No wonder self-care routines have become such a popular topic of discussion in feminist circles over the past few years: A 2018 study shows that women are more likely suffer from work-related burnout than men.
Study focus: What is burnout, and why do people experience it?
Researchers at the University of Montreal followed 2,026 people working in various fields over four years, half of whom were women, to identify which factors contribute to work-related burnout. The researchers characterized burnout as lack of motivation, feelings of helplessness and depression, and physical symptoms like chronic headaches or higher rates of illnesses that can occur when stress suppresses the immune system. The researchers were specifically interested in monitoring workers’ levels of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and professional effectiveness.
In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as a syndrome linked to chronic stress at work.
Conclusion: Women more likely to get burned out than men
The researchers in Montreal concluded the that women are more likely to feel burned out by work than men are. This is due in part to factors outside of employers’ control, such as low self-esteem and poor division of unpaid labor outside the workplace. But a large contributor was that women were more likely to face unfavorable working conditions. For example, women are often hired for positions that gave them little authority in their workplace, and they had fewer opportunities to put their talents to good use.
According to InHerSight's research, one in three women have been passed over for a promotion because of their gender.
For women, burnout isn’t the result of long work hours
Frustrating work conditions play a far larger role. The women in the study were expected to work just as hard as their male coworkers, but they weren’t afforded the same chances to take on interesting, creative projects or advance to higher positions within their companies.
It’s true that men work longer hours than women on average, but it seems that burnout isn’t always the result of too much overtime. The women in this study didn’t experience burnout because they worked long hours; it was because they felt stagnant. This was caused by “little latitude in decision-making”, a perceived lack of respect and recognition for their efforts and contributions, and the feeling that their hard work wouldn’t open up future opportunities for advancement.
Nobody wants to feel like they’re stuck on a hamster wheel at work—when you’re giving it your all, but you highly doubt that it’s going to pay off, you might begin to wonder if it’s even worth it after all. Furthermore, women in many fields, especially hospitality, service, and retail industries, are expected to wear makeup and keep a smile on their face at all times. All of that extra time and emotional labor in addition to the pressure to succeed at your job can take a toll.
Unfair division of labor also plays a role
It’s not just what happens to women in the workplace that contributes to burnout—it’s also responsibilities outside of the workplace.
While men do work slightly longer hours than women do in paid jobs, women spend far more time doing unpaid work at home. In fact, when researchers consider unpaid domestic responsibilities as “working hours” in studies, it turns out that the average woman actually spends 39 more days working than the average man. Even when a husband and wife with children both work full time, the wife still spends more time on cooking, cleaning, and childcare on a daily basis. In some cases, more than twice as much time.
This is more of a societal issue than one that can be controlled in a workplace setting, but it’s still worth acknowledging. Discussing problems like this is one of the first steps to combating them.
Sexual harassment just makes it worse
In addition to those extra responsibilities at home, working women face another challenge: sexual harassment in the workplace. The nonprofit Stop Street Harassment surveyed women about this issue in January 2018, and found that 81 percent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, including verbal harassment, unwanted touching, cyberstalking, and even being physically stalked by a coworker, boss, or customer. It’s undeniable that sexual harassment can affect mental health, and while the researchers involved with the study at University of Montreal didn’t factor this problem into their data, it could certainly contribute to the higher rates of burnout among women.
While it’s admirable that so many women are prioritizing self-care and taking steps to avoid burnout in their personal lives, we can’t simply look towards individual solutions to solve a systemic problem. Until changes in societal attitudes and policy occur, women will not enjoy equal treatment and opportunities in the workplace or a fair division of labor in their households, so burnout will persist. But in the meantime, taking time for yourself, checking in on your friends, and lending them a helping hand certainly can’t hurt.
By Jane Harkness
Jane Harkness is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Her writing has been published on Thought Catalog, Student Universe, Pink Pangea, and more. She blogs daily on Medium, and you can check out more of her work at janeharknesswrites.com.