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ILLUSTRATION BY MAIA GRECCO

When someone tells Leah Abramson, a Vancouver songwriter and instructor, that she should do more self-care to avoid burnout, “It just feels like one more thing to add to my to-do list.”

In addition to her work duties, Ms. Abramson has a small child and takes care of her aging parents, who recently had to move out of their home. Her weeks are spent caregiving for her daughter, shuttling her parents to medical appointments and using her daughter’s nap time to squeeze in more work hours.

It’s a frantic routine many women can relate to. So overwhelmed trying to keep up with work, life and childcare/caregiving, they are unable to protect their own mental health, leaving them at risk for burnout.

According to a 2021 survey by the Canadian Foundation of Women, 28 per cent of moms say they are struggling to keep up with work demands, 27 per cent are afraid to take time off work for fear of losing their job and 46 per cent say it has been exhausting trying to balance work and childcare responsibilities.

Suggesting women should go for a jog, grab a nap or take a bath with scented candles is not only unhelpful, experts say it places blame on the individual when it is usually the organization or workplace that needs a rework.

A need for more robust supports

Jennifer Moss, author of the book The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, calls suggesting self-care to treat burnout “downstream Band-aids for an issue that requires upstream interventions.”

“When we look at the root causes of chronic stress and actually try to mitigate it, self-care cannot solve it,” Ms. Moss says. “We’re talking about systemic discrimination, lack of fairness, lack of community, lack of agency, overwork – these types of root causes cannot be cured with listening to the rain for 30 seconds or subsidized gym memberships or doing more yoga.”

So, what is helpful as part of burnout prevention?

From a systemic or organizational level, workplaces need to make policy and infrastructure-based changes to ensure women are properly supported.

“The solutions should be more robust paid family leave within organizations, equitable maternity leave and paternity leave, more support for caregivers and more support and encouragement for men to take time to take care of the family without it being disproportionately placed on women.”

Burnout was first recognized as a condition in the 1970s, but it was seen as a workplace problem. One of the issues is that there’s a lot of unpaid work that goes on in the home, from childrearing to housework, the majority of which fall to women. Ms. Moss says that these responsibilities need to be recognized as work by organizations, and in doing so, they should also recognize the unrealistic expectations of the status quo and the need for change.

Running on adrenaline

While burnout is a systemic issue, there are things that women battling stress can do in the moment, to alleviate the physical burden and perhaps prevent full burnout. It has nothing to do with scented candles and yoga, explains Ashley Margeson, a naturopath in Halifax who specializes in burnout prevention and support.

“What burnout really tells us is that there’s something wrong with our environment and we don’t have enough supports,” she says.

Her main suggestion is to get third-party help to prioritize tasks. This could be a family member, partner, co-worker or trusted friend. “When you’re in burnout, you’re running on adrenaline; it’s like you’re running away from a bear and you can’t say, ‘I need to think of a plan [for] what’s the most important thing.’”

As a preventative strategy, make a to-do list and then have that third-party person help you figure out what should be top of the list and what can wait.

“As human beings, we’re not designed to run on adrenaline most of the time,” she says.

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: What’s the best way to ask for a raise? I’m a young woman early in my career, but I feel like the work I am doing is on par with some of the senior people I work with. And I’m pretty sure I make less than they do. Having said that, I generally feel uncomfortable talking about money (it wasn’t something talked about in my house growing up), so I think I need some strategies. Can you help?

We asked Lissa Appiah, certified career and resume strategist and founder of WeApply Canada, to field this one:

One of the first things you want to do is change your mindset regarding money. It will help you to be more confident and recognize why your skills and talent are worth more. You need to convince yourself first before you can convince anyone else! A practical way to do this is to journal about why you are uncomfortable talking about money and facing any fears you may have about it.

Secondly, do your research. You need to understand the process to get raises at your company. You also need a good sense of what the market offers for your role and level of experience. On the Government of Canada Job Bank website, you can use the Trend Analysis tool to compare wages by occupation and city.

Thirdly, it’s important to recognize that the reason you want a raise is not because your colleagues may be earning more, but because you are worth it. You are putting in the time and exceeding expectations; this is why you want a raise. Take the time to prepare for the conversation by writing down your key achievements. Be specific, quantify your achievements and speak to the impact you’ve made. You could also present a document detailing your accomplishments to support the conversation.

Lastly, it’s essential to be mindful of timing – this may include things like the budget cycle, performance reviews or even the mood of your manager.

Most likely, you will not get an answer on the spot, which may mean that you need to be prepared to negotiate. The answer may also be no. If that is the case, set up a time to revisit the conversation and make sure to follow up.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

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