Burnout, Break-up and Women Leaders Opting Out

KarenBusiness success, Career, Leadership

Here it is again – confirmation that women leaders are unhappy, unhealthy and unable to reconcile the demands of their work roles with the demands of their lives.

Is anyone but me tired of hearing these stats, without solutions or at least commitment to change along with them?

ICYMI – here’a link to the recent Lean In/McKinsey research saying that we now have “The Great Break-up” (as if creating a relationship parallel for a women’s issue was cute and funny, let alone helpful – NOT).

It seems to be universally agreed that we have an issue, yet I’ve not heard solutions proposed other than the very vague “Learn to say no” advice to the women who are suffering.

I’d like to propose a convergence of phenomena, and (spoiler alert) – assign most of the responsibility for solutions to the organizations experiencing the talent drain.

Imposter Syndrome as a Root Cause

Hear me out.

In the past several months I have had an astonishing number of executive level women come to me desperate to figure out how to handle what they were feeling – which was mostly that there was something wrong with them for feeling what they were feeling.

They each described their situations a little differently but the common thread was clear (and confirms the research) – they are burned out. I’m hearing accomplished, ambitious, brilliant women saying they believe there’s something wrong with them, that they’re feeling like they need to quit their jobs, that they no longer care about their careers, and that they are feeling stuck and hopeless.

The thing I found most interesting was the degree to which almost all of them took sole responsibility for what they were feeling, and in many cases attributed their struggle to “imposter syndrome.” I’m hearing accomplished, brilliant women describing themselves as inadequate because they aren’t able to happily, easily meet the excessive demands on their time and attention. Demands that they felt they “should” be able to handle – and since they clearly “aren’t” handling it all happily and easily, they’re going to have to opt out of the only thing they really have a choice about, which is their executive level work role.

In an HBR article Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey offer that what has become commonly known as “imposter syndrome” is in fact a function of women attempting to lead and succeed in environments that require them to behave in ways that don’t come naturally. From the article, “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”

Women are generally required to adapt into organizational systems and leadership cultures that are still very much based on how men lead. And, let’s face it, those cultures have been created largely by men whose primary focus was their jobs. Small wonder today’s executive women aren’t happy and comfortable with what’s expected. Or what they BELIEVE is expected.  Add to this the broad scale of pandemic-related exhaustion and multiply it exponentially in those who are attempting to juggle multiple responsibilities and of course there’s an issue.

Worse, the default response by these women to not feeling successful seems to be “do more.” Take on more, say yes to more – as if “more” will somehow unlock some secret key to success.

What to do?

In May of 2020, in a video I did for Ivey Business School, I noted that I was already seeing burnout at the senior leadership level and that it would continue. We’ve collectively run a two and a half year marathon and the people who were already juggling the most are, not surprisingly, feeling the deepest feelings of depletion and exhaustion.

It’s not only continuing, it’s escalating. Smart, accomplished, hard-working people are at the end of their capacity to juggle and drive and navigate.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t just one, but there are a few steps that might help. And yes, women have to learn to evaluate their real capacity before saying “yes” to anything added to their plate, but that advice is so tired and insufficient I’m not giving it official air time here. Rather:

  1. Bosses (including CEO’s and Board Chairs) – check in with your women leaders. See how they’re doing, support them in triaging what’s really important, add to their available resources even if they don’t ask (they won’t).
  2. Organizational leaders (C-suite, HR, whomever has influence over workplace and culture) – it’s time to reassess the “real” capacity of your organizations. Stop expecting 150% and plan based on what most people agreed to – hard work within time and effort boundaries that don’t negatively impact what (let’s be honest) are the more important aspects of your people’s lives.
  3. Recipients of feedback about workplace issues (employee engagement surveys, etc). – believe them. When people say they want flexibility and prefer remote work, they mean it. And they have choices that they are clearly prepared to act on.
  4. Companies – take a good look at your DEI initiatives (and culture generally). Are they really inclusive, such that different work styles and structure arrangements are given equal value? Or are you still, even implicitly, rewarding “face time?”
  5. All leaders at all levels – don’t keep expecting the women on your team to sit quietly and wait for their next upward move or growth opportunity. It’s a candidate’s market out there, and we now know for sure that women are no longer willing to express disproportionate loyalty by sticking around in hopes of one day being rewarded.

I don’t pretend to have the solution, but I do know that it can feel better to know that there are others feeling the way you feel. As I wrote in my book, The Accidental Alpha Woman, oftentimes the smartest thing we can do is ask for help (and receive it when it comes).

In an attempt to contribute, or possibly just alleviate some of the anxiety and sense of isolation, I am launching a program of group coaching for C-suite (or similar) women feeling stuck and overwhelmed. Get in touch  with “Ready!” in the Subject line if you are interested in details.