Young, female and stressed? Pull the plug before you burn out

Depression and anxiety among young people is now at an 80-year high

Bad habits like finishing work at home can quickly develop. Photograph: iStockphoto

Bad habits like finishing work at home can quickly develop. Photograph: iStockphoto


‘Mad busy”, “crazy busy”, “completely manic”. These are the go-to answers I hear, and give, when faced with questions about general wellbeing. More often than not the answer is accompanied by a “you know the way it is” facial expression, eyebrows raised. Because if I’m with my friends, they usually do.

For many women in their 20s, working hard is currency. Having entered the job market mid-recession, hard work is all they’ve known; it was the only way to get a foot in the door, and it has been the only way to keep it there. Many have succeeded in securing dream jobs, but are running so fast on the work treadmill to remain, there is a danger of falling off.

Being “busy” has replaced being “grand” or even being “well”. There is just too much to do. Among my peers, being “stressed” is far more commonplace than being “fine”. Knowing that, the emerging trend of women “burning out” before they reach even 30 is not surprising.

A McKinsey study shows that, on average, women account for 53 per cent of corporate entry-level jobs, but hold only 37 per cent of mid-management roles, and 26 per cent of president and senior manager roles. It is a fact that young women are leaving the workplace. Some may argue that this is due to starting families, but a Harvard study has shown that only 11 per cent of women leave work permanently for this purpose. The same study showed that rather than women’s careers ending due to family priorities, they were ending because they were “less satisfied with their careers than men”.

High expectations

Young women in work are faced with high expectations, placed on them by management, family, friends and, indeed, by themselves. Naoise Kavanagh, online communications manager from, says “a lot of young women we speak to tell us about huge pressures they experience. They feel they have to aim for perfection in every area of the lives, including work. There is this expectation to constantly achieve better and more.”

My friends and I have no children, have reasonable jobs and have very few practical problems in our lives and yet anxiety seems omnipresent. We are hungry for more, and to be better. We want the rise, more recognition and more responsibility. But we also want glossy hair, no eye bags and a “strong” body.

The week is for work and weekends involve harsh gym sessions or “Zen” yoga classes squeezed in between “the little bit of extra work” on the side. In an attempt to calm our anxious minds and achieve the perfect life/work balance, we go to yoga, mindfulness and meditation, boxing, swimming and Pilates. But for what?

Depression and anxiety among young people is now at an 80-year high, according to research by Jean Twenge, a social psychologist and author of Generation Me: Why today’s young American’s are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable than ever before. Twenge says “the research tells us that modern life is not good for mental health”.

Kavanagh says “young people feel that they have to have the perfect job, a job that they love, not just a job to survive. This is a huge change to just 30 years ago.”

“Grand” is just not good enough anymore, so young people take on more and soon become overwhelmed.

Several studies have shown that women feel the pressures of stress more than men, both inside and outside of the workplace. One such study, looking at the burnout rates among journalists through gender socialisation theory, found that “women experience significantly higher rates of role overload, or feel that they are unable to complete their assigned duties in the work time allowed”.

Perhaps because of this, women do not look after themselves at work, putting their job above their own wellbeing. According to the Captivate Network, men are 25 per cent more likely to take breaks throughout the working day for personal activities, 7 per cent more likely to take a walk, 5 per cent more likely to go out to lunch, and 35 per cent more likely to take breaks “just to relax”.

No boundaries

And it is not just at work that we are over-working.

“Young women find it especially difficult to set boundaries,” says Farrell. “Bad habits like finishing work at home can quickly develop.” In a modern workplace these boundaries are particularly hard to set, especially with the constantly connected nature of business now. “Lines are very blurred these days. FOMO [fear of missing out] is very real and relates to work as much as play. Young people are always on, always available and the technology they use supports that.”

There can be a tremendous temptation to check and reply to emails when out of work, leading to a 24/7 work day that is most certainly not balanced. The way millennials work is different. “In a few generations, when management understands the changing nature of the way young people are working, there will be more flexibility,” says Farrell. For now though, time will be spent swapping recommendations for the best app with which to unwind your mind (Insight Timer or Headspace), the newest superfood to eat truck loads of (matcha powder) and the best concealer with which to cover those bags (Nars radiant creamy concealer).

Maybe it’s time to take it a little easier on yourselves out there.

Tips on how to avoid burnout

Take breaks during the work day: Step away from your computer and take a walk. Have lunch away from your desk. Put away your digital devices: Actively limit your use of digital devices after hours. Place your smartphone in a drawer when you arrive home so you’re not tempted to pick it up.

Do something interesting: Instead of concentrating on limiting or avoiding work in your off hours, focus on an “approach” goal, such as making plans to play tennis with a friend or cooking a meal. Studies also indicate that doing an activity you find interesting is better for you than simply relaxing. Take long weekends every now and then: A break from work need not be a two-week holiday.

Make sure it’s really burnout: If none of these strategies works, you could be dealing with something more serious. Is your manager giving you what you need to work at your best? If not, you may need a different position.

Is the very nature of your work sapping your energy? If so, you may need to rethink your career.

Source: Harvard Business Review 2015