As an executive coach who works with women leaders, it’s not unusual for me to see the sad, worried eyes of my coaching clients as the “aha” moment hits, and they realize: “I have burnout.”
This realization often comes as a shock. Once it’s teased out and women further share their feelings of exhaustion and lack of energy for work they once loved, it becomes glaringly obvious to them. But until that point, it’s typically something they beat themselves up for, their inner voice saying, “I just need to work harder! What’s wrong with me?”
My business partners and I estimate that almost 20% of the women in our six-month leadership intensives are expressing some symptoms of burnout. What we know is that it’s insidious and can slowly creep up on you. These clients have moved past periodic times of being “stressed out” into chronic stress. This occupational phenomena clouds the mind, where a person struggles to assess their situation clearly, and they often end up beating themselves up for not being good enough.
One client, a CEO in a mid-sized insurance company, who had been truly passionate about her work, realized she was burned out. After years of tirelessly committing her time to the business, one day, she struggled to listen to the Chairman of the Board when he walked into her office, whereas in the past she looked forward to their conversations. She described it as the Charlie Brown adult voice that’s just “wah, wah, wah.” She felt exhausted when she woke up each morning, and just wanted to stay home, make soup, and watch I Love Lucy reruns.
This description is unfortunately not unusual. Our clients often have the reputation of being driven and passionate. Yet, over time, they feel overwhelmed and struggle to identify what’s wrong. Sometimes, I hear them contemplate leaving their company just to find some sense of inner peace. And sometimes, they don’t make changes until they end up in emergency rooms or with a serious health diagnosis. This can often lead to a leave of absence or termination. Successful leaders need to know what burnout looks like and get help early.
Here is what we know:
Burnout is now considered a serious work issue, as the pace and complexity of our work environments have rapidly changed. In May of 2019, the World Health Organization updated the definition of burnout as: “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This new definition is raising the awareness of burnout and strengthening its link to work. It legitimizes the need to pay attention to these occupational symptoms and find solutions that alleviate toxic work environments. As the expert on burnout, Dr. Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, describes it as “a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.”
It’s no surprise that women report higher levels of burnout. One study identified gender inequalities in the workplace as a key element that’s impacting occupational mental health. Women were found to have lower levels of decision-making authority and were often overqualified for their roles, which ultimately leads to less satisfaction at work and a sense that they have fewer career alternatives. We see this frustration all the time, and it often manifests in beating oneself up. Women often think it’s their own fault that they’re not thriving.
Our concern after decades of working with women leaders is that it’s getting worse. Read this blog to see what is recommended.