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glass cliff for women

Burnout Driving The Great Resignation For Women

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

Worldwide, women have made significant strides in enhancing their professional and personal lives. They successfully challenge the barriers of implicit glass ceilings, uncertainties of glass cliffs, and juggling multiple roles. However, at present, due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as societal and job-related issues, women are feeling burned out, exhausted, and stressed. The consequence is the "Great Resignation": voluntary quitting, downsizing, or leaving their jobs.

Burnout affects both men and women. However, burnout's physical and mental impact is more on women, and its rate is rising. The 2021 Women in the Workplace report concluded, "the gap between women and men who say they are burned out has nearly doubled in the last year...42% of women and 35% of men reported feeling burned out often or almost always in 2021, compared to 32% of women and 28% of men last year." Thus, the rising burnout in women has become a challenging issue.

Yet, so far, the social, political, and business leaders have paid little attention to understanding and resolving this problem. However, societies cannot advance unless various issues impacting women's lives, including burnout, are examined.

Burnout and its Impact

The burnout concept's historical and conceptual development has its origin in the Behavioral Sciences. In 1974, a psychiatrist, Herbert Freudenberger, observed that some of his workers were experiencing emotional exhaustion, loss of motivation, and commitment, which would also have mental and physical symptoms. He labeled this disorder "burnout" and described it:

"A depletion or exhaustion of a person's physical or mental resources attributed to his or her prolonged, yet unsuccessful striving toward unrealistic expectations, internally or externally derived." (Psychology Today)

However, in 2019, World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as a disease and described it as:

"Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

WHO described its three main symptoms as:

  • 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 or effectiveness

  • Thus, burnout is due to chronic, emotional, and interpersonal stressors on jobs and toxic work environments. It leads to exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Consequently, burnout has become a public health issue, and it is worthy to note that its prevalence is more in women than in men.

    Gender Differences in Burnout Rate

    Working women are experiencing higher rates of burnout than working men do. At present, women feel even more exhausted than they were a couple of years ago. The workplace analysis by the Gallup Poll of 2021 validates it:

  • Women are more likely than men to feel burned out at work, 34% vs. 26%

  • The burnout gender gap has more than doubled since 2019

  • Burnout has exceedingly affected women in non-leadership positions

  • In a similar study on employed workers in the U.S., women reported significantly higher stress levels than men. According to LinkedIn's Confidence Index, "74% of women say they are very or somewhat stressed for work-related reasons, compared with just 61% of employed male respondents."

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics report of 2020 states that from all the workers who left the jobs, 80% were women. Surveys on small and medium-sized businesses of 2021 show the same trend, "...the quit rate among men was 4.4%, while the quit rate among women was 5.5%." At present, women's participation in the labor force is the lowest in more than 30 years.

    Physical and mental exhaustion shows up more in women that impact their health. For example, LeanIn.Org survey of 2020 states, "the rate of sleep issues for women to men is 52% to 32%, racing heart rate issues are 25% vs. 11%, and the feeling that they have a lot more to do than men is 31% vs. 13%."

    In the words of one such exhausted woman as cited in the McKinsey Report:

    "It's the only time of my career that I seriously considered a less demanding job. I took another interview. I felt burned out so often. I felt caught in the middle of everyone's emotional response to the pandemic and in between decision-makers who have very, very different outlooks on how to respond."

    Unfortunately, the impact of burnout is real and getting worse. Therefore, it is vital to understand what issues impact burnout that leads to women's great resignation.

    Burnout Driving the Great Resignation

    "When we speak of the Great Resignation, we are referring to a great resignation of Women." (Moria Donegan)

    Great Resignation, or the "I Quit," is an economic trend in which employees voluntarily resign from their jobs. Burnout is one of the main reasons employees quit or consider quitting. Research shows that women lead in this "Big Quit."

    What is driving the Great Resignation for women? Burnout on the job is linked to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, outdated and discriminatory work practices, and gender-specific roles.

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has been brutal on women. It added additional responsibilities in childcare, eldercare, and homeschooling. Research shows that women - especially mothers spent more time on childcare and chores during Covid-19 than they did pre-pandemic. As a result, some women decided to quit their jobs to take on such household tasks as it was too expensive to hire someone.

  • During pre-pandemic, many women were employed in healthcare, education, eldercare, daycare, and hospitality professions. However, with the pandemic, they were forced out of the workforce. When societies recover from the pandemic, they may not enter the job market.

  • Remote work saved the commute time but added unintended stressors for women. For example, women did double the chores by combining professional and household errands. In addition, it increased domestic inequality as women worked remotely, and their male partners did not. Women also perceived they were less likely to be promoted than men as they did not interact face-to-face with leaders.

  • Workplace inequalities, such as inequities in the pay gap, are among the demotivators to continue the job. For example, women in the U.S. still earn an average of 82 cents for each dollar earned by men.

  • Women do more work that is not recognized and compensated. As cited in the Women in the Workplace Report of 2021, one in five women senior leaders spend substantial time on DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) work that is not central to their job, compared with fewer than 1 in 10 men senior leaders.

  • Widespread discrimination and microaggressions, sexism, racism, and implicit biases at workplaces are signs of contempt. Women of color and ethnic minorities feel marginalized, a feeling that impacts their self-worth. Women explore other options when they perceive leaders do not recognize and value their issues.

  • Gen-Z and Millennial women workers state that flexible work arrangements are their top priorities. They move away when the traditional work environment and archaic policies do not suit their work style.

  • Women perceive that society has become inconsiderate to women's specific needs or have just got accustomed to ignoring them. Consequently, during stay-at-home and lockdowns, women are leaning into their entrepreneurial ventures by starting their own companies.

  • Burnout from workplaces has led women to ask soul-searching questions and has initiated their self-discovery process. Women want a balance of work and life and are asking if climbing the corporate ladder is worth it. These and other factors have led women to drop out of jobs willingly. As stated in the Mckinsey report, one in four women and one in three mothers said they were thinking about downshifting their careers or stepping out of the workforce.


    Societies and workplace environments need to evolve to the new realities of this century. Great Resignation is here to stay; it will not disappear anytime soon. However, employers can minimize its impact by reducing burnout for women.

    Employers should understand the value of formal and informal communication with their employees. In addition, they need to assess the needs of employees and make the work environment conducive to their requirements.

    Remunerations, rewards, and incentives programs for women employees should be fair and equal to those given to comparable male employees.

    Employees need social and cultural training to avoid micro-aggressions and make the business environment conducive for women. Flexible work or remote working arrangements should be implemented when possible. Law formulators need to pass laws to provide childcare, family leave, and maternal and paternal benefits.

    The role of mentoring and providing growth opportunities for women should never be underestimated. Furthermore, managers also need to engage them in discussing their career paths to move upward.

    Women need to feel supported, listened to, and valued to lessen burnout and minimize the "I Quit" or the "Great Resignation." Societies can only make social and economic progress when women feel equal and integral.

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