burn out

High-Achieving Women & Burnout

High-achieving women everywhere are maxed out, addicted to being busy, and overwhelmed.  Keeping busy at all costs is the cultural status quo, but the drive to do more is impacting our families, our work, and our health. The result of this busyness is not only a lack of time, but also exhaustion, anxiety, guilt, fear, social comparison, inauthenticity and physical illness. I am keenly aware of the price of crazy busy as the constant drive to achieve and push to fill my plate with degrees, accomplishments, board positions, awards, and “things to do,” led me to burnout during the last year of my law practice. The so-called mid-life crisis is a thing of the past as burnout is happening a lot sooner in life and is hitting women especially hard.

Check out my Huff Post article for specific strategies to help you ease the guilt and the pressure when you’re feeling crazy busy.  In addition, please take a look at how burnout manifests itself in high-achieving women:

The 4 Stages of a Woman’s Career

Psychologist Barbara White described the four broad career stages that women pass through as follows:

  1. Early career development
  2. Early 30’s transition
  3. Settling down – Late 30’s transition
  4. Achievement and maintenance

While these stages aren’t necessarily unique to women, each of these stages are pivot points for women and burnout often appears at one or more of these pivot points.

In their late 20’s and early 30’s, many women have left their personal lives and self-care in the dust because they are busy being busy and driven and hope to find some sense of balance in their overwhelmed lives. In addition, many women want to build long-term relationships and start families.

In their late 30’s and beyond, other women burn out realizing that they’ve devoted many years to a career that is no longer fulfilling and are looking to find more meaning and purpose. This might mean re-crafting an existing job, finding vitality again through a hobby, or changing careers altogether.

Beliefs That Keep Smart Women Stuck & Overwhelmed

Beating burnout requires that you step into your most authentic self, and that involves confronting the beliefs and mindsets that aren’t working for you.   Some of the ones I hear most frequently that keep women stuck and overwhelmed are:

** I have to achieve more

** Good mothers are/do/don’t __________________ (fill in the blank – always home to cook dinner; must put their kids to bed every night; don’t leave their kids at daycare, etc.)

** I can handle it all on my own

** It’s right to put others first; I’ll worry about myself later

** I have to be perfect

** I can’t be perceived as weak (I hear this one from a lot of men too)

In addition, many smart women have developed something called a fixed mindset – the belief that their ability is limited or fixed. Smart girls with fixed mindsets believe that they were born with only so much intelligence, creativity, athletic ability, etc., and no amount of additional effort will grow these capacities. As a result, smart women and girls aren’t always comfortable getting outside of their comfort zones and play it safe rather than risk failing.

While burnout affects both men and women, studies show that burnout impacts women in a different way.

Women Process Burnout Differently

The three dimension of burnout are as follows (1):

Exhaustion:  Feeling emotionally exhausted, depleted, and a loss of energy.

Cynicism:  Having a negative attitude toward clients and those you work with, feeling irritable, and withdrawing from people and activities you once enjoyed.

Inefficacy:  Experiencing diminished personal accomplishment, a perceived decline in competence or productivity, and expending energy at work without seeing any results.

Research discovered that men and women process these burnout dimensions differently.  Women typically experienced exhaustion first, followed by cynicism, then inefficacy – they didn’t think they were being effective at work so they stopped to evaluate.  The men, on the other hand, tended to experience cynicism first, then exhaustion.  Interestingly, many of the men in the study kept working because they didn’t feel as though the symptoms from the first two stages impacted the quality of their work.  They didn’t reach the inefficacy stage because they thought they were still being effective.

Women, Burnout & Your Health

Another study examined the association between burnout, depression, anxiety, and inflammation as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.  Researchers discovered that for women, there was an association between burnout and inflammation (as measured by specific protein biomarkers), but this same association was not found in men.  Interestingly, it was depression, and not burnout or anxiety that produced similarly elevated levels of inflammation in men.

Job Demands & Home Demands Influence Burnout

Women are participating in the workforce in increasing numbers yet continue to shoulder a great deal of responsibility at home.  Given the dual roles of many women who work, it’s easy for work to interfere with home (called work-home interference) and for home to interfere with work (called home-work interference).

Both types of interference influence burnout, and research points to emerging gender differences.  Interestingly, work-home interference is more strongly related to burnout for women, while home-work interference is more strongly related to burnout for men.  (2)

Next Steps

Are you a high-achieving woman who is feeling busy, overwhelmed, and maxed out?  Our training programs can help!  Please visit our coaching and online programs page to find out how our burnout prevention and resilience training courses can help you.  For any questions you may have, please contact Paula here.


(1) Leiter, M.P., & Maslach, C. (2005). Banishing burnout: Six strategies for improving your relationship with work.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  See also, Maslach, C., & Leiter, M.P. (1997). The truth about burnout: How organizations cause personal stress and what to do about it.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

(2) Peeters, M.C., Montgomery, A.J., Bakker, A.B., & Schaufeli, W.B. (2005). Balancing work and home: How job and home demands are related to burnout.  International Journal of Stress Management, 12(1), 43-61.