In mid-February, Meta Chief Business Officer Marne Levine called it quits after 13 years at the social media company. She was followed a couple of days later by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who stepped down after nine years. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, the first woman First Minister of the Scottish government, announced her decision to resign a month after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern handed in her notice, stating that she no longer had enough “in the tank” to do her job justice.
Women leaders are opting out at record rates, driven primarily by stress and exhaustion, according to the recent Women in the Workplace report, from Lean In and McKinsey, which calls the phenomenon the “Great Breakup”. It’s not just women in top leadership who are signing off. Across the world, women employees are burning out at unprecedented rates.
A new report from Slack’s Future Forum consortium says global burnout rates were up 8% between May and August. Meanwhile, Future Forum’s survey of more than 10,700 workers in six countries revealed that women are 32% more likely to experience burnout than men.
“Unfortunately, burnout among women is considered normal, so it’s not even addressed," says Ritu Bhardwaj Moitra, CHRO, Duroflex. She says women experience workplace burnout far more frequently than men. "Organisations can address it by sensitising managers, setting up counselling networks, and creating an environment in sync with human biological needs. But the need is to create a culture where such voices are heard and respected,” she says.
Burnout is defined as physical and emotional exhaustion, coupled with decreased motivation and lowered performance at work. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), it “results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll”.
Aditi Bhosale Walunj, Founder and CVO, Repos Energy, is concerned by the recent news of women leaders resigning due to stress and burnout. “It is clear that the pressure and demands of leadership roles can take a toll on individuals, especially women who face unique challenges and biases in the workplace,” she says.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) took cognisance of burnout, including in its International Classification of Diseases and calling it as an “occupational phenomenon”. WHO says burnout, caused by chronic workplace stress, can lead to feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance from a job, and reduced professional efficacy. Rajashree Nambiar, Co-founder and CEO of green finance startup Ecofy, agrees, saying lack of concentration and recognition, emotional and physical exhaustion, negativity at the workplace are all signs of burnout.
Vandana Wadhwa, Chief Finance Officer, Apollo Supply Chain, says it's crucial to understand what's going on in women’s daily lives. “What women in the workforce are saying is, ‘We're very ambitious and want to work, but we want to work in a way that cares for our mental well-being so that we can fit work into our lives in a sustainable way’,” she says.
In a LinkedIn survey, 74% of women said they were very or somewhat stressed for work-related reasons, compared with just 61% of employed male respondents.
Ruchyeta Bhatia, Co-Founder of Brewworks, which owns and operates Love & Cheesecake, Poetry and Sesami, says the phenomenon is “extremely prevalent” and affects women “disproportionately”.
“Women are still thought to have certain obligations with respect to the roles they must play in their marital, family, and societal life. Unfortunately, those expectations rarely reset for women,” she says.
Motherhood adds another layer of complexity and stress. The deeply ingrained imbalance in society was highlighted and aggravated by COVID-19. A study by researchers at Harvard University, Harvard Business School, and London Business School, evaluated responses from 30,000 people around the world, revealing that “women – especially mothers – had spent significantly more time on childcare and chores during COVID-19 than they did pre-pandemic, and that this was directly linked to lower wellbeing”.
Janavi Iyer, Programming Head, RED FM, and social media influencer, minces no words when it comes to disparity women must deal with – at work and at home. “Men are entitled in and outside of office, with most of them surviving by putting in the bare minimum. Women are putting in more work and thought into everything. By virtue of being more empathetic, women often do more mental and emotional labour, which eventually takes a toll on mental and physical health. It’s relentless,” she says.
Women, particularly mothers, are much more likely than men to manage a more complex set of responsibilities on a daily basis. Apart from paid professional work, their to-do list includes unpaid domestic chores, daily caregiving tasks, and innumerable coordination tasks.
Divya Jain, Co-founder of AI-driven upskilling platform Seekho, says the gender burnout gap exists because of the stress women face – in every part of life. “Studies show that because working women have childcare and household duties, they experience burnout and exhaustion more frequently than men.”
Jain says an unhealthy workplace culture that prioritises productivity over wellbeing can be the reason for an employee to leave their job. “A problem must first be identified; only then can it be addressed. Leaders need to cultivate a secure workplace where female employees feel free to voice their concerns and request assistance to close the gender burnout gap.”
She adds that leaders play a crucial role in shaping the culture of an organisation and creating an environment where the wellbeing of employees is prioritised. “Cultivating this and making it the norm, both at a personal (across families) and professional (across organisations) level, is imperative. As leaders, championing a healthy work-life balance, providing flexibility and organisational support (for mental health and wellbeing), prioritising diversity, equity and inclusion, and leading by example are great ways to support your team,” Bhatia says.
Meanwhile, turnover levels in offices are rising as stress levels increase. Future Forum says people who are burned out are three times more likely to look for a new job and more likely to hunt positions with flexible work. The report found that 94% of desk workers want schedule flexibility and 80% want location flexibility.
Despite their increasing levels of burnout, HBR research shows that women are much more likely than men to take action to fight it by managing workloads of their teams, supporting diversity equity and inclusion efforts, and simply checking in on how employees are doing.
This has an impact: the study found that when managers actively managed the workload of their team, their staff were 32% less likely to be burned out and 33% less likely to leave.
Focus on flexible work
Wadhwa feels businesses should evaluate their employees based on what they do, how well they lead, and how well they achieve business goals, rather than where and when they work.
“It's time to break the archaic, old-school performance evaluation predicated on the requirement to be in the workplace for a specific amount of hours each day and focus on outcomes,” she says.
Apart from mentorship, Apollo Supply Chain has other initiatives that form a core part of an inclusive culture: flexible work hours, regular pay equity audits, employee resource groups for having unconventional and uncomfortable dialogues, and mental wellness programmes.
Aditi Murarka Agrawal, Co-founder, Nestasia, which claims its workforce is 80% women, blames the gender burnout gap on the unique stressors that women in the workplace face.
“While many believe that work-life balance is about logging on and logging off at a particular time, we believe it has more to do with prioritisation. Offering flexible work arrangements and regular breaks helps employees recharge,” she says
Flexibility is important to all women, regardless of the career rung they are at. The McKinsey report states women leaders are significantly more likely than men leaders to leave their jobs because “they want more flexibility” or because they want to work for a company that is “more committed to employee well-being and DEI”.
Diana Fernandes of boutique PR firm Bloomingdale Public Relations enjoyed one of the perks of being a founder: she reset her working day from 9 am to 4 pm to get more time with her child.
She’s now passing it on to her employees by changing workday timings. “We began the 9 am to 4 pm workday for everyone from March 1. We’re going to pilot this for a month and, if all goes as planned, we will officially implement this from the new financial year,” she says.
Tackle performative presenteeism
In “Presenteeism: At Work—But Out of It”, an article on Harvard Business Review, Paul Hemp writes that researchers believe that presenteeism—the problem of workers’ being on the job but not fully functioning—can “cut individual productivity by one-third or more”. “In fact, presenteeism appears to be a much costlier problem than its productivity-reducing counterpart, absenteeism,” he writes.
The pandemic may have made physical presence at offices unnecessary, but it has resulted in longer working hours and people feeling the need to be virtually present – and “on” – all the time.
Jain says it often happens that an employee who is visibly engaged at work is often given outsized emphasis, regardless of performance.
“It is the team leader’s job to take measures to end performative presenteeism and encourage and reward employees based on the quality of their work,” she says.
But it’s clear that dealing with issues such as presenteeism needs a big, top-down overhaul of workplace values and culture.
Nambiar, of Ecofy, says the onus of building an equitable and inclusive culture finally rests with the leadership.
“Engaged employees are more energised, enthusiastic, and focused. As a veteran in the financial services sector, I believe that working in a place where you feel you belong, and love is the perfect antidote to burnout irrespective of gender.”
A 2022 estimate by the World Economic Forum predicts that it will take 257 years to close the employment gender gap across all industries. But with women leaders stepping away, and young women - even more keen to work in an equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplace - watching this exodus and “prepared to do the same”, it may take longer.
Can India really afford that?