Women in the workplace: leadership and burnout

The 2021 Women in the Workplace report shows that women are feeling more burnt out than men and that the disproportionate amount of emotional and DEI work they do is often undervalued.

Close up of businesswoman with arms crossed on chest on modern city background


The latest Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org shows that, while all employees are more burnt out than last year, women have been hit particularly hard. Indeed, 42% of women report being burnt out, as compared to 35 percent of men, with 24/7 cultures driving this exhaustion. More than one in three employees feel as if they are expected to be “on” at all times and those who feel this way are more than twice as likely to be burnt out.

Whilst it is still difficult to assess the consequences of the pandemic, the report shows how it has had a significant impact on employees and burn out levels, with 42% of women saying they have been often or almost always burnt out in 2021, compared to 32% a year ago. Also exhaustion in men increased from 28% in 2020 to 32%, but it is still lower than for women.

This is particularly evident amongst female leaders and is leading more women to want to leave the workforce or consider a lower job position to tackle their stress. Indeed, the report showed that more than 50% of women who are responsible for managing teams are often or almost always burnt out and almost 40% have considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers.

Burnouts and the pandemic’s impact

Despite the study being conducted in the US, the UK workforce is facing a similar situation. Clare Kelliher, professor of work and organisation at Cranfield University, says: “The 24/7 culture has been growing over a period of time and for some industries in particular it’s quite dominant, and it’s about availability, not necessarily expecting people to be working very extended hours, but that people will be looking at their phones and will respond outside of regular working hours.”

The pandemic has had both a positive and negative impact. Professor Kelliher says: “On the one hand we have seen many employees start to reassess their commitment to work, and as a result they are thinking ‘do I have to do this, am I getting some renumeration, but also what do I have to trade in terms of the quality of my life in order to work in this particular way?’.”

A survey conducted by workingmums.co.uk also supports these findings, with more women being aware of the different possibilities and benefits they can look for in their next job, as well as having reconsidered their career. Indeed, 65% of workingmums.co.uk survey respondents said that their mental health has deteriorated due to Covid-19, 49% said they were more likely to change their career plans due to Covid and 22% said they would change their jobs.

On the other hand, despite a growing awareness about burn out among employees, many companies have struggled to get into a manageable rhythm particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, which then set a more exhausting pace for the rest of the pandemic.

In addition to strenuous working hours, mothers of young children also faced bearing lion’s share of childcare responsibilities, which has led to an increase in the number of women considering leaving or downshifting their careers over the past year, from one in four to one in three.

One of the McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org survey respondents says: “It’s the only time I’ve ever seriously considered a less demanding job. I interviewed for a job with another company. I just felt burned out so often. I probably cried more days than not. I felt caught in the middle of everyone’s emotional responses. I had to be the voice for a lot of different people, some of it was my job and some of it wasn’t. It was the hardest working year of my life.”

Tackling work-related burnout

Although the idea of having employees available 24/7 can be reassuring to some employers, they need to consider the potential consequences of people not taking breaks and having excessive workloads. Professor Kelliher says: “Organisations need to think very carefully about employee performance when people are working in very intense ways, and there is a lot of evidence to show that higher levels of intensity don’t necessarily result in better performance from the employees.”

“I think employers need to think about the performance issue in many ways, but also they have a duty of care to employees and they should reassess what is realistic for people to achieve and what are the most effective ways for them to achieve that.”

Ishanaa Rambachan, one the author of the McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org report, says they have found three things companies should do to avoid burnout.

“Firstly, companies should set company-wide basic working norms and, while many employees value the greater flexibility at remote work, a downside of that is that we are working 24/7. We eliminated the commute, but we’re sleeping in the office.”

However, this does not mean not allowing any flexibility or remote working. Instead it means removing the pressure from employees to be constantly available. Indeed, the report shows that only one in five employees does not have to respond to non-urgent requests outside of traditional work hours.

Rambachan adds: “Secondly, managers have to support the norms, they have to role model them, because it matters what your boss does and you will likely do the same.”

The third point relates to the support and benefits companies should offer to employees. Rambachan says: “We found that of the companies that are top performers and lead progress on diversity equity and inclusion, a hundred percent offer paid family leave, over 90% offer emergency back-up childcare and 90% offer mental health support.”

“This is so critical, especially when we see that mothers of young children are some of the most burnt out of the ones that we’ve looked at.”

The emotional and physical consequences of being a (female) leader

Compared to their male colleagues, the report also showed that there is a higher percentage of female managers who are taking action to support employees’ wellbeing. 31% of female managers provide emotional support compared to 19% male managers and 61% check in on overall wellbeing in contrast to 54% of male leaders.

In this regard, another respondent says: “I feel so much responsibility for my team’s wellbeing. There is no line between the work day and the after-work day. We’re really underestimating the impact this is having on people personally and emotionally. I’m taking care of everybody. I will regularly have conversations with my team: ‘How are you feeling? What do you need? Can I remove barriers?”

Having to take care of everyone around you in the office and be on the receiving end of other people’s emotional baggage can be not only exhausting, but also harmful. Whilst it is helpful and recommended that managers check in on employees and support them, there needs to be a certain structure in place to make sure their wellbeing is not being overlooked, say experts.

Moreover, being underrepresented in senior leadership also leads women – and other underrepresented groups –  to be more committed to promoting inclusion and diversity. According to the survey, for every 100 men who are promoted to managerial positions, only 86 women are, which then results in fewer women having a chance of gaining a higher position within companies. That often means they are more in demand when it comes to interview panels or role modelling exercises.

Rambachan says: “Women take a heavier load of sponsorships, senior women sponsor two times more junior colleagues than men at their level, even though senior men outnumber women two to one. […] it especially harms women because in the sponsorship example they are two and a half times as likely to sponsor women and women of colour as their male peers, and that’s really troubling.”

Professor Kelliher says: “Companies need to allocate resources for diversity and recognising that work. So if an organisation wants people from underrepresented groups to participate in certain activities, I don’t think it’s just a case of saying that’s recognising your workload just the same way as anyone else because in order to achieve that diversity, at least in the short term, you’re likely to have those people having to do more of those activities.”

On top of this, women are still significantly underrepresented at all levels of management and have a worse day-to-day experience at work.  Women are also more likely to have their competence questioned and their authority undermined.

Rambachan explains that the different treatment female leaders receive not only harms them and future potential females in leader positions, but all employees regardless of their gender because of the disproportionate amount of work they do to support their colleagues’ wellbeing. It’s not surprising then that women who lead teams are more burnt out than men who lead teams, which results in an unsustainable working environment. And if their efforts as leaders are not fully recognised that can also undermine or slow their career progression.

How companies can recognise emotional and ‘additional’ work

The Leanin/McKinsey survey shows employees positively respond to efforts made by companies to promote wellbeing and DEI. Indeed, 65% of the survey’s respondents were more likely to be happy about their job when employees have strong allies and 86% of them are more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work.

Despite how necessary work on DEI is in the workplace, the disproportionate load it places on women and underrepresented groups is often not recognised by employers or included in their working hours, the survey shows.

One of the respondents says: “We’ve been told that our DEI work is above and beyond our day jobs. It’s frustrating. We’re working on DEI after hours in the evenings, on weekends and on vacation. And there’s no formal recognition of all the effort.” She adds: “I definitely think emotional labour is being taken for granted. We’re so focused on revenue as opposed to the skills required to manage teams remotely in a Covid world. I don’t think those skills and emotional labour are being formally recognised or that there’s any strong awareness around it.”

Professor Kelliher is wary of promoting monetary compensation for this additional work, but she encourages companies to think about other rewards such as developing the recognition and prestige associated with their efforts, saying it is essential that organisations recognise and value DEI work and emotional labour.

The first step, according to Professor Kelliher, is to stop seeing DEI work as something additional to the “usual” company workload and start accepting it as integral part of the business. She explains: “If an organisation is wholeheartedly committed to saying ‘we want to be more inclusive, we want to achieve greater diversity and equality in everything we do in terms of with our staff, with our clients and our supplier relationship then any role anybody has in their organisation is absolutely essential. Saying it’s an added activity is part of the problem because that’s their regular job and we need to flip our thinking.”


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