overworked employee lying in front of laptop

By Bhavna Toor and Shravani Prakash, First published on YourStory

Based on research by Shenomics

This is not the happiest time to be a mother, especially a working mother, if one takes note of the “burnout epidemic” that’s taking a heavy toll on women in the aftermath of Covid19 pandemic.

Women were already at a higher risk of facing burnout as compared to men, and then the Covid-19 pandemic came along and almost doubled the gender gap for burnout. The latest data shows widespread burnout in women around the world. In India, working women are feeling the double whammy of feeling both burnt out and undervalued, even more so than their global peers. This is causing women to either look for another employer or leave the workforce altogether. Given that 21 million women have already quit India’s workforce between 2017-2022, addressing this burnout is of the highest importance.

Contributors to what is being called the “burnout epidemic” include working mothers feeling forced to make what feel like impossible choices, such as whether to leave their toddlers at day-care and risk exposure or take off from work, or whether to give kids extra screen time to help them stay quiet or suffer the embarrassment of frequent interruptions on video calls. As a result, feelings of overwhelm, guilt and exhaustion have literally become the defining feature of motherhood.

It should be noted burnout is an occupational phenomenon and not a medical condition. The cure for burnout, therefore, is not “self-care,” but a supportive environment where the challenges working mothers are facing are recognised and addressed through appropriate structures and policies. Only once organisations acknowledge the truth of burnout can they begin to take steps to address this unfortunate reality, and retain their female talent.  

How can organisations address burnout?

For supporting women to avoid or overcome burnout, organisations need to adopt a two-pronged strategy – (A) Minimise the stressors, which are the factors that cause the stress, and (B) Address the stress or the physiological and emotional manifestation of the problem.

Here are a few suggestions, based on our research findings at Shenomics from surveying hundreds of women leaders across industries –

1.       Provide flexible work without penalties

A flexible work culture, especially with a return to hybrid work, will go a long way in reducing the mental load working mothers carry and the constant pressure they feel to juggle multiple balls in the air. Our research at Shenomics shows a high degree of correlation between women quitting “to care for family, children or elders” and a “lack of flexibility at the organisation.” Having said that, flexibility should not be a concession or preferential treatment made available only to women but to all parents, otherwise women risk getting penalised for it. Only when flexible work policies are truly embedded into the company culture, and embraced by leadership, can women avail them without the fear of penalties.

2.      Respect boundaries

Employers should encourage a culture where people truly value each other’s time and space, so that employees are free to express when they will be unavailable to answer emails or take work calls, and encourage teams to schedule meetings at hours that work for everyone. This would allow parents, including mothers, to better accommodate the schedules of their children and families, and minimise the pressure they feel to multitask or make trade-offs that sacrifice their personal needs.     

3.      Value the contribution of working mothers

Feeling undervalued and under-appreciated at work is not only a major cause for burnout but it also among the top factors that pushes women out the workforce, as we found in our research at Shenomics. Creating an equitable workplace culture with an evaluation and appraisal process deemed to be fair by all genders is critical. Another factor that helps is when management in an organization proactively and frequently reaches out to women employees to offer their sincere appreciation and support for their work and career growth.


4.      Give women challenging roles and assignments

Many women find the lack of challenging and invigorating work as a contributor to feeling stagnation or burnout, especially at the mid-career level. Women are also more likely to get stuck with routine, time-consuming and thankless tasks – also known as “dead-end work”– such as taking notes, ordering lunch, organising events or handling less-valued clients.  When organisations put in place challenging and aspirational career paths for women that motivate them to steadily expand their comfort zone that then creates a strong incentive for women to stay on their chosen career track.  

  • Encourage women to bring their whole self to work

Working mothers essentially have two jobs and many wish they did not have to hide or apologise for their role as a caregiver at the workplace. Encouraging women to bring their whole self to work requires an inclusive culture where all individuals feel a sense of belonging and feel supported in showing up authentically, whether that includes encouraging people to openly talk about their families, bring their children or pets to work if needed or have the freedom to take a day off to address personal demands. A culture of belonging would help working mothers feel safe in speaking up and asking for what they need.

Any period of turmoil also opens up opportunities to redesign and reimagine a better future. While the pandemic and the post-pandemic burnout has not been kind to working mothers, we have an unprecedented opportunity now to reimagine a work culture that acknowledges the needs of all parents, especially mothers, and place the physical and mental well-being of everyone at the top of an organization’s priorities.