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Working Women are Experiencing Burnout at Disproportionately High Rates - Why An Antiquated Ideal of Motherhood is Jeopardizing Maternal Mental Health and Pre-Pandemic Career Gains

Working Women are Experiencing Burnout at Disproportionately High Rates - Why An Antiquated Ideal of Motherhood is Jeopardizing Maternal Mental Health and Pre-Pandemic Career Gains

It’s no surprise that both men and women are experiencing elevated levels of stress at work and at home; a seemingly never-ending pandemic coupled with increased financial, environmental, and familial hardships would be difficult for anyone to handle. A particularly distressing new report, however, has shed light on the disproportionate levels of pressure put on working women to balance motherhood and career. and McKinsey & Co.’s annual Women in the Workplace report found that, compared to last year, levels of burnout for women increased more than they did for men. In fact, the burnout has taken such a toll, particularly on working mothers, that 1 in 3 women are considering changing their career or leaving the workforce altogether. The unequal expectations regarding caregiving responsibilities at home between mothers and fathers, lack of affordable childcare options, and the gender pay gap are all factors that have contributed to these higher levels of mental and physical strain. Concrete policy supports for women and families are essential, but ultimately, reframing society’s perception of motherhood to reflect the duality of women as both attaining successful careers while mothering if they so choose is key in reclaiming past career gains while supporting working women in the future. 

Since 2014, McKinsey partners have collaborated with Lean In to analyze workplace data in assessing the experiences of men and women from the year prior. The 2021 report, however, reflects a monumental difference in circumstances with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020. Alarmingly, the report found that the gap between men’s and women’s burnout levels nearly doubled. 

Despite these increased levels of burnout, women are stepping up within their companies to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion at levels higher than men working at the same level. The report finds that women are taking on more responsibilities at work not formally part of their job description, such as recruiting employees from underrepresented groups, helping other employees navigate work-life balance challenges, and ensuring workloads remain manageable for their subordinates. Yet, only 25% of companies have formally recognized these efforts. Failure to reward the women advancing initiatives so crucial to the company’s success only increases the burnout they experience. 

While women have made significant gains in the workplace prior to the pandemic, women of color are still largely underrepresented within top management positions. Further, the report emphasizes that all women are still facing a “broken rung,” in which for every 100 men promoted to a managerial position, only 86 women are promoted. This broken rung, explains McKinsey & Co., likely demonstrates why representation of women at even higher positions still lags behind men. Again, failure to recognize and reward the hard-work and dedication of women by promoting them at lower rates only increases the likelihood of burnout. If women believe

their careers are stagnating and their work is going unnoticed, they are more likely to leave their jobs. The pandemic has exacerbated this unfortunate reality, as 1 in 3 women said they are considering changing careers or leaving the workforce altogether. High levels of turnover suggest that many have already followed-through on that decision. 

In these unprecedented times, it is crucial to evaluate how working women have persisted through challenges in order to better understand how we can provide support moving forward. Companies need to take bold steps to address burnout, especially for female employees who are balancing so much more in the face of COVID-19 and receiving so much less. 

Part of addressing burnout means cultivating an environment where flexibility is acceptable and even encouraged. Specifically, Zoom has demonstrated that people can work from home and still be just as effective in getting their job done. Working mothers and fathers should have the opportunity to work remotely, at least for part of the week. This flexibility would not only relieve working parents of some of the new work-life balance challenges that have arisen during the pandemic, but also shift some of the burden away from working mothers to find childcare. If they are able, companies should offer affordable childcare options for its employees, which would also alleviate the stress of finding someone reliable to care for children. 

While remote work has the ability to transform companies for the better, employers must ensure boundaries are set so a culture of working 24/7 does not become a reality. Employees who believe that they need to work after hours to “get ahead” will experience even more burnout. Establishing an organizational culture that respects employees’ free time will only make them more productive during work hours and foster positive attitudes toward the company. 

Further, the contributions of all employees regardless of gender should be valued equally. In rewarding and recognizing the work of employees, they are more likely to feel valued at the company and less likely to leave the organization. 

Importantly, companies should foster an environment where employees feel comfortable seeking out resources when they do feel burnt out. An open dialogue is essential in creating a workplace in which employees feel valued. Companies should make mental and physical health resources available in conjunction with generous maternity and paternity leave policies. 

Burnout is real and has only been made more intense in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which still affects people everyday. While men and women have faced higher levels of stress during these times, women have done so at higher rates, all while trying to be support systems for co-workers and manage new work-family situations. It is critical that this burnout is acknowledged and solutions are implemented to lessen the stresses working women, especially working mothers face. Society’s expectations of working mothers to “do it all” perpetuates a culture of overworking with overburdening women with professional and familial responsibilities. In providing more concrete support through flexible work and accessible childcare for both men and women, working moms will bear less of the burden alone.