Right after I graduated from university, I moved back home to Pakistan and straight into a pandemic-induced lockdown. I was stressed and anxious about what I was going to do next, but I wanted to pursue freelance journalism so I jumped in head-first.
Initially, things were great. But I felt a constant, nagging urge to prove myself, particularly because I didn’t have a lot of women around me in Pakistan who worked (and none that were remotely involved in journalism). The need to prove I could be successful came to an abrupt halt after six months of freelancing, when my internal drive to just keep working finally crashed. No matter how many hours I sat at my laptop, I would find myself having written nothing at the end of the day. Even when I did manage to come up with an inkling of work, it was clear that the quality of my writing had taken a downward turn. Stomachaches and headaches became common. So did mood swings. It took me a while to realize that I had burnt out.
With hustle culture becoming ubiquitous and social media making it easier to compare success, burnout has become more common amongst people who work. It also more directly impacts women.
It’s been well-documented that the pandemic especially took a toll on women, who report being even more burned out in 2021 than they were a year ago. Burnout is also escalating much faster among women than men, with one in three women saying they’ve considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce in 2021. Of course, the realities of burnout are much worse for women of color, to the point where black women are experiencing accelerated “biological aging” in response to stress.
I didn’t immediately realize I was burnt out because I didn’t exactly feel the way I thought burnout would feel. I wasn’t physically overworking myself and I wasn’t feeling put off from my work. In fact I wanted to work more—I just couldn’t actually do it.
“When you hear the word burnout what you’re thinking is someone has basically taken on too much, and things have got on top of them and the body’s reacted by saying you need to stop,” behavioural therapist and psychologist Somia Zaman tells me. She points out that burnout is different for each person, and it can show up as anxiety, stress, or changes to your body. “It’s a word that’s used quite a lot, but it’s also important to know it means a different thing for different people.”
Esta Yemaya, a broadcast journalist and founder of women-focused wellness brand Female Magik, found herself struggling after burning the candle at both ends between her work and home life. “There’s a lot of traditional values I find myself imposing on my own life, such as raising my children, taking care of my mother,and doing housework,” she said. “But at the same time I have work ambitions and I love what I do. I want the best of both worlds.”
She adds that those traditional expectations aren’t always a choice for women. Even before the pandemic, women and girls were responsible for three times the amount of unpaid care and domestic work than men and boys, and pandemic restrictions have only made those expectations worse. Women are historically and continuously expected to be primary care-takers of children or aging parents, which substantially decreases their participation in the workforce.
Sonya Barlow, the founder of an advocacy group for professional women, points out that it’s much harder to navigate experiences of burnout in cultural settings where they may not be as openly acknowledged or understood. “Mental health and burnout are still not acknowledged and treated seriously in some households, and I say that speaking from a South Asian perspective,” she tells me. “Even when you experience symptoms, people can still say, ‘it’s all in your head.’”
Barlow also points out that it’s not just community or family cultures that can make it harder for women to prioritize mental health in the workplace. “Another element is the toxic work culture in many organizations where needing flexible work hours, taking a day off for mental health purposes, or even taking a full lunch hour is frowned upon. Again, this impacts women more because there is this pressure to be a top performer and a yes person so that managers and leadership can see how committed you are.”
Trauma therapist and performance specialist Olivia James believes that these organizational issues need to be tackled head-on in order to move forward. The emotional and physical obstacles that women face in the workplace also, of course, fuel burnout. “Harassment tends to be ignored and there are rarely any consequences for bullies,” James said. “Reporting harassment tends to have consequences for the victim, not the perpetrator.”
Domestic work, even when women choose to take it on, can also add a lot of physical and emotional burdens. Holly Matthews, a self-development coach, juggles being a caretaker for her husband, raising her children, juggling a business, and acting. Burnout, for her, came from the belief that “if you just worked harder, stayed up late and hustled more, then you can succeed.”
As a development coach, Matthews focuses on a few key tips to help women navigate burnout and prioritize themselves instead. “Do things that don’t have any end goal,” she says. “Find hobbies that aren’t about bettering yourself, or something to do with work or something you do because you think you have to.”
Having to always compete for a seat at the table at work, having their voice heard at home, or seeing their contributions neglected time and again continue to have long-lasting impacts on women, both physically and emotionally. What women now need to start understanding is the same principle as that of ‘wearing your oxygen mask first,’ because without it, they will likely be left with no room to help themselves or others in any capacity.