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Recognizing Burnout in Women as We Continue to ‘Lean In’


March is National Women’s History Month, a celebration of women’s achievements and progress in areas such as medicine, economics, technology and politics. It is a time to honor how women’s contributions continue to shift and influence American culture. As more women enter organizations and positions that were once dominated by men, they are faced with a constant balancing act – along with the high demands to excel, compete and succeed in the workplace, women are expected to manage household and caring duties, keep up physical appearances, and strive toward an image of perfection and “having it all.”

While empowering, this ideal can make it difficult for some to seek help when they begin to feel overwhelmed. So as we celebrate women’s history, we should also be vigilant for a silent struggle that many successful women face that can lead to mental health problems – burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined by three factors:

  • Emotional exhaustion: chronic fatigue (feeling tired all day, even after work), low energy, trouble falling or staying asleep, inability to focus on work. Some people may experience physical symptoms, such as headaches or back pain.
  • A lost sense of self: being critical of oneself and others, cynicism, losing empathy toward co-workers and clients, feeling disillusioned
  • A sense of failure: feeling that one has not achieved, doubts about competence, feeling that work in not valued

Women at risk for burnout include those who are isolated in their work, who do not have as much control over their work, or who work in competitive fields, such as medicine, law and corporate management. Moreover, women face pressure to wear multiple hats in the home, working to balance expectations based on stereotypes (childrearing, maintaining intimate relationships) while pursuing a career.

Is burnout different from depression?

The symptoms of burnout overlap with depression, a psychiatric condition characterized by persistent, unremitting sadness and profound loss and interest in things that were once pleasurable. Burnout is considered a form of occupational (or work) stress, while depression can be associated with various settings and can also be influenced by genetics. However, several studies have linked burnout to the emergence of depression, and in some cases burnout has been associated with suicide.

How to manage burnout?

  • Ask for help: Reach out to colleagues to brainstorm ways to delegate work and other responsibilities. Fellow workers can be a source of support. Take time to take care of yourself.
  • Get connected with your family, friends, and other networks. A lack of social support is a risk factor for developing burnout.
  • Consider professional help: When burnout begins to affect work, relationships, and your ability to function, a mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, and counselor) can help. He/she can screen for depression or other mental health problems and can recommend treatment options, such as psychotherapy, and if needed, medication.


About the Author

Chinenye Onyemaechi, M.D.
Third year resident, Department of Psychiatry
University of Maryland Medical Center/Sheppard Pratt


AnxietyDepressionPatients and Families


Comments (1) Add a Comment

  • Beverli Goldberg

    Very concise and well written! I have been a psychiatrist for almost 40 years, and I can attest to the frequency and power of burnout!!


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