October 20, 2023
In the relentless pursuit of success and productivity, many women, high performing women find themselves trapped in a silent and destructive cycle. I like to call it High-Functioning Burnt Out Woman Syndrome and it’s pervasive. These women appear to have it all together while secretly battling exhaustion, both physically and mentally.
What’s perhaps even more disturbing is that those experiencing this phenomenon have become so used to operating in a way that is toxic for both their mind and their body that they feel this is completely normal and I’m here to say it’s not and something needs to change.
So - what is burnout, what is high-functioning burnt-out woman syndrome, why is it concerning and how can these women work to overcome their current state of burnout? Read below the article as I unpack all of these burnout questions!
TheAmerican Psychological Association (2011) defines burnout as "physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes towards oneself and others."
It's a state where you may continue to function on the outside, ticking off your to-do lists and meeting your daily obligations, but inside, you feel empty and drained.
The relentless inner critic becomes your constant companion, reminding you of your perceived inadequacies and the unattainable standards you set for yourself.
Some of the key characteristics of burnout can include:
What’s even more interesting is that the research suggests women are way more inclined to burnout.
Great Place to Work and health-care start-up, Maven (2020) found that mothers in paid employment are 23% more likely to experience burnout than fathers in paid employment.
Is it any wonder when one in three women, and 60 per cent of mothers with young children, spend five or more hours a day on housework and caregiving? Five hours a day is at least another half-time job! (McKinsey & Company, 2022).
In 2018, researchers from the University of Montreal (2018) published a study concluding that women were more vulnerable to burnout than men (because women were less likely to be promoted than men), and therefore more likely to be in positions with less authority which can lead to increased stress and frustration.
The researchers also found that women were more likely to head single-parent families, experience child-related strains, invest time in domestic tasks and have lower self-esteem – all things that can exacerbate burnout.
This was something I experienced myself and there was something I found very interesting about my own burnout story.
I never knew I was burnt out when I was in it. It wasn’t until about a year after I stepped out of my corporate career that I realised I wasn’t getting sick like I used to and wondered why.
I then remembered how back then I’d get sick with some bug every couple of months and instead of resting I would proudly prop myself up on my sick bed with my laptop and just keep going.
I thought this was normal and you know what it was for me.
I’d normalised ignoring my body's warning signals in order to deliver for everyone else.
I was a high-functioning burnt out woman.
The type of woman who from the outside looking in looks like she’s got it all going on. A mum, a high achiever with an impressive career. A social poster who looked like a perfectly balanced woman with an equal spread of life, work, family and sprinklings of self-development on the side.
I was the picture of the modern-day woman who had it all but if you scratched the surface what lay beneath was a woman who felt disconnected from her true essence and from the people she cared about most.
My life now could not look more different. I’ve become unapologetically selfish in prioritising myself because I have learnt, from my psychological and trauma studies, that it is impossible to help others flourish if we don’t invest in our own flourishing first.
My days are designed around recharging my energy and my soul. I work less hours but am way more productive than I ever was because I know the more space I create for my brain and my body to recharge the more impact I can have in my work and in my life.
What works for me is starting the day meditating, journaling and moving rather than reacting to my phone. I set my phone alarm to move away from my desk around the middle of the day and either eat lunch in solitude, go for a walk or pop to the gym.
I have an end of day ritual where I literally turn off my computer and say to myself that is enough and I am enough. It’s taken time to land at what works for me and no I’m not perfect but these practices I’ve now been able to sustain for years and they serve the stage of life I’m in.
I share this story because it’s not normal to feel like there is nothing left in the tank for you, ever. Nor is it going to enable you to show up in life as the woman you want to be.
I want to help others recognise the High-Functioning Burnt Out Woman Syndrome (as I call it) in themselves.
High-functioning burnt out women are often mistaken for the epitome of modern success.
They're mothers who manage demanding careers, expertly juggling their roles as caregivers and professionals. Their social media presence showcases what seems like a perfectly balanced life, filled with career achievements, family moments, and self-improvement endeavours.
However, beneath this façade lies a profound sadness and disconnection from their true selves. Their minds are occupied with endless to-do lists, and they rarely experience the present moment because they're too focused on the tasks they're not completing. The relentless pursuit of ever-elusive goals leaves them feeling like they're on an endless treadmill (like I was).
This is what I call the High-Functioning Burnt Out Woman.
I want to shine a spotlight on what she looks from the outside looking in versus what’s really going on for her inside each and every day.
I want to expose why it’s a problem not only for her but for us as a society and I want to explore what we and she can do to intervene in a way that empowers her to make the shift that she longs for when she feels she doesn’t have the energy to do so.
Let’s start with what a high-functioning burnt out woman looks like from the outside looking in:
Now, maybe you can see her in yourself or in someone you know? What could be the impact of suffering from High-Functioning Burnt Out Woman Syndrome?
Firstly, they are a problem for themselves in the context of their own mental and physical health. Operating in a chronic state of stress stimulates the central nervous system, wiring the brain into survival mode and impacting one’s ability to make quality decisions and think long-term.
Equally, the risk of depressive disorders increases by 180%, Type 2 diabetes increases by 84% and hypertension increases by 40% just to name a few. Burnout is the opposite of flourishing in life. It's languishing.
The reality is when a mother flourishes, a family flourishes and when families flourish the world flourishes. It’s the multiplier effect that means together we rise and the glue to drive that rise more often than not in a patriarchal society is the mother. When working mothers are burnt out it impacts society’s ability to flourish!
Each and every one of the high functioning burnt out women I have interviewed for my research share that they long to be a role model for their children when it comes to what it looks like to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life yet the only thing their current behaviour is role modelling is how to burn yourself out and not be present in the moments that matter – and that’s in their words.
Think about the belief system this behaviour informs for the next generation!
As I mentioned earlier, women burning out impacts our ability to realise true gender equality in the workplace impacting the quality of the decisions we make as a collective and the ability for all voices to be heard and represented.
The cost to organisations of this burnout is huge as it’s hard enough to recruit and retain women in senior positions as many self-select out due to not wanting to sacrifice their children and their souls at the expense of a high-paying job.
Equally when a woman burns out in a job the likelihood of her returning to that job is low.
How do we shape job roles, and leadership positions that empower mothers to show up in life and at work as the women they want to be without burning out is the question we should be asking ourselves?
And what do we do when we are experiencing burnout?
The journey to working through burnout begins with awareness. If you recognise any of the signs of high-functioning burnout in yourself, it's time to seek support and acknowledge that something needs to change.
Does any of what I’ve described feel like you?
You don’t have to tick every single box listed to be on the precipice of or in burnout. If the answer is a maybe or a yes it’s time to get the support you need. The gold standard for measuring burnout is what’s called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) and it must be assessed by a healthcare professional.
Whilst I’m personally not a huge fan of GPs they are a great way to validate the situation through an assessment so that you can at least get a medical certificate to take some time out and work out your next step. I share this advice with a warning though.
So, many women I know walk out of a consultation like this with a GP with a script for anti-depressants. I’m not denying some people need them, they have their place but my concern is this quick fix mentality we have means that it is rare, based on my research, that alternative holistic and integrative remedies/therapies to come back from burnout are provided.
There is no one size fits all recipe to return from burnout which is why creating the space to rest and explore the path that feels right for you is the most important first step.
Now, let's engage in a personal reflection. Take out a notebook or open a blank document and consider the following questions:
Share how you are feeling and your concerns with trusted friends and family. A psychologically safe emotional support network is critical to your ability to come back from burnout.
You can access a mental health plan from your GP so that you can work with a psychologist at a government subsidised rate.
Look into group programs, retreats or one on one coaching options if that’s of interest to support you in resetting your foundations in alignment with the life you want to live and how you want to show up in the world without burnout.
Working with an expert to define your purpose and create healthy and sustainable boundaries that enable you to live that purpose can provide a solid basis to come back from burnout feeling energised by life.
I also want to highlight that if you’re someone watching from the outside, feeling like someone you know and care about is suffering from High-Functioning Burnt Out Woman Syndrome, take this as your sign to reach out to them.
Create the space for a conversation where you can express your concern and ask them how they are feeling and whether they would like some support. It’s never a bad thing to hold space for someone. Often that’s exactly what people need, in a world where it feels like there is no space, to take the first step towards change.
If you’re looking for someone to support you in bouncing back from High-Functioning Burnt Out Woman Syndrome I’m here to help, I have some resources below that can help you.
Take a listen to my podcast episode “High-Functioning Burnt-Out Woman Syndrome”. This will give you a chance to hear more about what you (or someone you know) could be going through. This will allow you the space to action step one mentioned above.
If you’re looking for someone to support you in bouncing back from High-Functioning Burnt Out Syndrome I’m here to help. Book a free Breakthrough callhere and let’s explore what it would look like for you.