Why Smart Women Are Running Themselves Into the Ground
Women, stress, and the rising problem of burnout at work
Posted Oct 30, 2016
What do Hillary Clinton, Sharon Osbourne, and Selena Gomez have in common? They are all smart, busy women who have run themselves into the ground. Hillary Clinton made headlines when she nearly fainted at the 9/11 remembrance ceremony, finally admitting she had been diagnosed with pneumonia. On the season premier of The Talk, Mrs. O revealed that she had a complete collapse and subsequent depression because she felt like she had to be “Superwoman” to manage all of the obligations on her plate. Selena Gomez recently took a break from her tour to deal with the anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, which she asserts are side effects of her lupus diagnosis. Each of them admitted that they had taken on too much with regard to work.
Burnout is a state of chronic stress that is characterized by a combination of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy, and it’s impacting women more frequently and earlier in their careers. When Sharon Osbourne talked about her exhaustion and depression, she didn’t use the word “burnout,” but I suspect it played a role in her condition. Burnout and depression co-exist about 20% of the time, though researchers debate about the exact frequency of this combination. Burnout is also what I call a “gateway process” – the chronic stress opens the door to other illnesses – like anxiety, panic attacks, and a whole host of physical illnesses. It took over a year to diagnose my own burnout, and it was because the healthcare professionals I saw focused on the after effects, not the root cause.
But why is burnout impacting women so often and so early? Here are three theories I have developed based on my work in this area:
1. Low Stress Resilience
Resilience is an individual’s capacity for stress-related growth, and many busy women have room to improve in this area. The way you react to everyday stressors has been shown to have long-term implications for your physical and mental health. How you deal with an annoying colleague, traffic, long lines in the store, and a later-than-you-wanted pick up of your child at daycare may not matter much to your mental health in the moment, but consistent stress sensitivity and lack of stress resilience have been shown to predict future mental-health outcomes – as much as 10 years after the fact.
2. Ignoring the JD-R Balance
Burnout is the result of having too many job demands (aspects of your work that take consistent effort and energy), too few job resources (motivational aspects of your job that replenish your energy and trigger work engagement), and too little recovery (not taking the time to re-charge your batteries). Examples of job demands are unfairness and organizational politics, role conflict and ambiguity, lack of autonomy, and emotionally charged interactions with colleagues and clients. Examples of job resources include consistent feedback, leader support, skill variety, and high-quality connections with colleagues. Organizations and individuals need to make sure that they offer enough job resources to employees.
3. Deeply Held Beliefs about Success & More
Beating burnout requires that you step into your most authentic self, and that involves confronting the beliefs and mindsets that aren’t working for you. Some of the ones I hear most frequently that keep women stuck and overwhelmed are:
- I have to achieve more.
- Good mothers are/do/don’t __________________ (fill in the blank – always home to cook dinner; must put their kids to bed every night; don’t leave their kids at daycare, etc.).
- I can handle it all on my own.
- I’ll just power through (both Clinton and Osbourne mentioned this specifically in interviews).
- It’s right to put others first; I’ll worry about myself later.
- I have to be perfect.
- I can’t be perceived as weak (I hear this one from a lot of men too).
In addition, many smart women have developed something called a fixed mindset – the belief that their ability is limited or fixed. Smart girls with fixed mindsets believe that they were born with only so much intelligence, creativity, athletic ability, etc., and no amount of additional effort will grow these capacities. As a result, smart women and girls aren’t always comfortable getting outside of their comfort zones and play it safe rather than risk failing.
Gender and Burnout
Generally, research-based evidence about gender and burnout is ambiguous, with some studies reporting a higher prevalence in women, and others, a higher prevalence in men. What is less murky is the finding that women tend to score higher on the exhaustion component and men higher on the cynicism component. One study found that workload and care load (looking after the family), but not gender, predicted higher stress levels and subsequent burnout in women. Finally, another study showed that men and women may “process” burnout differently than women. Women tended to experience exhaustion first, followed by cynicism, then inefficacy – they didn’t think they are being effective at work or at home so they stopped to evaluate. Men, on the other hand, tend to experience cynicism first, then exhaustion. Interestingly, many of the men in the study kept working because they didn’t feel as though the symptoms from the first two stages impacted their quality of work. They didn’t reach the inefficacy stage because they thought they were still being effective.
What You Can Do
One strategy that shows promise in terms of helping people build engagement at work and prevent burnout is job crafting. Job crafting, or what I call “Spanx for the Workplace,” involves re-shaping your job to better fit your strengths, talents and interests. Specifically, focus on one or more of these areas:
a. Think of new ways to expand or alter the tasks you perform;
b. Enhance your work relationships; and/or
c. Reframe how you think about your job.
Burnout is a complex process that takes time to unravel. If you are interested in sharing your burnout story with me, I’d love to hear it. I’d also love to hear about the ways you are staying driven without burning out.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is a lawyer turned stress and resilience expert. Having burned out at the end of her law practice, she now works with organizations and individuals to build stress resilience. You can connect with Paula and to learn more about her work here.
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