Exhausted. Stressed. Anxious. Berating yourself for “not doing enough” are some signs of burnout that many women are intimately familiar with.
But, burnout is more than just stress — it’s accumulated stress that could lead to exhaustion, pessimism, and anxiety. Burnout can affect women significantly, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made this even more evident. Women, who have ‘traditionally’ taken on the primary caregiving duties, in addition to their professional lives, have been especially hit hard hit, with added daily responsibilities and a host of new challenges to their work/life arrangements.
A recent Deloitte study unveiled that women feel the need to be always “on”, be it at work or at home, which is taking a toll on physical and mental health. Over 80 per cent of women surveyed said their lives have been negatively disrupted by the pandemic.
On average, 75 per cent of the world’s total unpaid care work (including child- care, caring for the elderly, cooking, and cleaning) is performed by women — be they homemakers or working professionals. Covid-19 has disproportionately increased the time women spend on family responsibilities. This has led to women dropping out of the workforce at a higher rate than explained by labor-market dynamics alone. Along with having to adapt their daily lives in significant ways, many working women are also experiencing stress induced by the impact the pandemic has had on their career progression- both short as well as long term.
A critical step towards supporting both well-being and career advancement can come from employers and organisations. Some ways to achieve these twin objectives could include — though not be limited to — flexible working, mentorship specifically for women, and creating an environment free of unconscious biases. Progressive organizations are beginning to take some of these measures. What is needed, however, is quick implementation to obviate long-term ill effects on working women professionals.
Whilst organisations and society at large can play a significant role, here are six ways in which women themselves can both manage ‘burnout’ as well as take care of their well-being whilst still pursuing their life goals — whether personal or professional:
1. Awareness – catch it early: This is sometimes the hardest part. Women may experience the ‘symptoms’ of burnout or lack of well-being, and still not recognise them.
A great practice would be to make it a habit to check-in with your own self from time to time. For instance:
*Are there any physiological changes you’re experiencing (e.g.: blood pressure, aches/pains etc.)?
*Do you observe any difference in your sleep quality?
*Have you demonstrated any uncharacteristic behaviour in the recent past (e.g.: increased irritability or the need for significantly higher and/or lower social interaction etc.)?
START WITH – Checking in with yourself once a week, asking yourself relevant questions, and reflecting on what are the deeper reasons/thought patterns/environmental factors that could potentially be triggering stress.
2. Ask for support – Whether it’s a good friend, family member, or coach, it is important to have someone who can listen to you, empathise and give you another perspective along with constructive solutions. Once burnout has its hold on your mind, decision making can get fuzzy. The person you seek support from could help you identify patterns and regain clarity on priorities, which in turn can help establish better boundaries. In other words, getting support could help you to both create awareness as well as take relevant action
START WITH – Identifying ‘who’ you could reach out to, and establish a connect/have a conversation with.
3. Prioritise a ‘healthy’ lifestyle – We tend to underestimate the impact lifestyle has on our behaviour and well-being. Healthy eating, exercise, meditation/breathing techniques and a good sleep routine benefit not only our physical well-being but also our mental state. Reframe the “work harder” message to work smarter for your own self. It takes giving yourself permission to shift your mindset from what you consider a priority and commit to making time for healthy coping mechanisms to combat stress.
START WITH – Taking micro steps towards your goal – i.e. small, specific action steps, which when acted upon consistently, make it easier to achieve our goals. For instance, if your goal is to sleep at least seven hours and get high-quality sleep, a micro step like picking a specific time for dinner, can make a significant difference to your sleep pattern.
4. Examine your work-environment – In May 2019, the World Health Organization updated the definition of burnout as: “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This new definition has raised the awareness of burnout and its strong link to our work environment. It reinforces the need to pay attention to occupational/work-related burnout symptoms and find solutions that alleviate a toxic work environment.
START WITH – Being cognizant of those aspects of their current work environment that trigger stress. This will help to find constructive solutions to cope instead of impulsive, reactive decisions like ‘quitting’ or choosing to remain the same environment – without taking the much-needed action to recognize and address the burnout symptom (awareness- point 1 above)
5. Well begun is half done – start your day right – You wake up in the morning, immediately check notifications on your phone, and then run over that ‘overwhelming’ to-do list in your mind. Does this sound familiar? It probably does, because so many of us do this. But doing so impacts our brain’s ability to prioritize tasks, in addition to relatively higher stress levels just as you begin the day
START WITH – Before you check your phone or run over your to-do lists, take 60 seconds out to set your intention for the day. Pick a non-negotiable morning practice – it could be a walk or meditation or any other healthy lifestyle choice that helps you enhance your capacity to navigate the everyday ‘stressors’.
Don’t let the “imposter syndrome” trap get to you – It is that nagging feeling that you don’t belong or that you’re not good enough, and the fear that everyone will “find out.” The one quality of imposterism that stands out from all others – it makes us feel alone in the experience. We tell other people that their fear is unfounded, but are convinced that we are truly “not good enough.” Imposterism compounds the impact of any stress or anxiety that you may already be experiencing.
*Recognizing when you begin to experience ‘imposterism’ – Some signs to watch for
— You feel you are undeserving of what you achieved
— You worry about things going “too well”
— You downplay your own success or achievements
Don’t judge yourself for experiencing the ‘imposter syndrome’. We all have different emotional responses to various situations and people. However, it is important not to confuse feelings with reality itself, or to let the feeling of “imposterism” determine your actions. For example, Michelle Obama, the former US first lady, in her book Becoming, writes about how, as a young woman, she would lie awake at night asking herself: am I too loud? Too much? Dreaming too big? She recognises the imposter syndrome when she says later in the book, “Eventually, I just got tired of always worrying what everyone else thought of me. So I decided not to listen.”
To all of us women out there — half the world as we are — this Women’s Day, let us resolve to focus on our well being, our careers, our goals so that — whether we are home makers or professionals — we develop as individuals. For most of us, burnout in our homes or professions is a major spoiler and obstacle in the way of achieving our individual goals as well as overall well-being.
I hope these six ways give you a tangible, actionable way forward. Happy Women’s Day!
(The writer is an Organizational Psychologist, Leadership Consultant & Wellness Coach. You can read about her work on http://www.nikitasingh.org)