Women in the Workforce: Unchanging Stigma, Burnout and Breaking the Bias
I recently happened to have a very opportune chat with a female friend of mine, that provoked some thoughts back to when my own children were in primary school, and if I am honest, I was struggling to keep my career and home life on track.
This friend has four young children and works full time, and during one of the rare opportunities we had to catch up, she was so consumed with anxiety about whether she was failing her children by trying to work full time that the meeting became somewhat of a counselling session!
So with my psychology head on – I calmly asked – and does your husband feel the same pressure? Now, when I say it was like opening a dam, I am not exaggerating, as, through floods of tears, she explained that no, he didn't, because he goes to work.
The school doesn't ring him if there is a problem they ring her, it is her who has to collect them when they are sick, brings them to the Dr, hospital appointments, dentist, and even to after school events, because “daddy is busy at work”; and all this after she has done a full day’s work, made sure the shopping, household chores, and meals are in order.
With a long sigh of despair, I thought, so things haven’t changed, my children are now young men, so twenty years since my boys started primary school, this stigma of the woman taking responsibility for housework hasn’t changed, even when they are working full time, and following their career.
I’m not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe in women having the right to work if that is what they wish, to follow their chosen career the same as any man, and not to find themselves drowning in emotions, stress, anxieties, and household chores and family responsibilities alone (because there is a stigma that the nurturing mother should take on this role regardless of her other choices).
Now don’t get me wrong, I know this isn’t the case for every partner or every family, but statistics do show that the majority of women with careers suffer more mental health issues and burnout due to family commitment, more so than a man in the same role (Bray, 2021).
Even earlier, research from Parker (2015) highlighted that women more than men adjust their careers for family life, with juggling a career/homelife given as the main reason why women change career or leave jobs; as they continually change and adjust their schedule when children or family commitments arise.
This causes significant stress, as women want to be successful in their careers, in a similar way to any man, however as most working women will know, it is very difficult to give “ your all” to everything.
Therefore something must suffer, and as a result, there is added anxiety and stress, with concerns about letting down the children at home, their husband and family, their colleagues, and their team.
This constant struggle has a massive impact on mental health and women's choices, with many putting having a family on hold so they can establish a career, which brings with it a different set of problems as they get older.
Fine-Davies (2015) highlighted a significant lack of domestic responsibility from men with working wives. We see similarities even as far back as Mahon (1998), identifying the reluctance of men in households with both parents working to undertake household chores like shopping, washing, cooking.
Personally, I find the most frightening thing here is that there has been little change in recent statistics compared to research in 2012, showing 42% of the survey population stating that women should only work part-time if their families and children are not to be impacted on, while another 16% claimed that women should not work at all, in the best interest of their children; while 33% of the women involved stated that their husbands did not share the domestic chores within the home, even though they both worked full time.
It is quite staggering in the 21st century to think that over 50% of these people still believe the woman’s place is in the home, and a career should be secondary if women intend to have families and children.
More recently, in Ireland, statistics show that these biases around women working have not changed much, with Shah (2020), explaining that anxiety and stress in women are often work-related due to the growing struggles they encounter when trying to find an appropriate work-life balance.
In fact, research in 2019 showed that two-thirds of the women surveyed considered leaving their careers due to stress relating to work and trying to care for either children and families or older relations (Aubusson, 2019).
Further statistics showed young women were deciding not to have children as they had become disheartened with the lack of a decent work-life balance seen amongst working mothers in similar careers (Patty, 2019).
Anxiety and Burnout
A recent study by the HSE noted that working women aged between 34 – 55 experience more stress due to these excessive responsibilities, juggling numerous roles, motherhood, career, homemaker.
In some instances, the working mother is the sole breadwinner, which adds to the pressures. In recent years these anxieties have been extenuated due to the majority of people having to work from home due to the global pandemic.
As a result, women, as well as managing their typical working day in their homes, had to combine this with homeschooling and helping young children and teenagers manage their own stresses concerning social isolation.
In a recent article, the Irish Examiner noted that more than a third of women have considered leaving their career in the past 12 months, citing burnout and family pressure as the reason behind this decision.
Women Being Proactive to Bring About Change
So what can we do to help change this situation? Obviously, we will have to get our husbands and family onboard to ensure a more sustainable work-life balance and diminish this age-old stigma that the woman is responsible for the domestic chores, or the majority of these, even when they are working full time.
Women, like men, should have the choice to work and hold down a career if that is what they wish to do.
But if a change is to come about, we need to be proactive! It is important to talk about your worries and concerns with your family, don't try and do it all. And realise that you won't be deemed a failure at parenting because you shared the workload and responsibility; that is what it is all about!
For some women, it is one of the reasons they suffer burnout because they consider themselves as failing at either work or home, but they don't ask for help.
Here are a few ways to help you gain back some control over your work/home balance and reduce stress and anxiety.
This is very important when trying to manage any anxiety or stress. Still, for women working full time and trying to manage a home and family, “me time” can very quickly become something of a distant memory, as all the other responsibilities start to overwhelm and push any semblance of everyday life to the back burner.
So take time for a walk, meet a friend and share a coffee. Talk to your partner about the need for shared responsibilities around the house, so you can manage to fit in some relaxation time. Don't allow yourself to become the all-consuming woman who tries to do it all alone, just to show that she can!
That isn't what equality is about; it is about having the choice to have a career, and being able to step away from home life, when required to engage with that career, the same as any man can do, without the guilt that ensues. So share the domestic chores, share the care of the children, and your life will be much more rewarding and fulfilled.
Choose a Job You Really Love
When you wake up in the morning, ask yourself, do you look forward to heading into work, or do you cringe at the thought of yet another day of monotony and stress.
If it is the latter, then perhaps a change would help. We all go through a certain amount of stress in our work lives, it comes with the territory, but when that stress is elevated due to your not really wanting to be there, this is going to impact on maintaining the work/life balance.
So find a career that you really enjoy. That might mean taking on some further training or perhaps taking home a reduced salary. Still, at the end of the day, you are doing something you enjoy, and this is going to impact positively on your children and family, more so than money ever can.
Having a career you love is much more rewarding than ticking that box to say you managed to hold down a successful jet-setting career while juggling three children!
Boundaries Can Make a Difference
Remembering the need for ever-important boundaries is something else to consider, particularly for those women who are working from home.
Very often, it is more difficult to walk away from work when it is so close to hand, so make sure to set clear boundaries between work time and home/lifetime. Work in a space that allows you to close the door when your working day is complete, this physical exercise of actually closing the door on work can have a potent effect on your mental health.
Boundaries are also important when discussing domestic chores, so make it clear from the outset that you are not a woman from pre-1970! You are a woman who has choices, wants a career, and wants your partner's support to achieve this. So share the school runs, the afterschool social activities, the visits to GP, etc. And make sure to buy your partner a good cookbook for Christmas, so they can freshen up their culinary skills!
Acknowledge Your Feelings
We all feel overwhelmed! It isn't because you are a woman; it is because you are a woman who wants a career and a family.
You can have both, but the stigma and bias that the woman is the carer (the nurturer) needs to change for us to achieve this in a less stressful and more sustainable way.
Women shouldn't have to decide not to have children because they want a career – they should be able to have both.
Thinking back to my own struggles and those of my friends, it is concerning to see that there has been little progression in terms of women having the choice of both a career and a family without having to undergo the stresses, anxieties, and mental health issues of feeling one has to suffer; or worse still one has to be given up – so let's work together to break this bias, and bring about equality.
Fine-Davies, M. (2015) Gender Roles in Ireland: Three Decades of Attitude Change, Oxfordshire, Routledge.
Mahon, E. (1998) Changing Gender Roles, State, Work, and Family Lives, in Drew, E., Emereke, R., Mahon, E. (Eds), Women, Work and the Family in Europe, London, Routledge.
Aubusson, K. (2019) It’s not easy being a young woman these days: levels of anxiety higher among young women than seniors, in Women’s Health.
Touhy, W. (2019) Two-thirds of working parents struggle to care for their own health work-life balance, in Lifestyle.
Patty, A. (2019) the family-friendly work illusion turning women off having children, in Exclusive.