High Octane Women

How superachievers can avoid burnout

Meet the Least Happy People in America

A new survey reveals who fits the profile. An expert explains why.

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If you were introduced to a random group of white-collar workers and offered a million dollars if you could select the happiest person in the rom group, what kind of person would you pick: A man or a woman? Married or single? Children or no children?

According to a new survey released this month, your odds of winning the cash would increase if you skipped any 40-something, single female professionals and focused on the middle-aged male managers with one child at home and a wife who works part-time. In its Office Pulse survey, Captivate Network, a media solutions company, says its uncovered "profiles of the happiest and unhappiest workers." And here it is:

  • Male
  • 39 years old
  • Married
  • Household income between $150,000 and $200,000
  • In a senior management position
  • 1 young child at home
  • A wife who works part-time

And the unhappiest profile?:

  • Female
  • 42 years old
  • Unmarried (and no children)
  • Household income under $100,000
  • In a professional position (doctor, lawyer, etc.)

In a press release, the company reported that its survey of 670 North American white-collar workers found men to be "consistently happier than women"—both in and out of the office. The results also revealed that men are nearly twice as likely to report feeling balance in their work and personal lives. Men are more likely than women to take breaks during the day for personal activities; in fact, they're much more likely to take breaks simply to relax.

Is the survey a fluke, or at least flawed? I'm not so sure. 

A more comprehensive analysis of trends in subjective well-being across several decades came to similar conclusions regarding female happiness. In The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness published by the American Economic Journal, researchers Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that although women's life circumstances have improved greatly over the past few decades by most objective measures, their happiness has declined—both in absolute terms and relative to men's. 

There are no simple answers to this gender disparity. But one finding that has consistently emerged from the literature is that women are pulled in many more directions than men. While in the past, men primarily served as "breadwinners" and women primarily assumed "domestic" roles, over the past few decades more and more women have become breadwinners, or at least co-breadwinners. What I don't think they expected was that even though they were bringing home the bacon, they would still have to cook it, if they wanted to eat, along with many other tasks.

The Office Pulse survey reported that 56 percent of working women assume responsibility for cooking at home, compared to only 29 percent of working men—and 62 percent take care of the laundry compared to only 31 percent of the men. The survey found similarly large discrepancies between women and men when it came to cleaning and grocery shopping.

Further, a survey by the National Parenting Association (NPA) revealed that 50 percent of married working women are primarily responsible for meal preparation, compared to only 9 percent of their partners; and that 51 percent take time off from work to care for a sick child, again compared to just 9 percent of partners. The NPA survey also revealed that married career women devote an average of 11 hours a week to managing and executing household chores and responsibilities, which constitutes 61 percent of the total time spent on these chores in their homes. In short, while women's roles in the workforce have grown considerably over time, their responsibilities inside the home have shifted far less. Other studies have found that the same holds true for child care: Working mothers do the bulk of it.

Making matters worse is the fact that women also tend to worry more than men about the well-being of their families. According to the Center for Work-Life Policy, women are more likely to see a direct connection between time they spend at work and negative effects on their families—more junk food, more time in front of the TV, less parental supervision. But men tend to blame external factors—the media, bad peer groups, "society"—for troubles at home.

These multiple, often conflicting roles leave many women feeling as if they're performing a colossal daily juggling act and it's taking a toll on their happiness. The Office Pulse survey found that women are more likely than men to experience stress, headaches, muscle tension, weight gain, and depression. A poll conducted by the American Psychological Association discovered that not only do women feel more stress than men over finances and the economy, they're also more likely to experience stress-related symptoms like headaches, irritability, and depression.

What does all this mean for women? In many ways, it's simple; in many ways, it's not. What I mean is, for the situation to improve, things need to change; if things don't change, women and the daughters who follow them will continue to suffer the consequences of chronic stress, burnout, and other incapacitating conditions. That's clear and simple.

But actually incorporating these changes into high-octane lifestyles can be quite challenging.

First, most people in today's world—men, women, and children—are super busy, so the likelihood of anyone else stepping up to take on the laundry or cooking is remote–especially if they aren't asked to help. Second, most successful women believe that they should be able to do it all. As Christine Hassler writes in The Myth of Having It All, "Somewhere along the path of the women's liberation movement, we began to buy into the belief that to be an empowered woman means we have to do everything that both men and women do. So instead of making choices, we have tried to fulfill both gender roles at the same time."

She adds, "Instead of giving us a tremendous amount of freedom and opportunity, this concept of having it all has morphed into something that excuses putting so much on our plates that we are stressed out, burned out, and running out of time for ourselves (and our loved ones) every single day." 

But as most successful women know from experience, just because something is challenging doesn't mean it's impossible. If women want to survive and thrive—and want their daughters to do the same—we need to start rethinking and reconfiguring what has become a dangerous way of life.

That begins with a different mindset.

One of the most important things we can do is to let go of some well-intended but misunderstood and often misrepresented ideals, like "balance" and  "having it all." The latter, while a seemingly empowering and satisfying endeavor, has turned into an emotional (and in some cases literal) death sentence for many career women as they strive to do everything and be everything to everyone. Here's the question you must ask yourself: If the pursuit of "having it all" causes you to be so tired and unhappy—or exhausted and miserable—then what's the point? 

Achieving balance is another mindset that needs to change. As noted in High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, "If you're going to strive for balance, you can't take it on as a mission you have to tackle and conquer every day, creating a perfectly balanced scale where everyone in your life is happy because you devoted just the right amount of time to each of them."

There should be no stress in balance. If you view it as a "do or die" mission or an "all or none" accomplishment, it will just turn into one more stressor. The key is to not let balance define you. You should define balance based on who you are, how you live, and what you want. If your circumstances require that work take up 70 percent of your time, do what you need to do to make sure that at least some of your remaining 30 percent is spent doing something self-nurturing and stress-reducing.

Finally, don't be shy about sharing the load. As I frequently remind friends and clients, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

There is no reason that doctrine can't apply equally in the home and at the office.

There is nothing wrong with being chief cook and bottle washer as long as those things don't consume every moment of your waking hours. If they do, you are on a collision course with burnout. And that is a road you definitely don't want to be on.

 

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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