Feel the Burn

Women are buckling in a professional war of attrition

Back Longreads Mar 1, 2012 By Andrea Kennedy


Senior associate Tracy Steffens starts getting urgent emails from East Coast clients as early as 6 a.m., just around the time her two-year-old daughter raps on the shower door to expel mommy from her morning rinse. Steffens tries to wash her hair at night to save time, but some workdays last until midnight, and when she gets home, she falls into bed. Sometimes sleep comes easy, other nights Steffens lies awake pondering the day’s anxieties.

Her husband has been away on work for half of his two-day assignment, and they’re way overdue for date night. No matter; there wasn’t time to find a sitter anyway. Laundry is piling up, dinner hasn’t been planned, the dogs need to go out and a gift was never bought for that kid with the upcoming birthday.

Steffens tries to be a super attorney, super wife and super mom. Some days, she’s just super exhausted. To top it off, a lingering social stigma prevents women like Steffens from publicly discussing their struggle for fear of perceived weakness by coworkers and associates (Steffens is not her real name).

Sometimes Steffens catches herself thinking about the additional pressures women face in the business world that men may not even consider, like the daily mental scheduling that includes planning for day care, groceries, laundry, dinner, birthdays and holidays. There’s also the unfortunate fact that Steffens clothes are fitting tighter these days because it’s been forever since she hit the gym. Will coworkers interpret her fuller figure as a sign of personal failing?

“At the rate that I’m going, it can’t continue much longer,” says Steffens, now in her early 30s. “I’m at the point that something has to give.”

“It’s very frustrating for someone like me and other women in my situation,” she adds. “All we’ve ever done is just go, go, go, go. We went straight through college and got advanced degrees. We did everything we could to get where we are, and now we’re kind of looking back going, ‘Gosh, I wonder if I should have slowed down. I wonder if this was the right decision.’ But you almost get to the point where it’s like, ‘Well, I can’t do anything about it now. Am I’m going to flush seven years worth of post-high school education and almost seven years of experience in my profession down the toilet?’”

According to a November Forbes blog, many do. Author Larissa Faw says the trend of women “burning out” is reflected in the lack of female business executives in today’s workforce. Clearly she hit a nerve; the blog post drew 128 cheers and jeers and more than 14,000 Facebook shares.

The inequity of females in executive positions is not news. Though women have for years been primed for executive seats, a recent census by research specialist Amanda Kimball of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management found women hold fewer than 10 percent of the state’s top business leadership positions.

Even women who reject the notion that females inherently face additional responsibilities that amplify the stress of professional life will note the existence of more external barriers.

“I think that whole concept of burnout is a bogus concept orchestrated by those who don’t want to acknowledge the glass ceiling,” says Robin Swanson, communications director for California State Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and founder of Swanson Communications.

Swanson, who is in her thirties, despises the term “burnout” altogether, calling it bad branding that sets women back 50 years. “I don’t think it’s a matter of burnout,” she says. “It’s a matter of overcoming obstacles.”â?¨â?¨

Since her days as a political consultant on Capitol Hill, Swanson has seen what she terms “shutout” — not burnout — keeping women out of high-ranking positions, political panels and even Sacramento’s Capitol. She calls it a “troubling national trend.”â?¨â?¨

“I think that women need the same incentives as men to stay in the game: promotions, raises, recognition, maybe a little flexibility,” she says. â?¨â?¨

Additionally, Swanson says workplace role models must go a step above acting as mentors to act also as advocates. “The only way to generate a movement is to not only find an outlet for your own voice to be heard, but to reach out to others who face the same challenges you do,” she says.

On a personal level, Swanson says she is dedicated to deflecting burnout within the workplace by speaking out against gender inequities and outside the workplace by adapting her lifestyle, not her work schedule. ��

For example, she’s replaced morning exercise with taking time to pack lunches. She cooks less and eats take-out. Laundry doesn’t always get folded, and kids might go to school with bed head. She credits her husband for co-managing the house, her hair product for expediting blow-drying time, and her military upbringing for the strength to rise with a 5:30 a.m. alarm. And if you send her an email past 10 p.m., don’t expect a response till morning. She’s in bed.

Sometimes things just don’t get done, but for Swanson that’s okay.

“I’ve learned not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Swanson says. “You figure out what’s important, and you do the best you can.”

Swanson has two stepchildren and is expecting her first baby in May. She doesn’t plan on scaling back. While she appears to have struck the balance that scores of other professional women are seeking, it isn’t easy and some women struggle more than others.

“There are certain obstacles you will never be able to get over,” says Steffens, who prefers homemade meals even when acting as a single parent while her husband is away. “It’s not humanly possible to work [as much as you think you need to], be there for your kids as much as you want to be there for them, spend time with your significant other and spend time with your social life.”

Steffens’ do-it-all mentality mirrors that of many working women aspiring to meet, if not supersede, perceived expectations in and out of the workplace.

Psychologist Dr. Robin Zasio of The Anxiety Treatment Center of Sacramento says the burnout felt by women like Steffens is real and widespread among her demographic.

“We are seeing a generation where children are being raised in schools where there are high standards,” she says. “They develop very perfectionist behaviors and feel they have to be perfect. If they don’t have an education and have a family and are at the top of their field, they feel like in some way they’re not achieving their greater good.”

Barbara Kelley, journalism director at Santa Clara University and co-author of “Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career — and Life — That’s Right for You,” has observed firsthand collegiate women who reached out to professors eager to help them succeed and who cried at the thought of a B.

Now in the workforce, these ambitious go-getters may feel like they’re spinning their wheels on the road to self-actualization, in what Kelley calls the enduring “Mad Men” workplace. Women may face frustrations while finding their footing in a nascent female professional paradigm, lacking accessible female executive role models, detached from the good ol’ boys club or aggravated at working the same jobs as men for less pay.

“You’re thrown into (the workforce), and it often isn’t what it’s cracked up to be or what you expected,” Kelley says. “All of a sudden, it just doesn’t look that good.”

Kelley, like Swanson, also believes the term “burnout” misses the mark. Rather, she suggests overachieving females ready to take on the world are getting slapped in the face by reality — a reality of great, unrealistic expectations that they have to do it all.

Steffens, for example, knew she signed up for an inherently demanding job. The trait even attracted her. At first.

“I suspect that women do feel burnout, but they don’t put it in those terms. They say ‘I’m leaving the workforce to focus on my family,’ rather than ‘I’m leaving the workforce because this sucks.’”

Amanda Kimball, research specialist, UC Davis Graduate School of Management

It’s a challenging profession, and for a long time that motivated me,” she says. “But since I’ve had my daughter, it’s been different. My priorities switched.”

Now, an internal tussle between attorney and mommy instead leads to depression and fatigue.

“A lot of people in my profession feel they can’t be 100 percent at both,” she says. “What ends up happening is you feel that you’re subpar at both. I think that’s really a struggle, particularly for people like myself who are very much type-A personalities, who want to be the best at everything they do.”

Local psychologist Dr. Trudy Helmlinger says many women — with and without children or spouses — are hardwired for burnout. These nurturers typically over-give and put others’ needs before their own, sacrificing self-care and promoting their own exhaustion.

“They have a mindset that it’s a catastrophe if they are selfish,” Helmlinger says. “It’s a catastrophe if they don’t care more about other people than themselves.”

Steffens knows the feeling. She carries an 80-percent work load at her firm — still at least 40-hour weeks — and sacrifices every ounce of “me time” to care for her daughter, manage the household and support family and friends. She can’t help but sneer at the sight of holiday cards touting moms with time to volunteer at school, go on play dates and do yoga five days a week.

At the same time, however, Steffens realizes that by not allowing herself “me time” she prompts the vicious cycle that delays her own recovery from burnout and depression. She just doesn’t have the energy to do anything about it.

“You’re so exhausted with work and family and everything that you don’t make time for yourself,” Steffens says. “You don’t give yourself those kind of releases, whether it’s with friends or exercise or whatever it is to help you pull out of it.”

Even at work, she considers bathroom breaks casualties of time. In fact, research from the Captivate Network shows that women are 35 percent less likely to take relaxation breaks during the day than men, just the type of overwork that could lead women to burn out faster.

Steffens says she’s often considered scaling back from her career. Many other women simply dismiss themselves from professional work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that as of December 2011, women were almost four times as likely to have removed themselves from the labor force claiming “family responsibilities.”

Kimball from the UC Davis study also suggests the prevalence of burnout causing women to exit the workplace could be higher than people realize, considering the natural tendency to cast the departure in a positive light to avoid the stigma associated with being unhappy — or worse, the perception of failure.

“I suspect that women do feel burnout, but they don’t put it in those terms,” she says. “They say ‘I’m leaving the workforce to focus on my family,’ rather than ‘I’m leaving the workforce because this sucks.’”

Shannon Kelley, co-author of “Undecided,” also says that in families who desire a stay-at-home parent, women are more likely to step down because they commonly earn less income than their husbands. It’s tough to ignore, too, that women bare the biological and cultural expectations of head caretaker.

Whether or not they are married or a mother, women may also experience higher rates of dissatisfaction and burnout from their jobs because they attach different expectations to their careers. Men, still saddled under the gender stereotype of breadwinner — which no doubt contains a distinct batch of pressures — seem to be more concerned than women with the size of their paycheck, says Kelley. Women place more emphasis on emotional returns.

“For women,” she says, “[work is] supposed to be meaningful — your passion, important to society — and you’re supposed to be great at it.”

Barbara Kelley adds, “It’s easier to avoid all the dissatisfaction that women face when your purpose is so clear.”

However, meaningful work can also come at a cost. Twenty seven year old Veronica Delgado, owner of local arts communications firm Vera Icon PR, boasts that she has at least 15 different projects going on at all times.

With clients like Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, Sacramento’s Arts and Business Council, and myriad artists, Delgado says, “There’s an abyss of needs I have to fill.”

But when preparing for a 31-day arts event, Delgado didn’t give herself a single day off for four months. After the project’s launch, her body revolted, and a planned vacation was instead spent nursing her body back from exhaustion.

“I just had a blackout,” she says. “My brain stopped working.”

If accomplished women like Steffens and Delgado burnout of the workforce, local businesses will continue to lose valuable talent.

Psychologist Zasio recommends women actively seek balance in their lives, speak up if they feel overwhelmed or experience family stressors, and not be afraid to vocalize their successes. Employers can also help by creating a flexible work environment.

“Companies can reach out to people to promote policies to help employees find a good work/life
balance before burnout ever happens,” Kimball says. “That way, everybody wins.”

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