The pandemic had a profound impact on almost every area of how we live and work, causing ongoing stress and anxiety for many of us. Despite the easing of pandemic restrictions, many stressors remain, and seem set to stay indefinitely as we navigate new ways of working.
Unfortunately, women are feeling the effects more than men, with research suggesting they are more vulnerable to burnout. As a result, one in three women has even considered downshifting or leaving the workforce in the past year.
This International Women’s Day, businesses must go beyond simply acknowledging these statistics, and work proactively to challenge inequalities by taking measures to avoid burnout and support women to thrive in the workplace.
Understanding the imbalance
Research suggests women are more likely than men to experience burnout due to a lack of authority and control in the workplace. Women in roles with less decision-making power are more vulnerable to burnout than men, as they are less able to control and balance the demands of their work
And despite recent efforts to bridge the workplace gender gap, it appears the last two years have undone much of the good work – with equality gains being reversed and the pandemic heightening risks to women’s health and wellbeing.
Pandemic restrictions have seen many of us working remotely. Where managed well, this can be considered as a ‘work perk’. It has also however, seemingly contributed to a regression in equality. Not only have the natural stresses of a new working environment hit women harder than men but remote working has brought its own challenges.
A common trait among burned-out individuals is a pressure to be ‘always on’
Childcare demands and household tasks have naturally increased as we spend more time at home and women have experienced these unequally – with studies suggesting women undertake three times more childcare responsibilities and are five times as likely to spend 20-hours or more per week on chores.
Balancing the increasing demands of both work and home responsibilities is leaving women in a constant state of heightened stress – a ‘fight or flight’ mode that can lead to physical symptoms including tension, sleep disturbance, nausea, fatigue, and musculoskeletal problems, as well as mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression.
So, how can occupational health professionals prevent burnout, recognise early signs and symptoms and support women to avoid losing their top talent?
Individuals experiencing burnout are often reluctant to speak about their situation due to the perceived stigma around mental health and even fear of the career consequences of being seen to struggle with work stress – like being overlooked for promotions.
This can be especially true for women, who already must work harder to progress their careers. One study suggests for every 100 men promoted to manager level, only 86 women achieve the same.
So, it’s no wonder women stay silent when it comes to the traditionally taboo topic of mental health. It’s one layer of the armoury many women assemble to prove their ‘worthiness’ in a male-dominated workplace.
But unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle, with those who resist speaking out about their experiences not receiving the support that could help them to not just cope but flourish.
This is why occupational health managers have a responsibility to recognise the early signs of burnout in others and intervene. This may include a measurable decline in work standards, as well as changes in behaviour, such as irritability, low mood, tiredness, and an inability to concentrate.
'Occupational health managers have a responsibility to recognise the early signs of burnout in others and intervene'
And while no individual can be expected to have all the answers, they can begin to support others by nurturing a workforce that expects and welcomes conversations around mental health.
Firstly, this requires them to be confident approaching and supporting others. For example, at Nuffield Health we have broken down the barriers surrounding conversations about mental health by offering emotional literacy training to all staff. This equips them with the skills to hold conversations confidently around mental health and teaches a common language to discuss their feelings.
Once engaged in a dialogue, we can use active listening techniques to demonstrate to those in distress that their feelings are being recognised and understood. This includes sensitively repeating key phrases back to the speaker to show you’ve taken them on board, not speaking over them or second-guessing what they’re saying and avoiding trying to ‘top’ what they are saying.
These conversations help us to normalise the idea that everyone has mental health that needs protecting, and that everyone’s ‘mental fitness’ can change from day to day or month to month. This way, when individuals start to recognise signs of burnout in themselves, they feel comfortable accessing the right support…
Targeting support to the female workforce
The first step towards equality is evaluating the current workplace for imbalances that can cause women to experience additional stress and even be overlooked for recognition and promotions.
For example, one study found over 30% of women believed committing tangible targets for better gender representation at a senior level was useful as it gave businesses a measurable benchmark to commit to change. Similarly, transparency around salaries is a powerful tool in driving equal pay.
Occupational health professionals also have a responsibility to understand and communicate key female challenges with decision-makers who can provide suitable interventions.
Flexibility is key in supporting employees. Business leaders must understand that no single solution suits everyone and offering bespoke interventions allows women to balance their unique responsibilities.
'It is critical businesses play their part in helping individuals manage a healthy work-life balance'
For example, women who act as the main caregiver to children may be especially impacted by the limitations of traditional nine-to-five working hours. This may mean a stressful combination of morning school runs and work commutes and a complex balance of responsibilities when working from home and looking after a family.
Therefore, offering flexible hours and staggered shifts accommodates those juggling atypical demands. Similarly, offering shared parental leave policies can relieve the burden on women in senior positions to step away from their roles for extended periods after giving birth.
A common trait among burned-out individuals is a pressure to be ‘always on’ – to support team members and respond to challenges outside of work hours. Expectations must therefore be clearly outlined and regularly reaffirmed to employees. When we consider that women are more likely to take on household and childcare tasks, it is critical businesses play their part in helping individuals manage a healthy work-life balance.
Where signs of burnout are recognised, employers should signpost employees towards the emotional wellbeing support available to them. This may include Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or cognitive behaviour therapy sessions (CBT), which give individuals direct access to a specialist who can help them explore and understand the factors, which are impacting on their health and wellbeing.
Gosia Bowling is National lead for emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health