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17 August 2022

Dealing with burnout as a working mother

 By Dr Thong Jiunn Yew

Consultant Psychiatrist

Nobel Psychological Wellness Centre

overstressed mother at work

Working mothers wear many different hats, and this can lead to stress and burnout. We’re talking about burnout and some commonly asked questions about this phenomenon.

What is burnout? How does it differ from stress, or having a breakdown?

There is no formal medical definition of burnout. It is normal for people to feel stressed by changes in the environment, heavy workloads, and multiple commitments, but these reactions are usually not as severe and persistent.

People who have burnout tend to be under constant stress, which makes their symptoms worse and last longer. There are a few main symptoms: Firstly, the person may feel exhausted. She feels very drained, tired and experiences difficulty coping with work or children. Secondly, she may feel resentful or numb towards her job and colleagues, become negative, cynical, and lose enthusiasm for work. She may also feel frustrated with her children, and lose control of her temper. Performance at work may drop.

How common is burnout in working mothers?

Working mothers may have a greater risk of developing burnout if there is little help from their spouses. For example, some mothers still have to do lots of housework and take care of the children (and even elderly members of the household) after returning from work. These mothers receive little help from their husbands, who might also be working late at night or simply choose not to share in the housework. This may be due to the traditional idea that household chores are a woman’s responsibility. Similarly, single mothers are also at higher risk of burnout due to a lack of support.

What other factors contribute to the occurrence of burnout in working mothers?

Besides poor support, as highlighted above, there are other factors that increase the risk of burnout.

One such factor is overly long working hours. Many mothers return home late and still need to be on their laptop to handle work issues. The individual mother’s personality traits also play a part. There are some who are perfectionists and demand high standards both at work and at home. Putting in more work to meet these unrealistically high standards causes more stress and disappointment if they are not met.

Also, mothers with pre-existing mental health conditions like depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety disorder are at an increased risk of burnout and relapse of their conditions.

What practical tips can mothers use to help handle burnout?

A good work-life balance is important. Try not to take work home. Try to reduce over-commitment at work, and have more time to yourself. Be kind to yourself and do not be overly harsh.

Communication is also important. Discuss with your husband how to share housework and childcare. In extreme circumstances that are difficult to change, it helps to re-frame the situation in a more positive way.

And, of course, a healthy diet and regular exercise will keep the mind and body fit and healthy. Talking to loved ones, close friends, members of your own religious group, and counselors is also helpful.

How do you know when it is getting serious, and when mothers should seek professional help?

Burnout symptoms can look like or lead to more serious mental illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders. If the symptoms are severe and getting in the way of work or relationships, mothers should see a doctor.

For example, some mothers may experience low drive and energy, and hence not be able to go to work. Some parents may feel very angry at their kids and be more likely to hit them out of anger or frustration. There may be marital conflicts.

pregnant woman suffering from insomnia

Insomnia is another common symptom that adversely affects the person’s functioning and quality of life. Seeking professional help can help you tell the difference between normal stress or mild burnout and more serious problems like depression and anxiety disorders. It is important to distinguish between these conditions because their treatment is different. A short break from work may help burnout but may not be useful for individuals with depression, who may need medication and/or psychological treatment.