Hidden Gender Gaps: Burnout

by | Apr 29, 2022 | Culture/wellbeing

Burnout — the term originally coined in the 1970s to describe the toll of caring professions such as those in medicine or nursing — has since been acknowledged to exist in all professions. However, we are not all equally affected by it: this unfortunate manifestation of persistent work-related stress is soaring faster in women than in men. The gap between women and men who report being burned out has almost doubled in the last year. While the pandemic emphasized and worsened the burnout gap, this ingrained imbalance in society has existed long before. Burnout is a noteworthy challenge for technologists too, where workload and hours worked are its leading reported causes in both genders. And as recent research by Girls in Tech — a San Francisco-based global nonprofit — worrisomely identified, the burnout gap is wider in female technologists who have a male supervisor. 

For a more nuanced understanding of the burnout gap, we can consider burnout as having two primary components: depersonalization and emotional exhaustion. In a professional setting, men are more likely to report being depersonalized, whereas women are more likely to report emotional exhaustion. These subtleties are salient helpmates in steering us clear of stereotypical assumptions that burnout is an exclusively female experience, leading to either work discrimination against women or failure to discern burnout in working men. But how did a burnout gap become a thing at all? 

While one of the largest contributors to the burnout gap are unequal demands at work and home, there is no one reason why women are more emotionally exhausted from work than men. Various societal challenges — including gender pay gap — and gender norms all have their role. Women are also less likely to be promoted, consequently staying in positions with less authority and potentially more stress. And as we previously discussed, even in authority positions, women are taken less seriously, leading to additional frustration and mental strain. 

So, what can organizations do to narrow the burnout gap?

During the pandemic, organizations have shown sturdy commitment to the well-being of their employees. Yet, to effectively address the rising challenges such as burnout, a continued commitment is crucial. Therefore, in addition to preserving the existing policies and programs, organizations should relentlessly seek opportunities to either better them or expand on them. This means recognising when old work practices are no longer fit for purpose and rethinking how the organization can promote fairness and equality. Organizations must strive for equality in pay and promotion. Organizations must also strive for a work culture which enables any employee to reach their professional potential while resting assured that their home-related needs will be reasonably supported. There is no one single reason why burnout gap exists, thus there is no one single policy or program that will close the gap. However, through listening closely to employees and exploring novel solutions, a lot can surely be done.

And what can everyone do to narrow the burnout gap? 

As already mentioned, unequal demands at both work and home are what widens the burnout gap. Thus, change must occur at home as much as it occurs at work. This means finding ways to encourage sincere conversations and collective actions that mitigate the inequalities at home. Employees of either gender must recognize whether there are default roles at home — such as that of a caregiver — that are rooted in a stereotype. Employees of either gender must also recognise when burnout starts creeping in and what actions can be taken.  Burnout comes in many forms. You may feel emotionally (and physically) used up. You may become cynical. You may lose belief in your work. Whatever your symptoms are, there are ways to get back to thriving

  1. Restore your resources by reprioritizing your own wellbeing. 
  2. Reduce further resource exhaustion by analyzing what is burning you out. 
  3. Increase resources in your environment and realign priorities.

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