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Why Women Are Burning Out in the Pandemic – and How to Stop it

The Problem

The pandemic has created a huge backwards shift for many women in the workplace. Since spring 2020 women in the US and UK have been choosing to downsize their careers – and new evidence suggests that this change is continuing even as restrictions ease.

The signs on our platform suggest that a complex interplay of practical and emotional pressures are pushing women out of work and undermining years of gradual progress in breaking the glass ceiling. Our AI results show womens’ ambition down an average 22% from this time last year. Alongside this shift in womens’ drive and passion for their work is a worrying increase in signs of burnout, with 46% of women on our platform showing signs of pre-burnout in January 2021.

While you might hope that the re-opening of schools and wider society can nudge these figures back in the right direction, we’re seeing no sign of this yet. For companies this means the agonising loss of senior women just as, pre-pandemic, figures were starting to inch in the right direction in the C-Suite and boardrooms.

Why is this happening?

Both men and women have been working longer hours on average in the pandemic, but working mothers have been particularly hard hit with a double whammy of long hours, plus childcare (often home-schooling) and housework. While men think they are pulling their weight, when asked, their partners often disagree. These pressures combine with stress about presenteeism and financial anxiety to create a perfect storm. Women feel exhausted, heading for burnout, and for some it seems the only way to keep their health is to walk away.

I spoke to a former high-flying finance professional woman who burned out as she struggled to manage a pressured job involving constant change alongside a family. She told me that she managed to hold things together until she started to have health issues and then found herself spiralling down into burnout. By that point, unable to step back and see what was happening to her, she described how she turned the pressure inwards, working harder and harder until she hit a mental and physical brick wall.

Her ordeal resulted in being signed off work for three months. She reflects: ‘The thing that would have made the most difference for me is if I’d felt able to speak at all about the pain and the stress, and let some of it out. But I kept it to myself and then it was too late, I couldn’t see what was happening - maybe my colleagues could, but no one intervened. I felt so unsupported.’


Practical and Emotional Impacts

As vaccines roll out and restrictions begin to ease, leaders have a window of opportunity to arrest this pattern. There are resources: McKinsey have produced a useful report highlighting the structural and practical steps that companies can take to try to hold onto their women, from support packages to help mothers build their careers, to flexibility around childcare as standard.

But we know at Untapped AI that while these practical steps are the baseline for creating change, in many of the companies we support, these measures won’t be enough on their own. That’s because the factors piling pressure on women right now are not only practical, but are also linked to cultural norms and personal expectations.

When we talk to female users on our platform about how the pandemic has impacted them, they describe complex and personal stories. Pre-burnout can form a dangerous spiral. It often starts with stress and exhaustion making it increasingly difficult to concentrate and work productively, which then interacts with an inner critical voice which tells us that we can overcome this - if we just work harder or longer. So stress and tiredness continue to build and sufferers often spiral downwards towards breaking point. In the pandemic, this pattern has been made more acute by fears over job security.

When workplace culture is competitive, political or doesn’t feel like a safe place in which to acknowledge or share these experiences, the stage is set for an often overwhelming descent towards burnout. If that descent isn’t caught before reaching crisis stage, unfortunately the only clear way forward may be leaving one’s role to save yourself and your mental health.

What should companies do?

Working out how we can create change can be hard, particularly if stress and overwhelm mean that seeing the wood for the trees is proving difficult. What we see in our work with users and the AI results across their companies is the complex interplay of womens’ individual circumstances and emotional responses interacting with the cultural ethos of organisations. Both affect each other, and so to create long-lasting change we must address both levels.

At an individual level, support and challenge from a non-biased professional (whether a coach, therapist or manager) can help break cycles of pre-burnout and empower people to build an awareness of their personal needs and boundaries, and how to assert these. This can be difficult work that requires insight and self-reflection to build awareness, and companies need to allow space and time for that - rather than expecting quick and clear results from one-off training or one coaching session.

Meanwhile companies need to work from a leadership level to acknowledge the failings in their own cultures, whether explicit or implicit. All organisations have implicit norms, for example working late, even if these go against explicit values or policies. Recognising and acknowledging these unspoken social and organisational rules can be painful, but is vital for creating real change. Creating a culture where, for example, long hours are not explicitly or implicitly rewarded or normalised takes leadership and strong boundary-setting from the top, and where this is absent it makes the task hard or near-impossible for individuals to protect themselves.

Alongside this is the need for open and compassionate working cultures in which individuals feel free to discuss problems as they arise and to create change in their roles where needed. Where large-scale burnout prevails, action needs to be taken at both levels – individual and cultural – to curtail the losses. If we are to support our workforces and equip them for the future, this needs to be addressed. And fast.

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