The impact of pandemic burnout has not been felt equally

This International Women’s Day, Gosia Bowling explains why women have shouldered a disproportionate Covid burden – and how HR should be mitigating it

The last two years have increased stress in almost every area of how we live and work – but the impact has not been felt equally. Research suggests women are more vulnerable to burnout, with one in three even considering quitting their roles due to stress.

This International Women’s Day, employers must rise to the challenge of promoting equality by supporting women facing increasing workplace stress and empowering them to thrive.

Addressing the inequality

The last two years have only widened the gender gap when it comes to stress and burnout. As many of us have been forced to spend more time at home, women have been especially burdened by the demands of balancing work and home life.

Studies suggest women undertake three times more childcare responsibilities than men and are five times as likely to spend 20 hours or more per week on chores. As well as taking on an unequal share of household chores. women are also more likely to carry the additional burden of ‘mental load’. This is the invisible work involved in managing a household and family commitments.

Left unmanaged, this chronic stress can impact physical and mental wellbeing, leading to physical symptoms such as sleep disturbance, nausea, fatigue, and musculoskeletal problems, as well as mental health difficulties like anxiety and depression. Long-term stress can increase susceptibility to panic attacks and health issues like obesity, heart attacks and strokes.

Supporting the female workforce

Those experiencing burnout are often reluctant to talk about their experiences. And this is especially true among women, who fear the perceived stigma around mental health could lead to being overlooked when it comes to career progression. And unfortunately, it appears this belief is justified, with a study suggesting that for every 100 men promoted to a management position, just 86 women achieved the same accolade.

So it’s no wonder many avoid speaking out in case by doing so they are perceived as somehow ‘less able’ to cope. This is why managers must be equipped to prevent burnout in the first instance. They further need to recognise the early signs of burnout in others and feel confident approaching and supporting them. These may include a measurable decline in work standards, as well as changes in behaviour, such as irritability, low mood, tiredness, and an inability to concentrate. Approaching distressed individuals can be as simple as asking “how are you?” and listening and responding with compassion – demonstrating you understand and care about their experiences.

However, in addition to nurturing a workplace that expects and welcomes conversations about mental health, businesses must address the inequalities and imbalances that impact it. They have an obligation to reduce the risk of stress and burnout developing in the first instance.

Women are less likely to be promoted than men, and therefore are less likely to hold positions of authority. Having less decision-making power makes women more vulnerable to burnout than men, as they are less able to control the demands of work.

Positive action may include committing to greater female representation in senior roles and transparency around salaries. While these initiatives are not a quick fix, they establish benchmarks within the business that inherently avoid future biases.

The key to equality, however, is flexibility, which allows women to work in a way that accommodates their unique demands. This may mean staggering shifts – allowing employees to start later, after the school run – or simply working around other tasks and making up the hours in the evening.

Where stress and burnout are recognised, managers should signpost employees towards formal emotional wellbeing support. This may include employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) sessions that give individuals direct access to a specialist who can help them understand and address the factors which are impacting on their mental health.

Gosia Bowling is national lead for emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health