Burn Out on the Rise for Women in the Workplace

October 27, 2021 Maddie Grant

Last year brought good news and bad news for women in the workplace. The good news is that women made gains in representation across all levels of the corporate pipeline. The bad news is that women are more burned out than last year, rates of burn out are rising, and burnout affects women more than men.

Authors of a recent McKinsey report, researched in partnership with LeanIn.org,  wrote, “One in three women says that they have considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce this year, compared with one in four who said this a few months into the pandemic. Additionally, four in ten women have considered leaving their company or switching jobs – and high employee turnover in recent months suggests that many of them are following through.”

Why does that matter? According to a new e-book, The 51%: Driving Growth through Women’s Economic Participation, from the Brookings Institute, barriers to women in the workforce stifle growth in the U.S. economy. Additionally, the country’s future economic success depends on improving career prospects and working environments for all women.

Let me repeat that, “The country’s future economic success depends on improving career prospects and working environments for all women.”

And yet 40 percent of women are considering leaving their jobs. If this trend continues, the future of the U.S. economy does not look bright.

Factors Contributing to Burn Out

The authors of the McKinsey study point to culture as the place where these problems reside and where they can be addressed. With that in mind, what are the issues that create a difficult workplace for women? According to the report, the issues include:

  • Compared to men at the same level, women are doing more to support their teams and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, but companies (and associations) are not recognizing or rewarding women for the DEI work they’re doing, risking losing the leaders they need the most.
  • The companies studied display a disconnect between their commitment to racial equality and the lack of improvement women of color experience every day. Women of color are far more likely to experience microaggressions – such as being interrupted, having their judgement questioned, or having people express surprise at their language skills – than white women or men, and the rate has not declined, even with the emphasis placed on racial equality during the past year.
  • White women are likely to be allies to women of color, but a gap still exists. Although 75 percent of white employees consider themselves as allies of women of color at work, less than half take action, such as speaking out against bias. A gap also exists between the actions women of color find meaningful and the actions that white employees prioritize.
  • Women who are “onlys” – the only person of their race or gender in the room – find work especially difficult. They are more likely to be put under a microscope and encounter comments and behavior that reduce them to stereotypes. Mothers of young children who are onlys in their work group are more likely to feel judged for trying to balance work and home life with work-from-home options or non-standard hours.
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How Do We Solve the Problem?

The authors of the McKinsey study say the path forward is clear. “Companies need to take bold steps to address burnout. They need to recognize and reward the women leaders who are driving progress. And they need to do the deep cultural work required to create a workplace where all women feel valued.”

Diversity in numbers, however, isn’t enough. Companies, they write, also must “create a culture that fully leverages the benefits of diversity.”

They must create a culture in which “women, and all employees, feel comfortable bringing their unique ideas, perspectives, and experiences to the table. When women are respected and their contributions are valued, they are more likely to be happy in their jobs and feel connected to their coworkers.” 

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The authors of the study outline a number of steps to build a more inclusive culture.

  • Putting more practices in place to ensure promotions are equitable.
  • Tracking representation and hiring and promotion outcomes more fully.
  • Increasing their efforts when it comes to accountability from both senior leaders and managers.
  • Ensuring senior leaders fully and publicly support DEI efforts.
  • Ensuring that DEI initiatives are appropriately resourced across their organizations.
  • Training employees so everyone understands the barriers women face and the benefits of a more inclusive culture. “It takes consistent reinforcement to reshape deep-rooted biases and change behavior, so a one-and-done approach to training is not enough,” they write.
  • Communicating clearly what is expected and what an inclusive culture means.

The McKinsey study concludes with advice for combatting burnout. They suggest managers should focus on three areas:

  • Modeling work-life boundaries;
  • Supporting employee well-being;
  • Ensuring that performance is evaluated based on results.

As part of this effort, managers should be mindful that their day-to-day feedback isn’t “inadvertently signaling that long hours and face time are unspoken measures of performance.” Also, managers should watch for signs of burnout, adjusting workloads as necessary.

How Can You Thoughtfully Change Your Culture?

At PROPEL, we define culture as the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and “stuff” that clarifies and reinforces what is truly valued inside your organization. PROPEL can help you navigate the issues that make it harder to move the company forward, like burnout and DEI issues.

 As you work on your culture, you might also recognize the huge opportunity that the current disruption brings. More talented people are on the job market now than ever before. If you have a welcoming, supportive culture, you could attract the best and brightest to your company. Creating and sustaining a healthy culture is also the best way to keep your existing employees engaged.

 Are you people burnt out?  Contact us to explore how we can help.


Photo by Külli Kittus

Maddie Grant

Maddie Grant, CAE, is an expert culture designer and digital strategist who focuses on helping organizations unlock the power in their culture and navigate culture change. She has specific expertise in digital transformation and generational differences in the workplace. She has explored the language of workplace culture for several years through her books, co-authored with her partner in business and life Jamie Notter, including Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World (2011), the Amazon category best-seller When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business (2015) and the Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement (2019).
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