Women on the Verge of Exhaustion

Why women feel less appreciated and more stressed and fatigued than men.

Posted Mar 07, 2014

Liza felt like she was on an endless treadmill. After working an average of nine or 10 hours at the office, logging a quick half hour at the gym, and then cooking dinner for her family most nights at home—where she was required to solve what seemed like “a thousand problems”—she never quite felt caught up with any of her obligations, sleep chief among them. Even when everything on the day’s list somehow got crossed off, and she was able to collapse into bed at a reasonable hour, she couldn’t rest more than a few hours at a time. “My mind was constantly spinning,” she told me. “I just couldn’t shut the lists, the obligations, or the noise off. Ever.” And so rather than toss and turn and think of all that she should be doing, she just got up and did it, whatever it was. “I got a lot done between the hours of 3 and 6 a.m.,” she said. “But during the day, I was always on the edge of some major breakdown.”

Liza is not alone. A CDC study found that 16 percent of women age 18 to 44 reported feeling “very tired,” “exhausted,” or otherwise worn out most days, compared with 9 percent of men in the same age range. Is it because women are taking on more than their share? Or because they have difficulty saying no?

The answer, probably, is both.

We know that a historically high number of women are now the primary breadwinners for their households. The Pew Research Center reports that among families with kids under age 18, 37 percent of wives earn more than their husbands, up from 11 percent in 1960. At the same time, although women are contributing to the family pot more significantly than ever before, their domestic responsibilities are not shrinking; studies show, for example, that working women still do more housework than men.

Meanwhile, the fact that women work as hard as men but, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, are paid an estimated 81 percent of what men are paid for performing the same jobs means that many women work longer hours to earn just as much—or feel like they should. That drive, however, only makes the situation worse, as studies show that overworking actually helps hold women back: a new study by sociologists from Indiana University and Cornell finds that overworking—putting in 50 hours a week or more—has helped slow growth in women occupying professional and managerial occupations.

And yet women keep saying yes to work, to family, to most everything. Kelly, a busy hotel publicist, constantly felt pulled in a million directions—from her kids, her husband, her job, her friends. And she wasn’t willing to disappoint any of them, which often had her juggling the hectic schedule, she said, “of a 22-year-old.” She told me, “I’d run home to have dinner with my kids, which I’d eat while folding a load of laundry and scheduling the cat at the vet, before meeting a friend in crisis for drinks. Most days, I wasn’t sure what day it was at all. By Friday night, I literally wanted to crawl into a dark corner and not emerge until Monday, but, of course, with soccer games and food shopping and social obligations, there was no way that was possible.” But was her life better for it? She couldn’t say it was. Eventually, Kelly realized that giving a little bit of herself to so many different facets of life might have made other people happy, but it was making her completely miserable.

Of course, it’s also important to acknowledge that the CDC study doesn’t quite say that more women are feeling tired, but that more women report feeling tired. It’s possible that women report fatigue more often than men, since we also know that women tend to experience stress more acutely than men. Case in point: according to a number of studies women and men experience, and respond to, conflicts at work in very different ways. Women, for instance, tend to feel conflict more deeply. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that women consistently report higher levels of work stress, tension, and frustration than men. More than men, they are inclined to feel underappreciated and underpaid—exhausting stuff, for sure. An Australian study, meanwhile, found that women respond to such work-related conflict and stress by, you guessed it, working harder.

Stressed-out men, on the other hand, are more inclined to call in sick or otherwise “check out.” One reason, perhaps, they sleep better, too. A 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll found that women are more likely than men to have trouble falling, and staying, asleep—something Liza knew all too well. “While I tossed and turned and fretted,” she said, “my husband snoozed peacefully. I’m not sure a bomb would wake him up, never mind worrying about how our daughter would do in the school play!”

Eventually she realized that her chronic list making, and task mastering, might have been helping her organizationally, but it was hindering her mentally. And it wasn’t doing her family, her friends, or anyone else she seemed to value over herself any favors either. “If I couldn’t do it for myself,” she said, “I needed to learn to let go for everyone else.” Until women choose to take care of themselves, however, they’ll continue to suffer most.


Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com