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Companies Must Address the Role Gender Plays In Burnout

Sarah Hutcherson headshotWords by Sarah Hutcherson
Health & Education
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“I was getting panic attacks every week, in the emergency room for intense stomach pain, and I had disconnected from the very people who used to give me energy both at work and outside of work,” Paula Davis-Laack, founder and CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute, wrote about her experience with burnout.

Burnout—a long-term state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion brought on by repeated stress, according to Psychology Today—is now considered a medical syndrome by the World Health Organization as of June 2019. 

In a 2019 Accountemps study, 96 percent of the 2,800 senior managers surveyed reported their team members experience burnout. 

Burnout is not only devastating for an individual but also for companies’ morale and expenses. Those experience burnout are more likely to take a sick day or twice as likely to leave their current employer, according to Gallup research. The resulting decreased productivity and higher training costs are estimated to cost U.S. businesses $150 billion to $300 billion each year.

The upside is that more companies are addressing burnout through creating mental health days outside of paid time off. Another option is giving employees the option of working from home; for example, Impact Group, a leadership and relocation coaching consultancy, does so to encourage employees to reset. But companies truly committed to toeing the triple bottom line should consider offering more support and flexibility to its employees, especially women.

How does gender affect the experience of burnout?

While some studies, such as the 2019 Accountemps survey, do not indicate a significant difference between the burnout reported by men versus women, two recent studies indicate that men and women do experience burnout differently. A recent University of Montreal study concluded that women experience burnout more frequently than men. In addition, a University of Graz study found that while men and women experiencing burnout had the same level of depression, women showed higher levels of emotional and physical exhaustion that affected performance. 

According to the University of Montreal study, reasons lie in women’s lack of autonomy due to their lower-level positions as well as obligations outside of work. 

“Although evidence of a gendered effect of decision latitude on burnout is limited and equivocal, our results nevertheless support the view that larger, societal differentiation processes associated with women’s limited access to greater control opportunities in the work and non-work domains may be at play,” wrote Nancy Beauregard, study author and associate professor of industrial studies at the University of Montreal, in an email to TriplePundit.

How women can mitigate the risks of burnout while still taking on meaningful career opportunities

Even though burnout’s negative impact on women’s productivity results from larger systematic forces—think the glass ceiling and women’s domestic duties, which often include taking care of elderly family members—women can mitigate the risks of burnout. And it’s in their employers’ best interest to ensure they feel fulfilled and motivated at work, as the alternative is a disengaged workforce and higher rate of employee turnover.

“There’s nothing fancy about what it would take to turn things around,” Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, author of “Mommy Burnout," to told the Washington Post. “But it’s a huge shift in the cultural mindset. That’s the challenge.”

The acts to bring about that paradigm shift don’t need to be overarching policy changes but rather small yet impactful ones that remind women and those around them to recognize the signs of burnout in the workplace. Communication is key. Checking in about project deadlines and responsibilities outside of work with managers are great steps for women to stay above the stress. 

“Women should voice their distinctive reality in terms of work-family balance, and how it impacts their productivity and wellbeing at all these levels—at home, at work and in government,” Beauregard told 3p.

How companies can prevent burnout among women employees

In addition, industry and company culture also play a role in creating an ecosystem to avoid burnout among women. When there is a poor social support structure in an industry—take journalism and medicine, for example—studies report there is more burnout among women in that industry.

But mentorship, childcare and paid parental leave are all steps companies can take to prevent burnout among women.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Medicine is redefining the poor social support structure in medicine for women within their workforce, according to Sara Berg of the American Medical Association. It addresses burnout among all physicians, with a focus on women and underrepresented minorities, through their leadership development programming by addressing time constraints, technology, and regulations to allow for more autonomy in the doctors’ roles.

Similarly, Patagonia has created a strong social support structure through its on-site childcare center, which has been there for over 30 years, leading to almost no turnover among women employees who have children, Quartz reported.

“In nearly two decades of working with organizations, we have found very few CEOs and senior leaders who move beyond providing wellness options and benefits to truly driving cultures that value regular renewal as a critical component of performance,” wrote Tony Schwartz, the director of the Energy Project, a global consultancy all about organizational transformation, at Forbes.  “Now is the time. In a world of relentless disruption, transforming the way people work may be the biggest competitive advantage of all.”

Image credit: Claudio Scott/Pixabay

Sarah Hutcherson headshotSarah Hutcherson

As a recent Bard MBA Sustainability graduate, Sarah is excited to be a contributing writer to TriplePundit to demonstrate how environmentally and socially responsible business is synonymous with stronger returns and a more sustainable world. She is most intrigued with how to foster regenerative food systems, develop inclusive and democratic workplaces and inspire responsible consumption.

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