We’re headed for ‘The Great Burnout’ but employers don’t get it

We’re headed for ‘The Great Burnout’ but employers & policymakers still don’t get it

Women are exhausted. Entire sectors are at risk. And a massage or even a few days off won't fix the problem.

You’ve likely heard about The Great Resignation, which in the United States at least is seeing millions of people rethinking their careers. 

But there’s another testing time ahead for employers, one that’s linked to the above but carries its own risks and opportunities, and may impact a different cohort of people. 

That is “The Great Burnout”.

You could be forgiven for thinking that with the economy opening up, with schools returning, and more opportunities to reconnect with loved ones emerging, that a return to normal may help alleviate burnout concerns. 

But the burnout threat lingers.

In surveying almost 1500 women in June this year (so just prior to the extended lockdowns across the Southern states) we found a massive 39 per cent believe that burnout may get in the way of their career ambitions over the next two years. It came up as the second perceived future hurdle, just behind “confidence in my abilities.” 

Forty two per cent of women said they “often or almost always” have symptoms of burnout, according to separate global research across tens of thousands of employees, which was up 10% from the 32% reported prior to the pandemic in the Women in the Workforce report. These researchers also found that it was women who were doing more to help others counter growing “24 hour work culture” than men. It was women helping team members to navigate work-life challenges. And women helping others to manage their workloads

As we’ve previously heard from experts in this space, burnout can have a long tail, seeing symptoms come on well after the most difficult times and extreme overwhelm that a woman experiencess. You might be in the “brownout zone”, a place that Dr Jenny Brockis describes as persistent overwork and exhaustion, and may just push you into full burnout. In May this year, when so many working mothers may have thought the worst of COVID was behind them, Samantha Sutherland found from her research that working mothers particularly were still feeling overwhelmed from the experiences of 2020. How do they feel more than six months later, the majority of which was spent in further lockdown? 

Even with the end of lockdowns, the life facing many of us is far from normal — particularly for working mothers. 

There’s still no vaccine protection for children under 12. They go to schools, daycare centres and extracurricular activities exposed to not only the virus, but also to the threat of repeated stints in home quarantine should they come into contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive. Parents carry these anxieties, as well as the additional burdens of trying to work and plan a life for their families around so much uncertainty.

Some such parents can do their office jobs from home or more flexibly than they could before the pandemic, but this carries its own risk of burnout. It may further exacerbate the “always-on” mentality, with no physically lines drawn between work and home.

And of course, women have held the bulk of the roles across frontline services: in hospitals, retail, early childhood centres, schools and elsewhere. Many of those in these positions were never able to stay home to protect themselves and their families. They kept physically going to work and, so often, also took on additional loads while at those workplaces — taking on new safety protocols to protect themselves and others, making impossibly difficult decisions and responding to the anxieties, demands and requests from those their workplaces serve. 

While the upcoming Christmas period may provide some reprieve for those who are exhausted, so many of these frontline services still require their workers to physically show up to work. Parents and carers will still need to show up for their children and those they care for. As they’ve been showing up across this entire pandemic period.

We recently learnt that 73% of early childhood educators plan on leaving the sector within the next three years due to excessive workloads and low pay. As Helen Gibbons, the Early Education Director at the United Workers Union said on the research covering 4000 early educators, “They are at breaking point”. 

“There is no early childhood sector without early educators, and they simply can’t afford to stay and hold it together anymore.” 

Meanwhile, we also know that female healthcare workers are exhausted and losing steam, being asked to do more with less time and resources — and for more people. It’s to be expected during a pandemic, but not something that can be ignored, as Associate Professor Nada Hamad shared on Women’s Agenda last week. 

Just like in childcare, there is no healthcare sector without these workers. 

And if these sectors continue to crack, so too does everything else. 

The risk of burnout doesn’t just go away by getting a massage, or even by taking a couple of days off. Not when you know the overwork, the poor pay, the pressures and demands of others will merely be waiting for you once you return 

The only way to address these burnout threats is via employers and policymakers seriously considering the issue.

Addressing pay, and aligning it better with what’s being expected of staff or indeed the workforce of an entire sector, would be a start. 

Addressing women’s mental health is also essential.

But for companies, there may just be options in experimentation, as the Women in the Workplace report suggests

It’s not terribly innovative: but such experimentation may be as simple as finding options to listen to employees and understand their needs and the pulls they have on their time, and then acting — or at least experimenting — with some of the suggestions that come up.

One thing we noted from undertaking our own research into the ambitions of women, is that the need for flexibility has dropped off considerably in 2021, compared to where it was in 2019 and 2017. This suggests that employers are offering more flexibility and work from home — many being forced to do so as a result of lockdowns. 

But such flexibility also requires boundaries. Clear and reasonable parameters regarding what’s expected and when. 

And then we must also consider the sectors that simply can’t access these levels of flexibility, what can be offered instead? ]

Without the above, expect the great burnout among women to decimate entire industries.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox