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Dealing with burnout as a working mother

 By Dr Thong Jiunn Yew

Consultant Psychiatrist

Nobel Psychological Wellness Centre


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 environment, heavy workload and multiple commitments, but these reactions are usually not as severe and persistent.

In burnout, individuals tend to be subjected to continuous stress and hence exhibit more severe symptoms that last longer. There are a few main symptoms: Firstly, the person may feel exhausted. She feels very drained, tired and experience difficulty coping with work or children. Secondly, she may feel resentful or numb towards her job and colleagues, become negative, cynical and lose enthusiasm in work. She may also feel frustrated with her children, and lose control of her temper. Performance in work may drop.

How common is burnout in working mothers?

Working mothers may have 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 caring 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 women’s responsibility. Similarly, single mothers are also at higher risk of burnout due to 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. The increased effort to achieve these overly high standards results in increased stress and creates disappointment if not achieved.

Also, mothers with pre-existing mental health conditions like depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorder are at 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 bring 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 counsellors are also helpful.

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

Burnout symptoms may resemble or develop into more serious mental illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders. Mothers should seek professional help if the symptoms are severe and interfering with work performance and relationships.

For example, some mothers may experience low drive and energy, and hence not be able to go to work. Some may experience extreme resentfulness towards their children and become more easily triggered to hit them out of impulsiveness and frustration. There may be marital conflicts.

Insomnia is another common symptom and adversely affects the person’s function and quality of life. Seeking help from a professional can help to distinguish normal stress or mild burnout from more severe conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorders. It is important to distinguish these conditions because 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.

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