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  • Writer's pictureTshegofatso Moilwe

What is occupational burnout, and why does it affect women more than men?

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

There’s no doubt about it: the knowledge economy has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the work-from-home policies that emerged in response are here to stay.

It’s tempting, then, to imagine that workplace stress is on the decline. After all, if you have the luxury of choosing where you log in from, surely your life is going to be easier? 

But a Microsoft study paints a sobering picture. Indeed, while hybrid working is in vogue, many employees state that they are feeling “burned out” by the experience.  

Let’s explore why this is happening, and hone in on what it means for South African women - many of whom are juggling more than just the day job.

What is occupational burnout?

According to the World Health Organisation, burnout is a syndrome conceputalised “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.”

Burnout at work: why is it on the rise? 

The chief reason, according to the Microsoft study, is a phenomenon known as “productivity paranoia”. 

In short, managers lack confidence in their employees, all because they can’t see staff physically attending to tasks. 

The irony is that productivity is actually going up: people are working longer hours remotely and they’re logging in to more meetings. But the effect is the same: suspicion prevails all while productivity metrics skyrocket. Staff feel the constant need to “prove” their worth and “digital overwhelm” soars. Neither party is happy, despite the work getting done. 

Why does burnout typically affect women more than men?

Burnout is particularly prevalent for women in South Africa: not only is there the pressure to perform at the day job, but there’s the expectation that the home is looked after too. This problem compounds over time, as job performance inevitably suffers, and burnout builds. 

Catherine Addison’s paper on “Housework and the Correction of Gender Inequity” makes the point perfectly. 

“[W]hether or not a household also employs a domestic worker, wives and mothers are required – by families and society, including themselves in most cases – to do the lion’s share of household and child management. They are basically unpaid servants in their own homes.”

This has nothing to do with race, ethnicity or breadwinner status either. You might imagine, for instance, that a high-flying executive is free to do as she pleases when she logs off for the day. But as Addison writes: “Most officially employed South African women end up with two jobs, each of which could for many of them be regarded as a fulltime career. Men... command far more free time in their homes; they can work while dinner is prepared for them, their children put to bed, their clothes and houses cleaned by female hands.”

The 12 stages of burnout

Have you experienced chronic stress at work before? Perhaps you’ll recognise one of these 12 stages of burnout, as coined by German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger.  

Stage 1: Excessive Ambition

Burnout begins with the burning desire to do better and “prove yourself”. 

Stage 2: Working harder

In response, you’ll say “yes” more often and start to work weekends as well.

Stage 3: Neglecting your needs

Your health begins to take a hit as you skip meals, social activities or physical exercise.

Stage 4: Displacing problems

You stop thinking about your personal problems and channel everything into your work. 

Stage 5: Revision of values

Now your identity is completely tied up with your performance at work.

Stage 6: Denial of new problems

You become more exacting with colleagues, all while denying that your behaviour is the problem.

Stage 7: Withdrawal

Your social life takes a hit, and you start to escape into guilty pleasures.

Stage 8: Impact on others

Your behaviour is drawing concern, and you’re neglecting important people in your life.

Stage 9: Depersonalisation

You feel detached from your own body - as if you’re watching yourself from afar.

Stage 10: Inner emptiness

You’re numb, drowning in feelings of worthlessness, and dimly aware that all your effort might have been for nothing.

Stage 11: Depression

Mental and physical exhaustion begin to take their toll: life - and work - becomes a chore.

Stage 12: Full burnout

You reach breaking point, and are forced to take time away from work to recentre yourself.

What can corporations do about occupational burnout? 

Almost all of us, at some point, have found ourselves somewhere along the 12-stage timeline. But as we’ve discussed, women are particularly susceptible to this, as they’re not only expected to perform at work, but they’re also expected to perform at home.  

What can companies do, then, to help?

First, corporations need to treat their employees as individuals. 

  • Understand everyone’s individual needs

  • Offer staff true flexibility: if a mother needs to log off for 90 minutes to fetch her children, enable her to do this

  • Incentivise staff to work in their own way

  • Give people a voice, and a chance to talk about their individual situation

Secondly, companies need to dispense with the idea of an “ideal worker”

  • The “ideal worker” is traditionally someone who puts work before all else: but this unhealthy

  • The “ideal worker” is traditionally someone is available at all hours of the day: but this is unsustainable

In reality, today’s ideal worker is someone with institutional knowledge who is loyal to you. But this person will only be loyal if their needs are met - and respected. 

For more on this, take a look at our Inclusive Employee Experience booklet, which is packed with useful information.

Final takeaways:

  • Burnout is on the rise, despite remote working policies

  • Women often suffer from burnout more than men; this is especially true in South Africa where women often work “two jobs” 

  • Corporations need to recognise an individual’s situation and offer flexible solutions; they should also dispense with the idea of an “ideal worker” who is “always on”

For more on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, take a look at last month’s article on understanding microaggressions.

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