Today, women make up over 50% of Canada’s workforce.2 Though we have made great strides toward achieving gender parity, there is still much to be done. As women continue to gain more visibility in their workplaces, ongoing discrepancies in how they are treated compared to their male counterparts become increasingly obvious. These disparities can quickly lead to burnout if left unaddressed.
What is burnout, and what causes it?
Burnout occurs when chronic workplace stress is managed poorly. Some characteristics of burnout include:3,4
- constant exhaustion,
- negative feelings toward work,
- reduced efficacy at work,
- depression, and
- physical symptoms (e.g., chronic headaches).
Burnout can affect anyone, but studies show that women are far more likely to be impacted than men.5 Two in every five women experience symptoms of burnout on a regular basis—clearly, burnout must be addressed if we hope to achieve gender equity in our workforce.5
There are five major contributing factors that often lead to burnout amongst women in the workplace.
1. Traditional gender roles mean that women are often the primary caregivers in their homes, even while working full-time.
Despite an increasing full-time presence in the workforce, by and large, women still bear the brunt of labour within the home. In fact, women carry out domestic labour for an average of 39 extra days per year than men—that’s over one month of extra work that cuts into women’s time to decompress, relax, and recharge.4
Women are also more likely to interrupt their work schedules to accommodate the needs of their families, adding to their overall stress levels.6 This meant that during the COVID-19 pandemic, women—rather than men—predominantly put their careers on hold to provide additional childcare support. We know this because four times as many women left the workforce during the first few months of the pandemic than men.5
Traditional gender roles are becoming less and less relevant in the modern world, but they are still often defaulted to within families. Unsurprisingly, when women take responsibility for the bulk of the domestic tasks in addition to full-time work, they can quickly burn out.
2. Women often take on additional duties in the workplace that are rarely expected of male counterparts, with little to no reward.
Snacks for a meeting, a circulating birthday card, decorations for a staff event: Who is most likely to manage these small, often overlooked responsibilities?
The Harvard Business Review describes such office housework tasks as the “kind of assignment that has to get done by someone, but isn’t going to make that person’s career.”7,8 In most cases, that someone is a woman.
However, this extra work typically goes unrecognized and unrewarded. While these office housekeeping tasks take women away from their core responsibilities, they are not mentioned in performance reviews nor considered in relation to promotions or pay raises.7,8
Ultimately, women are assuming more responsibility and stress with little gain—a major factor in the development of burnout.
3. Women are more likely to step up as leaders in the workplace outside of their core duties.
Women are also more likely than men to step up as leaders outside of their defined responsibilities, often mentoring rising talent and helping colleagues navigate conflicts and work–life challenges.5
But, like office housework, this leadership work is typically unpaid and frequently disregarded in hiring decisions for paid leadership roles within a corporate structure—an area where men still outnumber women.2
This is yet another example of how additional labour shouldered by women further strains their mental health and creates barriers to a healthy work-life balance.
4. Women of colour are underrepresented in the workplace, often struggling with inclusion and experiencing micro-aggressions.
Women clearly experience burnout at a much higher rate than men. But this issue is even worse for women of colour, who deal with unique challenges that create feelings of alienation and additional stress.5
Many employers have mandated anti-racism training in recent years, but far fewer have engaged in allyship training to understand how to turn these good intentions into concrete action.5,9 When it comes to racism, workplaces often focus on the big picture and neglect smaller day-to-day aspects of workplace culture. These microaggressions from coworkers can be isolating for people of colour and further emphasize their underrepresentation in the corporate landscape.9
All these factors leave working women of colour with more stress and less support, contributing heavily to higher rates of burnout.
5. Women often receive fewer opportunities for career advancement compared to male coworkers.
The idea of a “broken rung” on the managerial ladder seeks to explain the lack of women in leadership positions.9 In Canada, women account for only one third of all management roles,2 which means there are fewer women in the candidate pool for promotion to senior leadership roles.
Less opportunity for advancement can leave women feeling stagnant in their careers, which can quickly create feelings of dissatisfaction and depression characteristic of workplace burnout.
Jess Huang, a partner at the US-based McKinsey management consulting firm and co-author of the Women in the Workplace report, recommends that companies take these five steps to fix the broken rung on the managerial ladder:9
- Establish a set goal to get more women into first-level management.
- Require diversity in hiring and promotion processes.
- Mandate unconscious bias training for evaluators.
- Utilize clear evaluation criteria.
- Nurture women’s experience in the workplace for managerial growth.
Women in the workplace need real, sustainable support.
Burnout amongst women is a real issue that must be taken seriously. And yet, proposed solutions tend to be impractical, ineffective, and unsustainable. To fix this ongoing issue, employers need to address the root causes of burnout. This may include:
- validating women’s experiences in the workplace on a regular basis,
- being mindful of the workplace environment to ensure that additional duties are distributed fairly, and
- providing tangible and meaningful mental health support.
At EHN Canada, we strive to ensure all Canadians have a right to mental health care that is Accessible, Affordable, and Excellent. If you suspect that members of your workforce require additional mental health support, we offer an array of virtual and in-person counselling services that may help. We also offer gender-specific facilities at our Ledgehill facility and small, intimate facility options.
1. Catalyst. Women in the Workforce: Canada (Quick Take). Catalyst. Retrieved 25 February 2022
2. World Health Organization. (2019, May 28). Burn-out an ‘occupational phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases. Retrieved 3 March 2022,.
3. InHerSight (2019, February 13). Why Working Women Struggle With Burnout. InHerSight. Retrieved 3 March 2022.
4. Beheshti, N. (2021, November 1). New Women In The Workplace Report Reveals High Burnout, Highlights Women’s Contributions To Corporate Culture. Forbes. Retrieved 3 March 2022.
5. Parker, K. (2015, October 1). Women more than men adjust their careers for family life. Pew Research Center. Retrieved 3 March 2022.
6. Williams, J. C., & Multhaup, M. (2018, March 5). For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly. Harvard Business Review.
7. Laing, S. (2021, December 8). The invisible work of ‘office housekeeping’: Women do more of it and it’s harming their careers. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 3 March 2022.
8. Burns, T., Huang, J., Krivkovich, A., Rambachan, I., Trkulja, T., & Yee, L. (2021, September 27). Women in the Workplace. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved 3 March 2022.