Organizations need to learn ways to protect working women from burnout

“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent shock resignation announcement resonated around the world, and not just with those preoccupied with elections and leadership.

Her resignation speech gave very clear reasons for why she was stepping down, and we must celebrate Ardern for demonstrating true leadership, with her admittance of knowing when to quit.

Like Jacinda, I know all too well the feeling of ‘enough’ after realising last year that no job is worth detriment to our mental and physical health. At the beginning of 2022, I was so excited for the new year ahead. I had left the corporate world a few months earlier to embark on my entrepreneurial journey full-time. I initially set up my business, WILD, as a side hustle in 2018. Running from one meeting to the next, to zoom calls, to hosting, curating, and speaking at events and coaching clients in between. I planned and executed four world-class events in four months until one day, I fell off a stage whilst giving a keynote speech.

I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. A mentor of mine, who was at that event, sat me down and asked me if I was ok, of which I said, ‘yes of course.’ He was worried, he has known me since I moved to Dubai nine years ago and could clearly see that I was hanging on by a thread.

For weeks, I felt low, apathetic, detached, disconnected and worst of all depressed. It seemed to continue, I couldn’t shake it off, I didn’t know what was wrong, and I had totally lost my zest and motivation. Realising I needed a break, I went on holiday. By chance, I stumbled across an article on burnout written by Herbert Freudenberger.

A German-born American psychologist, Freudenberger was one of the first to describe the symptoms of burnout and exhaustion. He stipulates burnout as feeling a combination of detachment and helplessness, having a negative outlook and self-doubt, and emotional exhaustion.

It was a striking realisation that I was suffering from burnout. Ironically, I see this time and time again amongst the women whom I work with in my business. Women in the corporate world, especially in male-dominated environments, are stressed and working to a point of exhaustion to ‘keep up’ – with fear we may seem ‘weaker’ than our male counterparts.

Our culture and society reward the ‘hustle.’ The pushing, the striving, the running around and working all hours to prove that we are committed and ambitious and to keep up with the masculine notion of striving and forcing with assertiveness and aggression. What society does not teach us, is to create space for ourselves. Taking time to nurture our well-being and mental health with exercise, meditation, and nutritious food.

Women, particularly, in male-dominated environments have it tough. If she is one of the few women in leadership, often a lot of additional responsibility is placed upon her. There is an added pressure to perform, loaded with more work as companies want to be seen to represent women both internally and externally, serve on committees, be a public face for the organisation, and all around more work which tends not to contribute to targets, bonuses, or promotion.

Subtle biases in business processes lead to substantial inequality with great consequences for women. In the recruitment and elevation processes, even if a woman gets the role, she may not be allocated the right resources. Biases and extra responsibilities given to women significantly impact their psychological well-being, which in turn, leads to emotional and physical exhaustion, or burnout.

In short, outdated structures and processes in the workplace do not support women. There is often a stigmatization surrounding flexible working hours, women are viewed negatively if they take time out and as a result are not promoted and are perceived less dedicated.

There is a different way.

Jacinda Ardern was not afraid to state that she had given her all. She said that her aim was to spend time with her young daughter and partner. Let’s not forget that she was pregnant and gave birth whilst in Office – no mean feat on physical wellbeing. We are starting to see more awareness surrounding mental health and some companies are implementing new concepts surrounding it. I live in the hope this will infiltrate corporate companies with outdated leadership.

Organisations can support women in the workplace by offering flexible hours. This can then become the norm. It’s important to encourage taking time out and switching off completely.

Of course, women also need to take responsibility for their health and well-being. Asserting boundaries, learning to say no, and taking care of themselves are key. Nobody can perform well whilst suffering from symptoms of burnout. That goes for both men and women.

When I set the strategy for my WILD Women Collective, I wanted to take into consideration a holistic approach of the all-round woman. One of the key components of this is wellness and self-leadership along with soft skills and leadership skills. My vision is to set the precedent that we must support our wellness as much as our ambition and desire to succeed in the workplace. I truly believe that success is an inside job, and we can’t pour from an empty cup. Success is about balance, not hustling hard and driving ourselves to a point of exhaustion.

Emma Burdett

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