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Coping with mommy burnout

July 29, 2021 | UCI Health
More than half of working moms are experiencing symptoms of burnout, according to a recent poll.
“Working moms are burdened with the multiple stressors of the pandemic and in many cases are lacking sufficient support," says Dr. Leslie Tarver. "It’s important for them to be alert to the symptoms of burnout, which can be both physical and emotional.”

The pandemic has been tough on everyone. Especially hard hit have been working moms who already were doing too much before COVID-19. And they’re burning out in record numbers.

More than half of working moms are experiencing symptoms of burnout, according to a recent poll conducted by CNBC and SurveyMonkey.

It’s little wonder so many are tapped out — they’ve long done double duty, working inside and outside the home. During the pandemic, many women had to quit their jobs or take a leave of absence. Others who could work from home, found themselves juggling their job duties with supervising their children's online classes and homework — a challenging proposition for those with multiple kids in simultaneous classes.

Add to that the need to prepare three meals and snacks every day and find creative ways to help housebound youngsters let off steam with physical activities that used to happen on playgrounds and you have the perfect recipe for burnout.

Child psychiatrist Leslie Tarver, MD, MPH, medical director the UCI Health Adolescent Intensive Outpatient and Adolescent Partial Hospitalization programs, says the constant juggling of so many home and work responsibilities takes a physical, mental and emotional toll. 

“Working moms today are at significant risk of burnout,” Tarver says. “They are burdened with the multiple stressors of the pandemic and in many cases are lacking sufficient support. It’s important for them to be on the lookout for the symptoms of burnout, which can be both physical and emotional.”

Recognize the signs

Tarver says key symptoms of burnout include:

  • Exhaustion — Feeling so physically, emotionally and mentally fatigued that you believe you have nothing left to give
  • Depersonalization — Feeling unmotivated, cynical, detached and disconnected from others
  • Lacking a sense of accomplishment — Feeling unproductive and ineffective
  • Poor self-care — Being unable to do what’s needed to preserve or improve your own physical and emotional health

Other signs may include:

  • Tiredness
  • Poor sleep
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Mood changes
  • Negative attitudes
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Decreased productivity
  • Physical symptoms including headaches, stomachaches, chest tightness, or hair loss

Pandemic hit women disproportionately

Even before the pandemic, working mothers were 28% more likely to experience burnout than fathers. Now more than ever the majority of the housework, schoolwork and emotional support of children is falling to moms.

When schools stopped in-person classes and many childcare providers closed last year, at least one parent had to be at home to ensure that their children’s critical educational and developmental needs were met.

While 55% of parents surveyed have transitioned to working from home during the pandemic, a majority of them also report that they have help with childcare help so they can do their jobs. But of those parents working from home without childcare, 56% report having difficult successfully navigating work and their expanded parenting duties.

Four times more women than men left the workforce entirely during the pandemic. When they do return to work, nearly 60% of those polled believe they’ll have a challenging time  catching up professionally with male co-workers who were able to focus on their jobs uninterrupted.

Coping with burnout

Tarver, herself, has felt the pressures of caring for patients who are experiencing worsening mental health symptoms during the lockdown while also caring for her children. She says it's critical that women get help and support to better cope with the stress.

She offers these suggestions:

  • Be honest and talk it out with people you trust. Once burnout takes hold, people tend to retreat and become isolated. Reach out to family, friends and counselors before that happens. Seek virtual help from a therapist or support group.
  • Ask for help. Ask your partner for more help with household chores and parenting tasks. Tap your network of family and friends and seek additional childcare resources. Talk with your manager and co-workers about increased flexibility and strategies to manage your workload.
  • Create routines. Work and life responsibilities have melded together during the pandemic, especially for those who also are working from home. Keep a consistent routine that includes both working time and downtime with your family.
  • Schedule "me" time. Give yourself time each day to decompress, get away from the work or school screen, and move around.
  • Set boundaries. Learn to say no or find alternatives.
    “Something as simple as asking to shift a work meeting to a different time or day, if necessary, or requesting to connect through a short phone call instead of a Zoom session, can relieve your stress,” Tarver says.
  • Monotask instead of multitask. Rather than berate yourself for not doing more, accept that you can’t do everything. Resist the urge to multitask and allow yourself to be present in what you’re doing in the moment, be it spending time with your kids or catching up with a friend or colleague.
    “Sometimes even the pressure of trying to get exercise can make matters worse when it feels like just one more thing on the to do list,” she says. “People feel guilty for failing to meet another goal.”
  • Lower expectations. Focus on the basics like getting a good night’s sleep, going for a short walk or having a few minutes of quiet time as more restorative methods of self-care.

Burnout can be a precursor for depression, Tarver says. If you find that your mood is persistently sad or irritable for at least two weeks, if you’re sleeping and eating too much or too little, and you feel hopeless or worthless, you might be experiencing depression. If you have these symptoms, talk to your doctor and seek support from a therapist or mental health professional.

Above all, if you are contemplating self harm, get help immediately. Tell a loved one, call 911, call your doctor, go the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Navigating the new “normal”

When widespread COVID-19 vaccinations made it possible for state and local health officials to relax masking and physical distancing for a time this summer, families began traveling again, visiting relatives and returning to favorite activities.

However, a recent surge of COVID-19 cases linked to the more virulent Delta strain of the coronavirus has prompted guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume masking when in indoor places that are public, even for those who have been vaccinated because they, too, can spread the virus.

The more contagious Delta strain also is hitting children and younger adults harder than it's predecessors. But no vaccine has been approved for use in children under age 12.

Still, parents remain hopeful that schools will be able reopen in the fall so their kids can learn from trained educators and socialize with their friends and peers. If so, many of the stressors on working moms may ease up, too.

Even so, Tarver says, we'll all need to pace ourselves for this new and uncertain normal.

“What we have been through this year is significant and it has taken a toll on our physical and emotional health," she says. "It’s going to take time for people to recover and adjust back to normal activities. Remember there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Do what feels right for you. Ultimately, prioritizing your own mental health has a positive impact on the whole family.”