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Burnout: Why women in leadership feel it most

Written by Annette Cairns on .
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Let’s start with celebrating the good news - the past few decades have witnessed a significant increase in women occupying leadership positions across different sectors. However, despite these gains, women continue to face unique challenges and obstacles in their pursuit of success, and one of the most significant challenges that women in leadership positions face is burnout.

Burnout is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals experience chronic stress in the workplace, resulting in emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including heavy workloads, poor work-life balance, lack of support, and high-pressure environments. And these factors can be exacerbated for women in leadership positions, who often have to contend with additional barriers, such as gender bias and discrimination, despite the progress made. There’s no doubt that the pressure to perform as a leader, in addition to ‘as a woman’ still weighs heavy.

Interestingly, research has shown that women in leadership positions are more likely to experience burnout than their male counterparts. In practice, women in leadership positions often have to work harder to prove themselves and gain recognition, which can lead to longer work hours, increased responsibilities, and higher stress levels. Added to this are the personal demands faced by many women, such as being the primary carer for children or elderly family members, and maintaining a home. We know that despite many households aiming to split chores 50/50, evidence suggests that it remains predominantly women who take on the majority of tasks and day to day admin involved in running a house.

As if more challenges were needed in this complex mix, the current cost of living crisis is impacting work and performance in multiple ways. A recent survey shows that 74% of HR leaders are worried that the cost of living crisis is affecting employee performance, a position echoed by Mental Health UK’s CEO:

“We live in unprecedented times, and life outside work has become increasingly difficult due to the cost of living crisis and pressures on public services, while global challenges such as climate change and artificial intelligence fuel stress, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.”

Brian Dow, CEO Mental Health UK.

Mental Health UK are now calling on the government to address this with experts and employers, in order to create healthy workplaces.

The impact of burnout in female leaders

The impact of burnout on women in leadership positions can be significant. Burnout can lead to physical and mental health problems, reduced job satisfaction, decreased productivity, and increased turnover. Burnout can also have a ripple effect on the organisation, as it can lead to decreased morale, higher absenteeism, and reduced performance.

Many women will recognise the feelings of imposter syndrome, and this also has a bearing on heightened levels of burnout. Some of the ways in which imposter syndrome can contribute to burnout are increased stress and fear of failure, which leads to the additional need to work harder. In turn, the lack of self-confidence felt when experiencing imposter syndrome leads to anxiety about being ‘exposed’ as a fraud, and for women new to leadership this can be a trigger to take on even more responsibilities and additional work, spiralling further into exhaustion.

How to break the cycle

Breaking the cycle of burnout for women in leadership positions requires a multi-faceted approach.

First and foremost, organisations need to recognise the unique challenges that women in leadership positions face and provide support and resources to help them manage their workload and maintain a healthy work-life balance. This can include offering flexible work arrangements, providing access to wellness programs and mental health resources, and actively working to eliminate gender bias and discrimination in the workplace.

Secondly, women in leadership positions need to prioritise self-care and set boundaries to prevent burnout. This sounds easy in principle, but we know how hard it is to undertake day to day.

Ideally, managing time effectively to takebreaks throughout the day, delegating tasks to others, and accepting the support of a team can all help. At a personal level, taking time for activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction, such as exercise, walking the dog, yoga or anything that introduces mindfulness can be a real benefit.

Thirdly, in the spirit of women supporting women, the importance of fostering a supportive and inclusive work culture can’t be overstated. Organisations should prioritise creating an environment where women in leadership positions feel valued, respected, and supported. This can be achieved through mentorship programs, leadership development opportunities, and promoting a culture of work-life integration. By addressing the root causes of burnout and implementing strategies to prevent it, we can empower women in leadership positions to thrive and contribute their full potential to the success of their organisations.

Finally, we have to continue to call out and challenge gender stereotypes and biases that contribute to the unequal distribution of work and responsibilities. This can involve promoting diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, providing training and education on gender bias, and actively working to eliminate gender-based discrimination.

In 2024, the theme of International Women’s Day is to ‘inspire inclusion’, to forge a better world. My hope is that through workplace inclusion, supportive networks, and women having the confidence in themselves to thrive in their roles a leaders, we do see a better working world for women.

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