Women leaders are burning out and that sets everyone back

Woman, looking frustrated, while reading on her laptop.

Women are rising to the moment as stronger leaders, but their work is going unrecognized.

This is one of the most disturbing findings in the 2021 Women in the Workplace report that McKinsey & Company released this week. During the past 18 months, women have stepped deeply into the messy part of leadership – into supporting the changing emotional needs of their employees as public health orders (and their impacts on families) have waxed and waned. The report talks about how women have always leaned in to these kinds of empathetic roles, but how, since the disruption of the pandemic, this leadership function has become heavier – and has been thrust primarily onto the already-overloaded shoulders of women.

Women take on the emotional, in addition to the operational roles

In 2020, remote and flexible work became the norm. Today workplaces are calling employees back to the office, deliberately ignoring the reality that many women continue to shoulder the burden of supporting both their children and aging parents through constantly changing public health impacts. Since all this began, female leaders have been pushed into the spotlight as the ones employees can go to if they need to discuss their sense of overwhelm, and get support in making the case for increased flexibility in the workplace.

Let’s unpack this. Women leaders are tasked with driving productivity and results (as all leaders are). In the midst of a pandemic, they were asked to adapt to different business models and manage those changes within their teams (as most leaders were). Simultaneously, they became the people in organizations who were relied upon to be understanding, and “good to talk to”. Women became the organizational therapists, social workers, and problem solvers. They became the dumping ground for any difficult conversation, and felt as if the just couldn’t say no.

No wonder almost 50% of female senior leaders have been feeling consistently burned out over the past few months. I feel burned out just reading about how they took on 30% more work with no more support, acknowledgement, or compensation.

The report goes on to talk about how one in three women has contemplated stepping back in her career since the beginning of the pandemic. Again – this is largely due to the unequal distribution of responsibilities that are shouldered by women – both in the workplace and at home. The unreasonable expectations placed on women throughout the pandemic have brought us to a breaking point – where our health and mental health are suffering, where we live devoid of joy – focused solely on taking care of business and our families.

Ok, maybe I’m projecting here. During the first six months of the pandemic, that was me. I was working 12-18 hours a day, including many hours of conversations with employees (mine and others who came to me for advice and support) about how they were doing. I was still doing everything that I always did at home. I was trying to maintain a sense of positivity with my kids, and trying to be present whenever I was with my family. And because I was working in the inner circle of the pandemic response, all of my family and friends were looking to me for information, reassurance, and advice.

But I was never there for myself. I stopped writing. I went 5 months without writing a word in my journal (and I write a lot). I stopped exercising. We started eating tons of processed food that was easy to just heat up. I wasn’t sleeping much. I was drinking a glass of wine or scotch every single day. And I had no idea what happy was anymore.

I was lucky. I broke out of that mold and found myself again. But so many women are still in it. Of course they want to step back. They’re exhausted from holding the world together.

A step back for women is a step back for humankind

The terror that I feel in thinking about women stepping back from their careers is real and visceral. I feel it like, heavy on my back, forcing me to turn my shoulders inward, curl my posture forward, and take up less space.

Nothing changes unless women are at the boardroom tables. The systems and structures that continue to undervalue women’s contributions to the collective health of organizations will never change unless women sit at executive tables and change the systems. Therefore, the more women step back, the fewer women we see advancing to those tables, and the longer it will take for change to ever be made.

In no way am I saying that men are bad. But most men are not socialized to take on the emotional side of work. So they don’t have the capacity to recognize the burden that women shoulder. They don’t see it as work, because it’s not on their job descriptions. They don’t feel guilty for not being there for their employees – not because they’re awful humans, but because they were never taught that it was their responsibility.

But we were taught to prioritize that. Even though it’s not on our job descriptions either (though it should be on every leader’s job description), we were taught to prioritize everyone else’s feelings above our own. We were taught to be selfless. Because the opposite – selfish – well, that’s just not something any woman wants to be accused of.

So what can we do?

We can start by being self-respecting. Moving away from this ludicrous idea of selflessness. As Glennon Doyle would point out – how did we get to a place where the idea of being “without self” is the best compliment you can give a woman? 

We don’t need to be selfless. We need to treat ourselves with dignity and respect.

We need to set and reinforce boundaries. Not for others. For ourselves.

We need to protect our emotional bandwidth and focus our efforts on the strategic moves.

We need to direct our attention and energy to changing the systems – not to helping people adapt to systems that are designed to break them.

We need to rise up.

We need to elevate diverse voices.

And we need to shape workplace culture to recognize and value emotional leadership.

This starts by staying in your role and continuing to advance your career. But it involves leading in a different way. Not a less emotionally-involved way – though I do think you need to care for yourself first. It involves identifying what you need to be successful, building capacity in your team, delegating, simplifying, and negotiating for the resources, supports, flexibility, and compensation that is appropriate for the work you’re doing.

If you’re in this situation, and want an approach to help you manage your daily sense of overwhelm, be sure to read about my process for overcoming overwhelm.

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