Working Women in the Pandemic: Burnout or Bust

Abstract

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women. Specifically, an increase of the already unrealistic expectations placed on working and stay-at-home mothers. With school and daycare closures, adult children moving home, and an overall increase of families spending time in the home, mothers’ responsibilities have increased. As you can imagine, the rise in these responsibilities has exacerbated the feelings of burnout and exhaustion in an attempt to balance career and family. I hope to highlight the heightened levels of emotional and physical drain that mothers have felt due to the COVID-19 pandemic and speak to my personal experiences. 

What is Gendered Burnout?

A study done by the University of Pennsylvania found that in addition to owning the majority of household duties, mother’s experienced an increase in responsibility for their children’s education. This pressure felt by mothers has only been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. With children spending more time in the household and working from home becoming our new reality, the work-life balance for mothers has nearly disappeared altogether. If there is a lack of balance in conjunction with prolonged periods of stress, we reach a state of burnout. Ultimately, the culmination of these factors leads women to experience dissatisfaction with their work and a decrease in ambition.

As researchers compile new data on job trends during the pandemic, alarming statistics have come to light. To begin, women account for nearly 65% of the 1 million jobs lost in Canada in March 2020. CNBC’s and SurveyMonkey’s Women at Work survey has noted that over 50% of women surveyed have felt extreme levels of burnout, and nearly a third have thought about quitting their jobs in the past year and a half. In part, we are experiencing a “second shift”: a rollback into outdated and archaic traditional gender roles as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Societal gender expectations are regressing, and working mothers are expected to do most household and childrearing duties while maintaining full-time employment, according to a study done by Craig and Sawriker. When you combine severe levels of stress, outdated societal gender expectations creeping back in, and additional duties in the home – all during a global pandemic – you will understand why many women are experiencing gendered burnout. 

In my experience, gendered burnout has been incredibly real. With four young children and being the CEO of a flourishing business, even with the help of my incredible partner, the burnout caught up with me, both mentally and physically. After nearly eight of the busiest years of my life, two of which have been during this pandemic, this all came to a head when my physical and mental health took a serious downturn. The part that worried me most was the intensity of the drain: occasional mental drain is common with being an entrepreneur, but the physical drain was like nothing I had experienced. Over the last few months of 2021 I physically and mentally hit a wall. I was faced with the severity of how far I had pushed myself and had no choice but to press pause.  

I was searching for the language to describe this feeling when I came across an article in Forbes describing what so many other women and I have been feeling throughout the pandemic: gendered burnout. With this realization also came a sense of anger. After decades of fighting for our rightful place in the world, I am beyond frustrated that women have been cast back into outdated and patronizing roles. We have once again been asked to “take one for the team” and sacrifice our needs for patriarchal stereotypes designed to shelve our ambition. Thus, making it harder than it already is to achieve our dreams and goals. My resolve has never been stronger, and my convictions have never been clearer.

These overwhelming emotions and stress levels can leave us feeling angry or at a loss for ambition. Personally, the burnout led to a physical fallout. An article by Harding and Queen gave us tips on monitoring and mitigating the emotional hardships of burnout:

  • Create a strong social network to call on and people to talk to when we are going through difficult times. While you have to socially distance, many virtual methods exist to connect. 
  • Connect with family, friends, and work colleagues. Working from home and socially distancing does not mean being alone. 
  • While working from home, it is important to try to socialize with co-workers. Those “water cooler moments” at work are more important than you might think. 
  • Exercise is also important to boost energy and mood. Doing some cardio, walking, or even weight training or other exercise activities can help to lighten the mood. 
  • Try to find something in your work that you feel is interesting and helps you gain more purpose and value. This can be quite helpful in giving people hope and helping them to become more engaged at work. 
  • Eating healthy is also an important way to stay healthy, mentally and physically, preventing burnout. A balanced diet, eating more fruits and veggies, minimizing sugars, and reducing foods that can negatively affect your mood, such as alcohol and caffeine, particularly if consumed in excess, can help minimize the effects of burnout. 
  • It is also important to note that if it seems that it is more than burnout that is being experienced, or it has progressed into a mental disorder such as a mood or anxiety disorder, it is important to seek professional help.

Conclusion

Anyone experiencing gendered burnout can understand what a challenge it can be. By taking some time to recharge and reflect, I eventually understood how I had arrived at this crossroad. I have fought my way through the past two years with the love and support of my family and the continuous dedication of my business partners and employees. However, the reality remains: these societal disparities will continue until we are all equal.  Equality – the equality that we are entitled to – will not be undone by convenience. The change we deserve must be all-encompassing, and the change we have seen should not be so easily disregarded. Equality must be unconditional and absolute, and when we face trying times as a society, it cannot disproportionately affect women more than men. While anger, exhaustion and lack of motivation are all symptoms of gendered burnout, we must continue our fight towards the cure: true, unconditional equality. 

So where do we go now? From here, we as women need to find ways to prioritize our mental and physical wellbeing. It is easier said than done, but the repercussions when we don’t can be absolutely detrimental, not only to ourselves but also to those who rely on us. For society as a whole, we need to fight for our women, now more than ever. Stand up and speak up in all spaces when equality is being tested; break down and actively push against societal gender expectations with your actions; and finally, recognize gendered burnout and extend a helping hand to those who may be struggling. Gendered burnout is a global-wide, hidden pandemic in itself, and it will take all of us to work towards a cure. 

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