High Octane Women

How superachievers can avoid burnout

Survey Reveals Unhappy Person Profile: She's 42, Single, and Working

Multiple conflicting roles may be root of unhappiness for many working women

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

Well, according to a new survey released this month, your odds of winning would be increased if you skipped over the 40-something, single, female doctor or lawyer and opted for the middle-aged, married senior manager with a 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 women don't fare so well.

According to the survey, the happiest workers are:

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  • Male
  • 39 years old
  • Married
  • Have a household income between $150,000 and $200,000
  • Hold a senior management position
  • Have one young child at home
  • Have a wife who works part-time

while the unhappiest workers are:

  • Female
  • 42 years old
  • Unmarried
  • Have a household income under $100,000
  • Work in a professional position (i.e., as a doctor or a lawyer).

In a press release posted on PR Newswire, Captivate Network 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 two times more likely to report having more balance in their work and personal lives. For instance, men are more likely to take breaks during the day for personal activities, and they're much more likely to take breaks simply to relax than are women.

Fluke? Poor research design? Captured women when they were having a collective bad day at the office? I'm not so sure. In fact, a comprehensive analysis of the trends in subjective well-being across several decades revealed similar findings 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 by most objective measures have improved greatly over the past few decades, women's happiness has declined both absolutely and relatively to men. 

What's the reason behind this gender disparity? Like most things in life, there aren't any simple answers. But one finding that has consistently emerged from the literature is that women are pulled in many more directions than men. Whereas in times past, men primarily served as the "breadwinners" and women primarily assumed the "domestic" roles, over the past few decades more and more women have moved into the breadwinner role (or at least co-breadwinner). What I don't think they expected, however, was that even though they were bringing home the bacon, they would still have to cook it (along with a lot of other things).

But that is exactly what is happening. The Office Pulse survey reported that 56 percent of working women assume responsibility for cooking compared to only 29 percent of working men, and 62 percent take care of the laundry compared to only 31 percent of men. The survey also found a large discrepancy between women and men when it comes to cleaning and grocery shopping.

Similarly, 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; 51 percent take time off from work to care for a sick child compared to just 9 percent of their partners. The NPA survey also revealed that married career women contribute 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 weekly chores in their homes. In short, while women's roles in the workforce have grown considerably over time, their responsibilities inside the home have not changed much. Other studies have found that the same holds true for child care: working mothers assume the bulk of it.

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

These multiple, oftentimes conflicting roles cause many women to feel as if they're performing a colossal juggling act day in and day out, and the added stress is taking its toll. For example, the Office Pulse survey found that compared to men, women are more likely to experience stress, headaches, muscle tension, weight gain, and depression. And 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 experiencing more stress-related symptoms, such as headaches, irritability, and depression.

What does this mean for women? Well, in many ways, it's very simple; yet in many ways, it's not. What do I mean by that? Well, for the situation to improve, things need to change; if things don't change, women and the daughters coming up behind them will continue to suffer the damaging consequences of chronic stress, burnout, and other incapacitating stress-related conditions. That's clear and simple. But actually incorporating these changes into women's 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 stepping in and offering to take on the laundry or cooking when it's already being handled by someone else, often quite capably, is remote–especially if they aren't asked to help. Second, most successful women believe that they should be able to do it all, and that when they achieve this elusive goal, they will somehow "have 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." Hassler goes on to say, "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 for today's women. And that begins with a different mindset.

One of the most important things we can do is to let go of some probably well-intended but misunderstood and often misrepresented ideals, such as "having it all" and "balance." Having it all, for example, while a seemingly empowering and satisfying endeavor, has turned into a death sentence (emotionally, physically, and in some cases, literally) for many career women as they strive to do everything and be everything to everyone. So here's the zillion dollar question you should ask yourself: If the pursuit of "having it all" causes you to be so exhausted and miserable (or even toning it down a bit, just plain old tired and unhappy) that you're not enjoying anything, then what's the point really? 

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, then balance will quickly turn into one more stressor on your already overflowing plate. 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 life circumstances require that work take up 70 percent of your time, then 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 my high octane friends and clients, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. And 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 (and everything in between) as long as being 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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