We need an honest conversation about female burnout: it starts here


“I normalised a barbaric level of multitasking. The relentlessness of that experience left me feeling that I had utterly lost my work mojo, confidence and clarity of thinking. It felt like I was skating across the surface of my creative endeavours on increasingly thin ice.”

These are the words of Nicola Kemp, editorial director of consultancy Creativebrief, and she’s talking about her experience of the pandemic, holding down a demanding job while co-homeschooling two primary school aged children… And now facing the additional emotional and physical weight of expectation that many working mums feel at Christmas.

She is not alone.

Feelings of despair and demoralisation pervade the female workforce

The pandemic may be over, but these feelings of despair and demoralisation that she identifies continue to be pervasive amongst working women, as the business world struggles to find its ‘new normal’.

What’s clear is that, in many cases, the new ways of working are not working for women. Arguably, the old ways of working didn’t work for them particularly well, either, but at least pre-pandemic women had slowly been making some progress in the workplace.

For instance, between January 2015 and December 2019, the number of women in senior-vice-president positions increased from 23 to 28 percent, and in the C-suite from 17 to 21 percent, according to McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org. This is the largest study of women in corporate America and is in its eighth year.

The effect of the pandemic on women’s employment…

Pre-Covid, this survey had never shown women opt out of the work force at higher rates than their male counterparts. The average overall attrition rate for companies was even slightly higher for men than women.

(You’ve guessed it… there’s a big ‘but’ coming…)

BUT, as the McKinsey/LeanIn report shows, the pandemic had a near-immediate effect on women’s employment: one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, versus only one in five men.

Now, you might be feeling puzzled because you’ve heard companies waxing lyrical about their uber flexible working policies, which were kickstarted and put on steroids by Covid-19, and how these are levelling the playing field for working parents, mothers in particular (because, let’s be honest, it’s great that more dads are getting involved in the domestic and emotional labour load, but women still take on the lioness’s share of the burden, with the McKinsey/LeanIn research and many other studies confirming this).

So what is going on?

Again, Mckinsey/LeanIn’s report shows us that, while companies may have altered the policies, they haven’t successfully addressed the culture issue, which continues to plague women’s careers. For instance, in this hybrid world, women are more likely to experience “belittling microaggressions, such as having their judgement questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior”.

It also identifies that, while diversity and inclusion have now shot to the top of the corporate agenda, women are often behind “this critical work”, as well as flying the flag for employee wellbeing, and all this additional unpaid work is “spreading them thin and going mostly unrewarded”.

Women report more microaggressions at work now

Deloitte’s study of Women and Work 2022 supports this, finding that microagressions post pandemic, such as being interrupted or talked over, are “on the rise” and “often go unreported”. So is harassment, such as unwanted physical advances or repeated disparaging comments, a damning indictment of the impact (or, rather, lack) of the high profile #metoo campaign.

Join our growing network of employers
Receive Make A Difference News straight to your inbox

It finds, too, that over half of women say that their stress levels are now higher than a year ago, with almost half describing their mental health as “poor” or “very poor”. In leadership, 43% of women leaders are burned out, compared with only 31% of men at their level.

This shouldn’t be seen as a ‘women’s issue’

As a woman I find writing all this deeply depressing. But this shouldn’t be seen as a “woman’s issue” and that, indeed, is one of the problems. So if you are a man, or a CEO, or in the C-suite, or a head of wellbeing, you should feel equally depressed because we all know (or should by now, there has been enough research on it) that gender-balanced teams and companies are more profitable and productive (don’t get me on to how women are generally more inclusive and empathetic leaders, which the world desperately needs, as that’s a whole new feature…).

Let me put the commercial reality in McKinsey’s words, as its consultants often have the ear of the C-suite:

“If companies don’t take action, they risk losing not only their current women leaders but also the next generation of women leaders. Young women are even more ambitious and place a higher premium on working in an equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplace. They’re watching senior women leave for better opportunities, and they’re prepared to do the same.”

Problem pertains particularly to creative industries

As Kemp says (remember her, from the introduction; the pandemic taught her she can deal with barbaric levels of multitasking?):

“This problem is particularly acute in the creative industry, with data from Creative Equals showing that 88% of young female creatives say they do not have a role model. By failing to address creative burnout we are at risk of losing a whole generation of creative women. There simply aren’t the words to describe just how catastrophic a loss this would be; the books never written, the creative talent not mentored and the possibilities ended. It’s the elephant in the room and we need to address it and that demands more that a one-off branded ‘Wellness Wednesday’.”

So, what are the workable, effective solutions?

Some women have successfully used the pandemic, and the workplace changes it has wrought, to their advantage. But it’s taken balls (actually, should that be fallopian fortitude?).

Veronique Rhys Evans, head of communications for UK & EMEA at global creative network Dentsu Creative, is a great case study (ref case study here) on using the shift to flexibility to her advantage. She found herself in a similar position to Kemp – trying to hold down a demanding job working for an advertising network which involved long hours, while also trying to look after two sons, both with additional needs.

So, for her mental health which she knew was dangerously close to burnout and for her sons, who she felt were not getting the best of her, she left the company and went into consultancy, which she remained in until the pandemic. Then during the pandemic one of her clients – Dentsu Creative – asked her to come and work for them.

Women need to feel psychologically safe

“I had no intention of going back into employment,” she says. “So I said ‘well, I’m not going to do it unless I can agree X, Y and Z’, fully expecting these things to be non-negotiable. Basically, I wanted to retain everything I had as a freelancer, but also gain the security and benefits of being employed. And my boss, CEO James Morris, said yes.”

Looking back on her learnings from this conversation, she believes the game-changer was that she felt psychologically safe enough – because she had a successful consultancy and didn’t need what she was asking for – to be bold with her requests. She also knew Morris well enough to know that he was a good person, supportive of women and that the business was, in theory at least, a strong advocate for DEI. The trick for companies is to make women feel psychologically safe enough to do this, even without the safety net to catch them if the request is rejected.

However, as research also tells us, women are less likely than men to put themselves forward for opportunities, even when they have all the necessary skills. Men are more than twice as likely to ask for a pay rise, for example, according to research from Cendex – which suggests that (without making huge generalisations) women think about themselves differently.

What’s the worst that can happen?

Rhys Evans relates to this, saying that being a freelancer had taught her about negotiating and about her worth. “I learned that if I asked for what I wanted… or even more than what I wanted, they’re not going to go ‘ah, you, never darken my door again’! I realised that if I’d got this far in the conversation, then what’s the worst that could happen? They say no, then you take it, or leave it, or, more commonly, you negotiate. If you don’t ask you don’t get, and I’m finding that people are much more receptive than I thought they would be. The worst thing we can do as women is just accept the status quo.”

As Anna Stando, who has just left Advance – Gender Equality in Business, where she was a relations manager, to set up her own gender equality consultancy, says, if you want to keep women in your company, you need to make sure it’s worth their precious time and effort. And it not just about ensuring a fair workload so they don’t burn out, it’s also about appreciating and acknowledging their effort.

Don’t burn out your women; don’t bore them either

Stando keeps her advice short, sweet and practical:

“Promote your women. Give them the challenges they are ready for instead of overlooking their contributions. Include and reward DEI efforts in formal performance reviews. Make sure you keep the women you have. Pay them well so they can get the support they need to take care of admin, logistics and cleaning at home. Don’t burn out your women, but don’t bore them either.”

She also dares women to take more risks to ask for what they want, at work and at home, starting with this Christmas, when mums in particular often feel the pressure to create the perfect Christmas single-handedly while still smiling:

“Let go of doing everything yourself. Ask for what you want and let others help you. I for one will be making my speciality Polish soup and then enjoying the rest of the family taking charge of the food. At work, and at home, it’s about daring to take a risk and seeing what happens.”

You might also like:


Government’s new women’s healthcare strategy: does it go far enough?

Women’s Workplace Wellbeing: A Joined Up Approach


Sign up to receive Make A Difference's fortnightly round up of features, news, reports, case studies, practical tools and more for employers who want to make a difference to work culture, mental health and wellbeing.