Characterised by exhaustion, hopelessness and ill health, anyone who has experienced burnout knows just how debilitating it can be. It pervades everything from our working lives to our relationships, and the personal and professional ramifications can be severe. For employers, the cost of sick pay and losing talented members of their team can be a real hit. In some cases, this can further damaging workplace morale and worry bosses who have often got to know and like the person affected.
A suprising fact about burnout is that, while both men and women can experience workplace stress and burnout, a study published in April 2018 found that women are more likely to become burnt out than their male peers. It’s the responsibility of the employer to ensure that every member of their team is protected from unnecessary workplace stress and to safeguard their wellbeing. But in light of these findings, are there any particular steps companies should be taking to help women avoid burnout?
Why women are more vulnerable to burnout
Dr Nancy Beauregard, the author of the study cited above, concludes that it is the nature of the jobs women tend to have that causes greater incidence of burnout:
“Our results show there are differences between men and women because, from the outset, employees are subject to different working conditions depending on their gender, indeed, female employees often burn out at a faster rate simply because of the nature of their work.
“Many women have positions that offer little latitude in decision-making, meaning that their work only provides them with a low level of authority and decision-making power and makes little use of their skills.This type of position, which men are less likely to hold, causes women to burn out.”
However, there may be other contributing factors, such as women having to complete more unpaid labour – like housework and childcare – and the sometimes uncomfortable environment workplaces can be for working mothers. Many women struggle to find the flexibility needed to juggle their professional and personal commitments.
Another issue exists in lingering workplace sexism. According to McKinsey and Lean In’s second annual Women in the Workplace report, 130 men are promoted to management for every 100 women, while one in ten women have been told to wear more makeup at work. Furthermore, in 2016 women made up nearly two-thirds of the nearly 24 million workers in low-wage jobs (suggesting financial stress and lack of job security). Women of colour are particularly overrepresented in these roles.
Keep practicalities in mind
One of the least challenging ways that an employer can reduce women’s stress at work is to make sure that they provide the appropriate facilities. At the most basic, this means having enough toilets, installing sanitary bins and making sure staff toilets are kept scrupulously clean. It’s also hugely important that women have free access to these facilities. Security guards, warehouse, assembly-line, and call center workers and many others face severe limits on bathroom access, even being told they cannot use the bathroom until their allocated break. This negatively impacts health and wellbeing and causes unnecessary distress.
Another factor is childcare facilities. While the trends are changing, women tend to still take on the majority of childcare, and should they have to bring their bundle of joy to work one day, a baby changing area could be a real help.
If you employ low-wage workers, period poverty is something to consider. Unfortunately, period poverty – where women cannot afford sanitary products and have to manage without – is an under-discussed issue, and one that could be causing both embarrassment and stress to women in your workplace. Where possible, providing free sanitary products in your bathrooms could be a weight off an employee’s mind, even if they are just caught short without spare change for tampons one day.
All these things may seem simple, but it’s surprising how many women struggle through work without the basics and have to manage an unpleasant working environment. Often it can be the small and simple things we forget, so keeping the practicalities in mind as an employer is really important.
Be mindful of women’s greater care responsibilities.
It can be easy to forget, for both female and male entrepreneurs, that their employees have a life outside of the workplace, with its own stresses and strains. According to government statistics in 2017, seventy percent of U.S mothers with children under 18 were in work, and were the primary or sole earners in 40% of households. Keeping on top of work and family responsibilities can be a big challenge, especially in cases where employees are also in charge of the care of elderly parents.
Unpaid labour is an area in which women are statistically more likely to pick up the slack. Childfree couples tend to do the same amount of housework, but this isn’t true for mothers. Nine months after a baby has arrived, U.S. women report 22 hours of added childcare to their work week, while doing the same amount of housework and paid work as before. Men, on the other hand, add 14 hours of childcare to their work week but do five fewer hours of housework after the baby’s birth.
For those in your workforce who have demanding personal lives, flexibility and understanding can go a long way. While they should still complete the tasks required of them, you can work with your employees to create a schedule which suits both of you, and allow for change where it is reasonable and necessary. If you are a larger employer, you could even consider a workplace creche.
Offer security and career progression
The crux of women’s higher rate of burnout, according to the study, is the relative powerlessness many women experience in their job roles. Ensuring the career progression of talented and ambitious women is a vital part of making your organisation an inclusive and happy place to work; you can help to achieve this through mentoring schemes and by giving less assertive employees opportunities to strike out on their own and showcase their talents.
For those lower down the corporate ladder, make sure they feel appreciated and offer benefits usually reserved to higher-paid staff, such as secure contracts, generous holiday and maternity pay. If you notice one of your team is particularly hard working and has leadership qualities, let them try out for team leader and management roles rather than advertising the job externally.
You can also give staff the opportunity to manage their own workloads and make suggestions about how they feel the day-to-day running of the company can be improved, placing decision-making power back into their hands. If it’s viable for your business, you can help women avoid burnout by paying a living wage, significantly easing the financial pressure that can add to job stress.
Perhaps the most important thing is to go above and beyond for your employees when it comes to protecting their wellbeing. Taking a moment to consider the particular pressures women face in our still unequal society (especially women of colour) can give you the best tools needed to support them, and ultimately keep burnout at bay.