Most of us are familiar with stress and experience a great deal of it in our day-to-day. This is especially true if you've added the "mom" title to your list of roles. But what you might consider to be simple stress may actually have manifested—or be manifesting—into a more serious condition called burnout.
Currently, the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) defines burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." This phrasing is highly restrictive, according to Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., author of Aging Joyfully, because it leaves out the many women and men who suffer from burnout due to home and general life stressors. "Those who are affected by burnout deserve more inclusive and comprehensive criteria that will ensure appropriate assessment and treatment," she says.
One thing is for sure, whatever burnout is considered to be, there's no denying the fact that it's reaching epidemic levels across America—and women, especially moms, are being hit the hardest. In fact, burnout is being felt to such a degree that it's now officially recognized as an occupational phenomenon (aka a syndrome) by the WHO. In a recent Meredith-partnered Harris Poll, 63 percent of women reported feeling that they've worked an entire day after handling all of their family's needs in the morning—well before even arriving in their office. And 48 percent of women said their burnout is so extreme that it's keeping them up at night. Women reported they're feeling drastically more stressed, tired, overwhelmed, and anxious compared to how they felt just a few years ago. So what's causing all of this burnout—and why is it disproportionately affecting American women?
The Weight of Gender Roles
Although a great deal of progress has been made in affording women equal rights, Dr. Manly says that several burdens still fall mostly on women, including work, home, social life, parenting, and caregiving. Women are expected to have a full-time job in the exact same way that men are, but are still tied to the stereotypical family and home roles that most men are not. What's more: The burden of the sandwich generation—those caring for their own children as well as elderly or ill parents—is still defined to be more of a woman's role. "Due to ingrained historical patterns, many men have a tendency to retreat to a computer, television, den, or 'man cave' after work, leaving women scurrying to handle meals, household issues, family care, and other duties," says Dr. Manly. "With limited free time for self-care and rejuvenation, women tend to suffer far more from burnout than men."
As a working mother of four, Micah Klug, 34, from Tri-Cities, Washington, can completely relate to this sentiment. She tries her best to balance her business hours before her children even wake up for the day, which means she's up and working at 3:30 a.m. "When I'm stressed about meeting my business goals I find it difficult to focus my attention on my children—and when I'm worried about one of my children and trying to reach their heart, I have a hard time focusing on my business."
Illustration by Pete Ryan
How Moms Can Prevent Burnout
While burnout is very real and sometimes even debilitating, for some women and mothers, there are luckily some tangible solutions and tactics for preventing or at least minimizing burnout in your daily life. Here, experts and moms share some of the tips that have helped them or their clients maintain a burnout-free lifestyle.
1. Practice self-care
It might sound rather cliché, but taking time out of your day, or even your week, to do a little something solely for yourself is key to keeping burnout at bay. This could be in the form of enjoying a quiet cup of tea, going for a relaxing walk around the block or to the gym, or simply taking a warm bath, shares Dr. Manly, who likes to remind moms that self-care is not selfish. "Small doses of self-care are essential for the rest and relaxation necessary to be present and caring for others!"
For Kristine McGlinchey-Yap, 32, a mom of one from Miami, Florida, self-care sometimes just involves taking a deep breath in and out a few times throughout the day. "Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, I reset by closing my eyes and taking deep inhalations," she says. "I visualize all of my stress and I release it as I exhale. It makes me feel lighter and less tense."
2. Limit social media use
Setting social media boundaries was reported to be the most effective method of combating burnout by the moms surveyed. A whopping 58 percent of moms said that if they cut out social media, they'd have at least an hour added back into their day. "Setting limits on time spent on social media can improve anxiety levels and increase mindfulness of daily life, as these constant messages can limit our ability to focus on the present moment," says Sahar Esfahani, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Illinois. One way she recommends cutting back is to track how often you log in and then commit to setting limits to time spent on various apps. "Setting time limits, removing the app from your phone, or paying special attention to what types of content you are following are also ways to practice making this change," she adds.
3. Give yourself permission to say "no"
The Harris Poll study found that two-thirds of women surveyed wish they could say "no" more often and more than half say they feel guilty taking a break or resting. "We all have limits and we need to acknowledge what those are," says Emily Guarnotta, Psy.D., a New York-based clinical psychologist who specializes in working with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. "If you're feeling chronically stressed, then your body is trying to communicate that there is a problem and you need to take action."
4. Learn to ask for help
It sounds simple, but even if you have an army of family and friends at your disposal to chip in and relieve you of some of your duties, you might not be vocalizing your need enough to receive such assistance. Most of the time people want to help out—they just don't know when or how it's needed. "Open and honest communication with a spouse, partner, friends, or relative, can make all the difference," says McGlinchey-Yap. "It's important to let people know how they can help support you and take on some of the responsibility to ease your workload."
5. Prioritize sleep
The average American is not getting sufficient amounts or quality of sleep each night. Add an infant, toddler, or child into the mix and it's near-impossible to attain the recommended seven to nine hours. Most of Dr. Esfahani's clients have some difficulties with sleep, so she often spends a good portion of their first few visits prescribing them a sleep plan to follow that focuses on scheduling a bedtime, "wind-down" time, and other general healthy sleep hygiene behaviors.
6. Invest your time in family relationships
"When my husband and I invest in our marriage and in making memories with our children, the doors of our family's communication open up and misunderstandings are mended," says Klug. "We close electronics, hide the movies, and focus on the simple things such as our kids putting on a puppet show or dance recital, snuggling on the couch with a warm blanket to read a book, or enjoying some needed run around time at a nearby park."
It's also important to set aside time for your partner sans kids. You can do so with monthly date nights or simple evenings out with friends. "Plan vacations or staycations where you and your partner can spend quality time together," suggests Alyza Berman, LCSW, founder and clinical director of The Berman Center in Atlanta, Georgia. "You have to take care of family and children, but if you don't take care of yourself and neither does your partner, then everyone suffers from it."