I’m one of many women who know burnout first hand. In fact, once upon a time I’d been running on adrenaline for so long, I ended up in hospital. Which seems nuts to me, now that I know it is possible to be effective without getting swallowed up by everything on my plate. But I’m not alone.
Even if you’ve managed to avoid burnout yourself, I’m willing to bet you know someone who has experienced it – and she was likely a woman. A recent article by Alexandra Michel on Burnout and the Brain got me thinking about how important a topic this is, and re-presenced me to the imperative that we get a collective handle on it.
Frankly, there’s too much at stake for us not to.
In our current cohort of Lead the Change – our year long advanced leadership program – over 70% of our participants have been burned out, or nearly so.
Now that might be an anecdotal statistic. But simply as an observation, it frightens me a little. Because it signals just how common it is for incredibly talented women – ones with a massive contribution to make to the world – find ourselves utterly worn out and broken by the demands of the modern workplace.
And not every woman is able to access the kind of leadership support we offer here at One of many.
It’s an epidemic, and if we want more women leaders we need to recognize it, heal it and then change the culture that fosters it.
Burnout costs business serious talent
There’s plenty of research out there pointing to the positive impact having more women in senior leadership positions has in business.
And almost as much asking why corporations still struggle to achieve gender balance at the top level.
The Global Markets Institute at Goldman Sachs produced a report in 2018 that didn’t explicitly mention burnout.
But some of their findings spoke to me of burnout as an invisible issue.
For example, when considering the lack of women in senior roles, the research found:
“Our analysis of attrition among full-time working women indicates that well-educated women stop working full-time relatively early in their careers at a higher rate than similar men do. While the difference is relatively small at the start of their careers, it widens meaningfully as women grow older, peaking when women are in their early 40s.”
Now, of course, there is a whole range of factors why women might not want to continue in their careers. We might choose not to continue in full-time employment for a whole number of reasons.
But my hunch is that burnout, or the risk of it, has to play a part.
This amazing graphic sums up many of the findings of Michel’s article. One of the quotes I love from it is this:
“Burnout won’t look like we expect. Burnout will tell us “I’m bad at this” or “I don’t even like it or care about it”. This can cause people to abandon a career instead of seeking rest or support.”
How many hugely talented leaders step back because they think they’re simply not cut out for senior roles – when in fact, burnout’s the culprit?
A culture that fuels burnout
And yet many of the most highly valued professions seem to be moving towards increased pressure on their workforce.
A New York Times article in April this year highlighted the insanity of many industries’ expectation from those who work ‘full time’. In elite careers, like medicine or law, the amount that we’re expected to work has increased dramatically in recent years, to the point where being more or less constantly “on call” is almost a prerequisite.
“The returns to working long, inflexible hours have greatly increased. This is particularly true in managerial jobs and what social scientists call the greedy professions, like finance, law and consulting — an unintentional side effect of the nation’s embrace of a winner-take-all economy. It’s so powerful, researchers say, that it has canceled the effect of women’s educational gains.”
If burnout arises when the demands of a job outweigh the resources we have to cope with it, this shift to working ever-longer hours surely indicates a clear increase in risk.
Add in family and household demands and it seems fair to assume that many women who choose to step back from their careers might be making a pragmatic decision to avoid burnout.
And yet, the loss of those leaders has a significant impact on the talent available to businesses and organizations. To society as a whole, in fact.
Ironically, the women leaders who could be the very ones to change this culture are often the ones who find themselves disillusioned and stepping back from it altogether.
Healing a culture takes time
Changing the way we work isn’t a small project. It’s no coincidence that our mission at One of many is to equip one million women leaders. That’s probably only going to be the start of what it’s going to take to create the new way of working, living and leading we need to turn back the tide of burnout and overwhelm.
But it’s one that I’m convinced isn’t just worth doing. It’s essential if we’re going to be able to fully make the most of our capabilities to solve the massive challenges we’re facing.
Burnout and you
Have you experienced burnout? Are you there right now? Share a comment below and let us know – it’s going to take us all getting really honest about our experiences if we’re going to turn this ship around.
And if you’re struggling right now, a good place to start is by clicking here to download the free Overwhelm First Aid kit.
It’s the step by step resource you need when things start to feel like too much, with strategies to get you back on top and tips to get back to a more sustainable way of working.
Our intention is simple. To support professional women to handle the day-to-day so they can unleash the bigger impact they feel called to make in the world.
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