Are Working Mothers More In Danger of Burnout?

Years ago when I looked like I had it all from the outside, I was dying inside. I had the career, the house, the car, the foreign holidays, the husband, two adorable kids and the two Labradors just to finish off the picture. What no one knew apart from my husband and kids was that I was EXHAUSTED! I felt trapped by this ‘perfect’ world I had worked so hard to create for myself. I had to put up a front at work because I was of course the consummate professional but at home, I just wasn’t coping. It was so bad that sometimes at the weekend, I would practically barricade myself in my bedroom and my poor husband had to cope with the kids by himself. I was a completely burnout and I had a list of 14 symptoms to prove it.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO),:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

The WHO goes on to say that ‘Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life’.

In 1974 a German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger wrote about burnout in his book: ‘Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement’ which brought the condition to the public’s consciousness.

Both Freudenberger and the WHO link burnout to workplace stress and I find this problematic. Stress is stress regardless of the where it originates and if it is not dealt with then whether you are a high achiever or not, you will still burnout out. The narrow application of the burnout syndrome leaves whole swathes of society feeling the symptoms but suffering in silence because don’t feel ‘high achieving’ enough to warrant their symptoms.

Some of the common symptoms are:

  • Exhaustion (Physical and emotional)
  • Sleep disorders
  • Reduced performance
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Loss of identity
  • Disillusionment

Why are working mothers more susceptible to burnout?

Because they do a double shift day in day out and it is physically and emotionally stressful! Ask any working mother and you will be surprised how many of them live with the above symptoms on a daily basis. Working mothers start their shift as soon as the children wake up. So, before they even get to the office, some of them already feel they have done a full day’s work with getting the children dressed fed and dropped off at day-care/school. If you have tried to get a three year old, set on wearing their bumble bee woolly tights into anything else but, with an unforgiving clock ticking away the time you are going to spend in traffic, then needless to say, you will arrive at work with your hair standing on end. The pandemic’s equivalent of this battle still rages with mothers trying to settle the kids before their first zoom meeting. The kids can see mummy, but she has got her serious face and headsets on and is refusing to give them instant attention, so they start playing up, and mummy has to remain professional on the call.

Then when work is finished, working mothers start their other shift of making sure everyone is fed and watered and the house cleaned. It is a known fact that working mothers routinely put in 16-hour days. Even when they have a supportive partner who does his fair share, the planning aspect of homemaking and child rearing still falls on the woman.

So, using the WHO’s definition of burnout and limiting it to stress just originating from work doesn’t sit comfortably with me. Working women have stressors of equal measure from both home and work which makes they are more susceptible to burnout. AND, you don’t have to be high achieving to burnout out. You just must have stressors that are not addressed for a sustained period. I am wondering if 18 years is long enough to be considered a sustained period as that is how long it takes before a child leaves home.

To the working mother’s out there, you need to understand that your situation leaves you more prone to burnout. You need to identify your stressors and find strategies to effectively process and manage your stress to avoid burnout.