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Burnout is real, says the World Health Organization (and mothers everywhere)

If we want to prevent maternal burnout at work and at home we have to start talking honestly about the stress we are facing.

Burnout is real, says the World Health Organization (and mothers everywhere)

You've heard of it and you've probably felt it yourself: Burning out at your job is as unpleasant as it sounds, and now the World Health Organization is calling attention to something that happens to so many mothers.

This week, the WHO made it clear that burnout isn't just a buzzword but a medical condition by listing it as "a syndrome... resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."


The new definition appears in the latest update to the International Classification of Diseases handbook and gives legitimacy to a problem that surveys suggest is impacting as many as 40% of American workers and can have serious consequences not just for those suffering from it, but those around them.

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According to the World Health Organization, burnout results in the following:

1) "Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion"

2) "Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job"

3) "Reduced professional efficacy"

Work-life imbalance, unpredictable schedules, hostile work environments and perceiving your potential for professional growth as limited are all contributors to burnout, and are all factors that impact mothers.

Working moms spend a lot of time trying to limit the conflict between work life and family life in a culture that often demands work weeks of upwards of 50 hours but also expects mothers to spend more time with their children than previous generations did. And sexual harassment, discrimination against mothers and the so-called "motherhood penalty" are also stressors for many mothers.

We're burnt out, and not just at work.

The WHO stresses that its definition of burnout "refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life," but we do know that parents who do unpaid work full-time are also susceptible to another kind of burnout, parental burnout.

A 2017 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that close to 13% of parents are burned out, and like the professional kind of burnout, parental burnout leaves us exhausted, unsatisfied, and can have a negative impact on the people around us.

So how can moms avoid parental and/or professional burnout?

While self-care is important, it is not a solution to the very serious problem of burnout. Suggestions like bubble baths and manicures are patronizing band-aids that may help a burned out mother feel better for a few minutes but do nothing to take the heat off the beneath-the-surface simmering that is constantly threatening to boil over. Her energy is evaporating faster than she can replenish it. Her mental, physical and financial resources are tapped out.

The mom in the midst of burnout doesn't need to practice self-care, she needs to be cared for and about.

Parental burnout is different from perinatal depression and professional burnout is different from being depressed or disliking your job. Burnout isn't a mood disorder, it's a reaction to being overburdened and unsupported by society.

Motherly's 2019 State of Motherhood survey found 85% of moms don't think society understands or supports them. That's up from 74% last year. Things aren't getting better for moms right now, they're getting worse. Indeed, American mothers may be the most stressed mothers in the western world.

If we want to prevent maternal burnout at work and at home we have to start talking honestly about the stress we are facing.

It's 2019, but our survey found that when it comes to household chores, 61% of millennial moms are carrying most of that responsibility with little help from their partners. Surveys suggest that dads want to be doing more, but feel they can't, in part because of work pressures and a workplace culture that penalizes men for taking parental leave. This means that fathers are happier at home than moms are, but also don't feel as confident when it comes to parenting.

We need to talk about how work culture is hurting dads, and how that in turn hurts moms. When fathers can have more work-life balance and shoulder more of their partner's mental load, everyone will benefit. And everyone will benefit from family-friendly policies that millennial moms are looking for from employers.

Our State of Motherhood survey found that mothers want paid maternity leave and on-site childcare or childcare subsidies (21%), followed by flexible schedules or and remote work opportunities. They believe these things would increase their quality of life and they are right.

Research suggests that paid parental leave, shorter work days and flexible work arrangements aren't just good for moms—they're good for employees in general and result in a healthier, more efficient workforce.

This is cold comfort if you are working in an office where long work weeks and midnight emails are the norm, but know that you can get help. Take a mental health day or a sick day if you can, and see your doctor and/or a therapist before making any rash decisions. Consider talking to your manager or HR, if possible. With the WHO recognizing that burnout is the result of unmanaged workplace stress, smart employers will want to take steps to manage stress, and even smarter ones will end up with great employees whose burnout went unaddressed elsewhere.

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