Running on empty: The mothers hitting burnout after three tough years

During the Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, many stresses have fallen disproportionately on women. In this two-part feature, we talk to the mothers suffering from burnout.

Montage showing woman working against backdrop of child, work, housework icons

 

During the spring, Mia* was in tears all the time – but she didn’t know why.

“I just felt tired all the time,” says Mia, a relationship manager at a bank. “And I was crying a lot. I’d told my leader at work…‘I’m crying, I don’t know why, I’m just crying all the time.’ ”

As each week passed, Mia felt less motivated at work and kept falling into spirals of negative thinking. In June she reached out to her doctor, who was concerned that she might be suicidal. She has ended up needing three months off.

“I think I suffered burnout quite badly. It’s the pressures of being a working parent, and then being a single working parent,” says Mia, who has two children aged 9 and 10. “And then in addition to that…employers just seem to have been pushing and pushing.”

As UK workers emerge from the Covid pandemic, and now grapple with this year’s cost-of-living crisis, many recent surveys have pointed to rising burnout. This is leading workers to be less productive, take extended sick leave, reduce their hours, or in some cases quit altogether. For UK employers, burnout is a particularly pressing issue as the country grapples with severe staff shortages across several sectors.

While burnout affects both men and women, some post-pandemic studies have suggested that women are more likely to suffer from it. In this two-part feature, Workingmums.co.uk talks to the mothers suffering from burnout – and we look at what can be done about it.

“A massive issue”

illustration showing woman with a low battery

Burnout is broadly defined as a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, caused by workplace stress or working conditions. It isn’t medically diagnosed or captured in official employment data, making it relatively hard to track, but several worker surveys and other pieces of data this year point to a rise. 

Over the past year there has been a 40% increase in calls to an employee helpline that covers staff at around 4,000 companies, with mental health being the top reason for calls, according to Zurich UK data shared with Workingmums.co.uk. Almost 80% of workers say they have experienced at least one symptom of burnout this year, according to a TotalJobs survey in April. Negative discussions of burnout were up by almost 50% on the year in Glassdoor’s online employer reviews in July.

“It’s a massive issue, really, and something that a lot of employers don’t know how to respond to,” says Sarah McIntosh, director of delivery at Mental Health First Aid England, which has trained over 20,000 companies on staff wellbeing.

“I just think there’s been a prolonged state of anxiety…and we’re not on the other side of it,” she says of the last three years. “And the longer that you feel under stress, or that you’re not in control, the more significant the impact is going to be.”

I just think there’s been a prolonged state of anxiety…and we’re not on the other side of it

Like many parents, Mia worked extremely long days during the Covid lockdowns, often bouncing between her job and childcare from 9am until midnight. At that stage she still felt relatively on top of things – her work had slowed down and her team leaders made an effort to stay in touch.

But this year her company sharply ramped up activity, to make up for time lost during the pandemic. Some of her colleagues started leaving and her leaders checked in less. Her clients were always stressed. At home, she was constantly cooking, cleaning, or driving her children somewhere – and her monthly bills had gone up by £500 a month as inflation hit a 40-year high. 

“As a working parent, [let alone] a single parent, we have a lot more plates to juggle, a lot more cogs to keep going,” says Mia. “And if one of those gets set aside, it’s like then everything goes to pot.”

MHFA England’s trainers have seen a marked rise in discussions about burnout this year, while their research shows that many bosses have stopped doing the wellbeing check-ins with staff that were set up during the height of the pandemic.

Pandemics, price hikes, and panic attacks

illustration showing group of women with low batteries

In April, Kris, an associate professor at a university, woke up in the middle of the night and had “a full-blown panic attack” that lasted three hours. At first she hoped it was a one-off. But soon she was having them all night, every night, as she spiralled into a burnout.

“I’d put the kids to sleep, get myself into bed…and then I’d be woken up at 11pm with crippling panic, a fear that something terrible was going to happen, or I was going to do something terrible, and I wasn’t going to survive the night,” says Kris, who has two children aged 6 and 8.

“It’s a full-body, debilitating experience,” she says of the panic attacks. “You’re absolutely convinced you’re going to die…heart beating uncontrollably, heat rushing through my body, dizziness, throwing up, vision blurring.”

Kris, who eventually had to take six weeks off work this summer, traces the roots of her burnout to the start of the pandemic. As she did the exhausting lockdown-juggle of work and childcare, she felt that her career, which she cares about passionately, was falling behind those of her child-free colleagues. And then the past year has brought staff strikes, ever-changing ways of working, and a bout of Covid that wiped her out for two months.

I’d put the kids to sleep, get myself into bed…and then I’d be woken up at 11pm with crippling panic

As Covid and its lockdowns gripped the world in 2020-21, many pressures fell disproportionately on women – especially mothers. Women took on most of the extra childcare duties when schools and nurseries closed, and many are still coping with the impacts on their families today. These range from pre-school children missing out on months of building their immune systems, to older children showing higher levels of anxiety, to many childcare services closing down for good. 

This year’s cost-of-living crisis is also falling more heavily on women, as research from the Women’s Budget Group and surveys of working women have shown. Women earn less than men on average and are also more likely to manage daily household costs, such as groceries and children’s items, putting the stress of rising prices onto their shoulders. 

As a result, McIntosh at MHFA England says there are burnout triggers that affect women more than men – she picks out caring responsibilities, the cost-of-living crisis, and the ongoing post-pandemic flux over working-from-home rules.

But she warns that we don’t know if women suffer from burnout more than men, as some surveys have suggested, partly because men are less likely to talk about mental health. “Levels of burnout aren’t necessarily gendered, [but] I think the triggers are different,” she says.

Kris certainly feels that being a working mother during the pandemic and its aftermath triggered her burnout. These days she sees a similar “tiredness, frustration, almost sadness” amongst many of her fellow mother-academics. Meanwhile, she sees universities hoping to ramp up activities again and pick up projects delayed by Covid.

“They’re pushing, pushing, pushing to get those out now quickly…[But] I just don’t know what all of us collectively have left to give,” she says.

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In the second installment of this two-part feature, which will be published on 9th September, we will look at what employers and managers can do to spot or prevent burnout.

*This name has been changed.



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