I’m jetlagged, I told a friend recently. Only I hadn’t been overseas.
Nor had I been anywhere, really, beyond overnight trips here and there, such is my current state of work, life and parenting. Adding anything on top of an already precarious weekly load means it could all topple over, so we do our best to avoid it.
Rather, this feeling of jetlag has been lingering under the surface of everything else for as long as I can remember. Did it start during the pandemic and homeschooling? Was it earlier, when having babies and returning to work? Or was there an ongoing, underlying exhaustion prior to having kids? Pinpointing exactly when it started is impossible in the long days of work and parenting that blur into short years.
I know I’m far from alone in this eternal lingering sense of exhaustion, getting closer to the middle of 2023 when it feels like the year only started five days ago.
Three quarters of respondents in our latest survey of 1100 women reported that they may have experienced burnout over the past 12 months due to work, caring responsibilities or something else. Burnout came up as the leading hurdle for women in achieving their ambitions, just ahead of confidence.
With 77 per cent of women believing they have experienced burnout over the past year, It makes you wonder what the remaining 23 per cent of women know, that the rest of us don’t.
So why is burnout such an issue in 2023? Is it a growing awareness around the very idea of burnout? Is this simply something that’s been going on since forever, but more of us have the vocabulary to express it?
Is it the ongoing mental load that so many women take on, combined with other forms of paid and unpaid work? Is it a sense of unease and uncertainty about the world and the future ahead and considering things like climate change and global conflict? Is it a lingering tail-end of the pandemic, and the added responsibilities so many women took on during periods of lockdowns? Is it contending with current cost of living pressures, difficult managers, various forms of trauma, harassment and discrimination?
It’s likely a combination of many of these things, depending on your current circumstances. And for some, there are additional circumstances further contributing to the suspected burnout: managing a disability, single parenting, pregnancy discrimination, racism, domestic and family violence, and the list goes on.
Of the women who reported they may have experienced burnout in our 2023 Women’s Ambitions Report, 63 per cent of them cited it as relating to overwhelm on balancing career and home responsibilities. Half (50 per cent) said working long hours was contributing, and a third (33 per cent said) having a difficult manager or boss was a factor.
A you might expect, parenting is a key factor in women reporting they may have experienced burnout in the past 12 months, but it is certainly not the only or main factor. One third of respondents (35 per cent) listed parenting responsibilities as a key contributor, only just above other contributors like cost of living pressures (32 per cent) and being underpaid (26 per cent).
In this same survey, we learned that a large number of women are also managing full time work loads across hybrid work weeks and/or while working from home. It wasn’t so long ago that such remote working opportunities may have seemed like a significant positive in terms of managing overwhelm. But the reality is that in many cases, such working arrangements have further seen work and life blending more and more into one another, to the point of there being no ‘off’ switch from work, and no ‘on’ switch for life. The lines were already fading before the shifts to more hybrid and remote work that occurred during the pandemic, but for many women such lines have now disappeared entirely.
Flexibility can help, as we’re hearing from a number of different studies. But learning to manage this flexibility in ways that enable the ability to separate between work and life, is critical. And it’s a skill that employers need to ensure managers have and are encouraging in their teams, rather than relying on already exhausted workers to figure out when they’re overwhelmed with everything else.
As we’ve heard from experts on Women’s Agenda, burnout can be long and lingering and come well after the difficult and most extreme overwhelm that women experiences. Dr Jenny Brockis, who specialises in addressing burnout, has previously talked about the “brown out zone” a place of persistent overwork and exhaustion that may push you into full burnout later on.
So what can be done? Any simple Google search and basic ChatGPT prompt will offer plenty of tips on how more of us can manage our own wellbeing and address self care.
But many of the issues contributing to exhaustion and possibly burnout in women are systemic: relating to unpaid care loads, varying forms of discrimination, societal expectations on women, and so much more.
There is more for employers to address here. It’s in strategies for addressing the overwhelm of paid work hours and where things like meetings can be scaled back. It’s in the opportunities to provide meaningful flexibility. And it’s in employers doing more to consider and address the role of toxic managers and bosses who, as our research found at least, are contributing to the burnout problem in equal numbers to that of women trying to balance parenting responsibilities.