Do You Know the Signs of Burnout in Women?

At the end of your rope? Read this first.

Medically reviewed in June 2020

Are you exhausted from stress and pressure at work? Have you become pessimistic about your everyday? Do you feel like you just aren’t effective, no matter what you do?

If you’re nodding your head vigorously, you may be suffering from burnout. While much of the research on burnout has been conducted with people in certain high-risk occupations—like police officers, physicians and caregivers—anyone can experience burnout, and it can affect wellbeing. Studies on the health effects of burnout in women have found an association between it and inflammation, for example, which is associated with serious conditions like heart disease.

In May 2019, evidence of the health effects associated with burnout prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to re-classify it from a "life management difficulty" to a problem associated with employment. It's now defined in greater detail and included as an "occupational phenomenon" in its handbook of medical diagnoses, known as the ICD-11, which guides healthcare providers around the world. The updated handbook describes burnout as a syndrome that results from unmanaged job-related stress, which can lead to exhaustion, cynicism and loss of job efficacy. 

Burnout is primarily a work-related phenomenon, and shouldn’t be applied to other life situations, according to the WHO. But this condition could be exacerbated by today’s lack of clearly defined boundaries between work and our private lives. Additional life stressors, such as not saving enough for retirement, having crippling debt and caring simultaneously for children and aging parents can also make burnout even worse.

Burnout in women
There are factors for burnout specific to women, explains Erin Young, MD, a primary care physician at Mercy Health in Walker, Michigan. Task-oriented, manual work—like assembly line work, for instance—is associated with an increased risk of burnout. So is lower socioeconomic status. Often, these workers have little control over their jobs or ability to participate in decision-making, which can contribute to burnout.

Education, on the other hand, may be preventive. “Women with higher levels of education are less likely to experience burnout,” Dr. Young says, though women in competitive or particularly rigorous fields, such as medicine or law, may be at increased risk.

Men and women both experience burnout, just in different ways, says Young. Men are more likely to feel burned out if they have problems at home that they perceive interfere with work. Women are just the opposite. “Women experience burnout when their work-life stress interferes with their home life,” Young says.

Regarding age, Young says women in their 30s and 40s are most at risk, and the risk generally decreases as women get older. This makes sense. Women in this age range face those additional life stressors—like childcare, aging parents and money concerns—at the same time they are trying to establish themselves in a career. Some studies, however, have found burnout to be common before age 30, while others suggest it’s high before retirement.

Signs of burnout
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It creeps up on you over time as the result of chronic stress. The good news is that by recognizing the symptoms, you can prevent it from escalating.

Researchers have identified three hallmark signs of burnout. They occur on a continuum and usually worsen the longer the stress persists.

Exhaustion: “Women experience exhaustion first,” says Young. “No matter what you do, you feel tired.” In addition to extreme fatigue, exhaustion can also manifest as insomnia or impaired concentration. In fact, sleep—or lack thereof—is a critical contributing factor to burnout.

Exhaustion can exhibit physical symptoms as well, including chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, headaches, loss of appetite, anxiety and depression.

Cynicism: Loss of enjoyment, pessimism, isolation and detachment are classic symptoms of cynicism. Over time, it may significantly disrupt work and family.

Feelings of inefficacy: This goes back to that feeling that you’re no longer effective at what you do, which can devolve into apathy, lack of productivity and poor work performance. “When women move through the symptoms of burnout until they reach inefficacy, they usually start to realize they are burnout, but not until that point,” Young says.

Interestingly, Young adds, when men are burned out, they experience cynicism first, then exhaustion. However, they don’t typically report feelings of inefficacy.

Preventing burnout
“In women, the most important thing is to recognize the stages of burnout and when you start to see them, to step in and take action, rather than waiting to go all the way through to the inefficacy stage,” Young says.

A lot of work stress does not necessarily lead to burnout. According to an assessment of 35 chief medical officers, workers with high levels of emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-management and empathy, for example—cope better with burnout. This is in part because they remain calm, look for solutions to their stressors, are willing to recognize their limitations and ask for help. They are also careful not to cause or worsen their stress by anticipating imagined future stressful experiences. If you start recognizing the signs of burnout in yourself, reach out to your colleagues and rely on them for support.

Being connected is also critical, Young says. “Social support has the biggest impact on burnout, even more so than counseling and treating anxiety and depression.” Having close friends and family members who are supportive, and whom you can talk to, is important.

If possible, choose a career that doesn’t have some of the risk factors for burnout. Young says, “Go back to school and advance your education if you can.”

Finally, pause to breathe in moments of stress—it really does help—and make sure you get enough sleep.

Not sure if you’re burned out? Take the Maslach Burnout Inventory, multiple versions of which are available online. It’s the most commonly used tool to self-assess your risk for burnout.

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