Is burnout gendered?

Foto von Tangerine Newt auf Unsplash

The job market is majorly responsible for burnout experience for adults – the feeling of chronic exhaustion, cynical attitude, and lack of efficacy are specific to the work context. 

When you are burned out, you will experience the unwillingness to go to work, a general inadequacy at work, and a feeling that you are drowning in job-related matters. No amount of rest is enough, you will feel this internal tiredness and a lack of motivation. All of us have probably experienced some level of job burnout in our lives. For people who have experienced this, it is only natural to find out that studies have shown that higher job burnout is directly linked to absenteeism, turnover rate, and even physical health condition.

Job burnout is a complex concept and involves many factors such as resources and demands at work. Job resources are things that boost one’s ability to deal with stress, such as one’s belief in their power to change the environment. On the other hand, job demands are things that worsen one’s ability to deal with stress, such as heavy workload and role conflict. However, besides the basic demands and resources, it is also important to understand how an individual’s received social expectation interacts with resources and demands. Gender’s crucial role in job burnout research comes into play when social expectation is accounted for in work settings. Currently, our labor market is both horizontally and vertically gender-segregated, meaning that men are occupying higher and more agentic job positions compared to women and gender minorities. Like the Social Role Theory by Eagly and Wood ( 2002) suggests, the gender-segregated job market consolidates gender stereotypes surrounding workplaces, and those gender stereotypes then feed into creating different social expectations in terms of gender roles: women belong to homes (i.e., caregiving responsibilities) and men belong to workplaces (i.e., economic responsibilities). 

Humans are social creatures, each of us lives within a certain society that has its own constructs, norms, and facilities. To be able to adapt to and be accepted by society, we try to conform to the norms. Consequently, people of different gender identities will have different bundles of expectations and responsibilities strapped to them, making their burnout mechanisms differ from one another. 

The reality is that people of different gender identities will have different burnout experiences, maybe different resource functions, too. One resource might be crucial in preventing job burnout for one group of people but not the rest, and this is also how demands work. Maslach and Leiter (1985) found that having children and partners was negatively related to job burnout – they found that employees with children scored lower on all three aspects of job burnout than employees who didn’t have any children. They offered several post hoc explanations to this finding, but a study that looks at the relationship between gender and resources such as being a parent is still rare till today. In this case, since women and men are expected to take up different responsibilities, it is foreseeable that “being a parent” will have different influences on women and men. Understanding the difference will enrich our knowledge on how gender, social expectation, gender roles, and job burnout influence each other. Being a parent may serve as a resource for women because it is an identity that is closely related to women’s expected social role as a homemaker. Similarly, having higher income — taking up more economic responsibilities – may serve as a resource for men as it is expected for a man to be able to do so. 

The answer to whether burnout is a gendered experience is clear now. It is. Yet, a study that focuses specifically on how the interaction between gender and social role may influence people’s burnout experience is still needed for understanding how job resource and demand mechanisms differ by gender, and this will be the next step in creating more diverse and equal workplaces all over the world.

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