden of ‘mental load’. This is the invisible work involved in managing a household and family. It refers to the mental demands of needing to be continually aware and planning for practical tasks such as medical appointments, play dates, school trips, school projects, organising shopping lists and other family and household commitments.

For many women it’s their job to continually project manage the running of the household. This mental load can be exhausting in a way that is quite different to the demands of more practical tasks. While it depletes time and energy reserves, it is rarely acknowledged, and often completely taken for granted.

Time to self-care

Balancing home and work demands, together with the blurred boundaries, and ‘always-on' culture created by remote working, can leave less time for less for self-care health behaviours. 

Those unable to nurture healthy habits are left in a constant heightened state of stress, impacting their physical and mental wellbeing. When we’re unable to switch off from ‘fight or flight’ mode, we experience physical symptoms including nausea, fatigue, sleep disturbance, headaches, musculoskeletal problems, as well as mental ill-health problems like stress anxiety and depression.

Long-term stress can increase susceptibility to panic attacks and health issues like obesity, heart attacks and stroke – especially when we turn to unhelpful coping strategies such as excessive drinking or smoking.

We know that ill health negatively impacts work performance and productivity, which in turn leads to further stress, and often overworking to compensate. These vicious cycles can drive ‘leaveism’ and ‘presenteeism’, which exacerbate problems even further, and prevent individuals from making positive changes. 

Despite their own increasing levels of burnout, women are much more likely than men to support others taking action to fight it. For example, by managing the workloads of their teams and supporting diversity equity and inclusion efforts.

It’s crucial that we encourage and facilitate healthy lifestyles where possible. According to our Healthier Nation Index, over the last year almost 20% of UK adults did no exercise at all, but those who exercised for as little as up to 15 minutes a week reported better mental health. This applies to women as 40% cited embarrassment is a barrier to exercise. 

Noticing the signs of burnout

To prevent losing female talent, organisations must appreciate that old workplace practices are no longer fit for purpose. Managers must recognise the signs of burnout and feel confident approaching individuals and offering support. Burnt out employees are often reluctant to speak about their situation.

In addition to the perceived stigma around mental health, employees may also fear the career consequences of struggling with work stress. This is especially true for some female employees, who often report higher stress levels in male-dominated occupations. This is usually because they feel they must work harder to prove an equal level of competence with their male peers. The McKinsey and LeanIn.org’s Women in the Workplace study found that for every 100 men getting their first promotion, just 86 women are promoted.

The CMI gender study stated that while many professional women were aware of the importance of visibility, they intentionally chose invisibility. Reasons included not feeling authentic enough, bad experiences of previous self-promotion attempts, and a belief that remaining out of the limelight generally allows for a better personal/work balance.

These existing inequalities further exacerbate the burnout gap. Women are less likely to be promoted than men and are less likely to hold positions of authority. The increasing pressure to constantly prove themselves as ‘worthy’, combined with such toxic work environments can have a noticeable impact. Burnout may present itself as a measurable decline in work standards, as well as changes in behaviour, such as irritability, low mood, tiredness, and an inability to concentrate.

Leading with the right support for women

Leaders should focus on creating a psychologically safe environment, urging women to truthfully share with them – not just facts, but feelings. Ask how they are, listen and respond with compassion; this shows that you care.

At Nuffield Health, we’ve offered Emotional Literacy Training to all staff, equipping them with the skills to hold conversations confidently around mental health and giving them a common language to discuss their feelings. This training builds a positive culture around mental health, where conversations are both welcome and expected. Not only are individuals capable of supporting others but they are more likely to seek support for themselves at the earliest signs of difficulty – before they become burnt out.

Women are less likely to be offered advice from a senior leader than men. Unconscious bias still exists in many workplace cultures and this lack of support contributes to holding women back in their careers.

Leaders need to be aware of equality imbalances and how to remove these barriers and biases, which prevent women from being recognised and promoted. Provide training, support and mentoring opportunities and educate employees, at all levels, about unconscious biases. Ensure there is company-wide awareness of self-promotion opportunities.

Transparency around salaries can also be helpful. Even if your HR and finance teams aren’t comfortable disclosing salary details, you can still work with them to set salary ranges for different positions and levels at your company, ensuring fair pay for all.

The importance of flexibility

Your reputation as an inclusive employer won’t go far without offering flexibility. At some companies, employees can take advantage of fully built-out “flex time” policies; other perks include part-time hours, shared parental leave and telecommuting roles.

Responsible businesses should introduce a menopause policy and workplace adjustments to protect their female employees from feeling discriminated against. Not only this, but once a policy is introduced, organisations need to follow through on it.

As people adopt flexible working patterns that suit them – for example, working into the evening to accommodate the morning school run – employees may worry about the need to be ‘always on’. Team leaders should reiterate that employees shouldn’t feel pressured to reply to emails out of hours and encourage them to switch devices off after work. Remind everyone that neither perfection nor going “the extra mile” is expected. Get individuals’ input on their performance goals and agree to what’s realistic. Provide clear guidance, as obscurity can exacerbate stress and anxiety.

Employers should signpost individuals towards the emotional wellbeing support available to them. This may include Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or cognitive behavioural therapy sessions (CBT), which give individuals direct access to a specialist who can help them understand and break unhelpful thinking patterns, reframe unhelpful thoughts and cope in new and uncertain situations.

Stronger attempts at maintaining a level playing field in the workplace and showing you support individual physical and emotional needs, will reduce burnout, and help female employees to thrive in both a personal and professional capacity.

Creating a healthy and truly inclusive environment creates a strong and healthy workplace culture, conducive to creativity and productivity. This is truly a win-win scenario in which everyone benefits.  

If you feel that you need mental health support, please speak to one of our therapists.

Last updated Friday 7 October 2022

First published on Tuesday 8 March 2022