Having it All, Hold the Burnout

by Megan Dreher & Shannon GlebaEditor-in-Chief & Staff Writer

It’s 2019, and working women are tired.

Unions fought with vigor for the 9 to 5 work day, with attention to at least one day of leisure and rest. Time has passed, technology has evolved and we are still working. But, we seem to be giving more into our work, and it’s showing in ways that are not rewarding.

Merriam-Webster defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” This depleting feeling is all too common amongst working individuals, but is also deeply gendered in that women are taking on tasks both in their personal and professional lives with little time to care for the self. It leaves women with an important, looming question to answer: is it possible to have it all— the social life, the family and the well-established career?

On Wednesday, October 23, the Women in Business and the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center (LWGRC) partnered to sponsor a discussion with Jordan Pascoe, Ph.D., professor of philosophy and co-director of the LWGRC. Conversation centered on the topic of burnout and balance for women. During the event, titled “Slow Burn: Women, Work, and Relationships” Pascoe discussed her personal journey of burnout— being the only female in her graduate school program, meeting her husband, getting married, having children, all while establishing herself within her career.

“What it taught me was that I had to keep up all of my defenses all of the time. I had to perform perfect competence in every single part of my life for everyone. Perfect parenting for everyone who thought I wasn’t a real parent because I was a step parent. I had to perform being excellent as a teacher and as a philosopher for everyone I knew in graduate school and the teaching world. And I also had to perform for all of the female mentors in my life who were regularly telling me that there was no way I could possibly do it all, and I had to make different choices. So I got really, really good at taking on more than any one person should,” said Pascoe.

Unfortunately, life does not stop while trying to perfect the constants in ones life. Pascoe’s home flooded three times over the course of a year, causing added stress and instability. She continued to teach, parent, and just “hold on” in an effort to do everything perfectly. That is, until she realized with the help of a colleague that failure is inevitable, so she had to pick what things she could fail at.

“I could not fail as a parent. I could not fail in my marriage. But I could fail at other stuff. I could fail at cooking. I could fail at cleaning. I could fail at being well dressed. All of this reminded me that resilience is a practice, it’s not something that you could store up and bank and then draw from in tough times. It’s something you do through your relationship with yourself and other people,” said Pascoe.

It was when Pascoe felt most broken and burnt out that she realized the need to say yes to accepting help from others.

“This semester, I’m trying not to be so very competent at everything. I’m trying not to expect exhaustion from myself, and I’m asking for help. I’m trying to remember that what needs to guide me through these sorts of decisions is not a constant need to prove myself to everybody, but rather a genuine sense of commitment and joy,” said Pascoe.

Similar to the sentiments of Pascoe, professor of religious studies Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., also finds herself trying to avoid burnout, something she has seen her colleagues and students experience all too often.

“I have colleagues that have left tenure track jobs behind due to the overwhelming pressures to produce and be productive at all times. I think this particularly affects students who have been pressured to accumulate extracurricular activities and accomplishments in order to “stand out” on college and other applications. If you compound these habits with the performative culture of social media, where we do things for “likes” and “follows,” it can lead to a feeling of always being under pressure to perform or produce good, happy, interesting content. But the price of that is often balance, and what suffers is our mental health,” said Imperatori-Lee.

The balance of building a family is exceptionally hard for women in any professional career. The unpredictable process can be taxing for women, especially when they are expected to maintain proficiency in their work. Imperatori-Lee echoed this sentiment.

“I think if a woman is hoping to start a family, being aware that 1. it’s not easy to get and stay pregnant for everyone and 2. pregnancy can have major, major health complications can help in terms of expectations management. When I was an undergrad I thought people decided to “have a baby” and then in a year or so they had a baby. But my experience, as well as that of an overwhelming majority of my friends, is that it is WAY more complicated than that. Having a good support system, including a partner with similar goals and values, who is willing to share the significant workload of the family/career matrix, is vital. Having a family and a career is very much like running a small business in addition to whatever your job is, and the more hands you can have on deck for that the better it is,” said Imperatori-Lee.

While burnout most definitely impacts many women in all fields, Imperatori-Lee has found some ways to find a balance between both her career in academia, and her personal life.

When asked what advice she would give college-aged women entering the workforce, Imperatori-Lee said, “Make peace with not doing everything as well as you had thought you could. I’m a big fan of choosing what to fail at. Women especially are pressured to look and act effortlessly perfect, and that is just not physically possible. So being kind to yourself, and reminding yourself that you would not judge a friend for a messy house or a wrinkled shirt, is an important skill to develop early on.”

Senior Chemical Engineering major, Kerry Cavanaugh, is preparing herself for the workforce. As someone who was heavily involved on campus over her four years at Manhattan, she is hopeful that the burnout she has experienced as an undergraduate will not translate to the same degree in the professional world.

“Burnout is always in the back of my head. Having experienced it in my undergraduate career, I am very aware of what it feels like, and aim to prevent it from happening more often. Coming into the workforce, I feel like it’ll be a little bit easier because I’ll have less things to balance, and can focus on just one area,” said Cavanaugh.

Like Pascoe and Imperatori-Lee, Cavanaugh agrees that it is important to schedule time for yourself to find joy. Even the smallest breaks can be restorative, and prevent burnout for women who are showing how strong, independent, and powerful they can be.

“As ridiculous as it sounds, sometimes it takes blocking out time in my Google Calendar as ‘Free’ to remind myself to take a breath. Even if it’s 15-20 minutes to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, it’s so important to step aside from what’s stressing you out. Because I don’t always have time for an hour long break, I try to make the most of those shorter blocks of time. It’s all about finding joy and happiness in the smallest of things,” said Cavanaugh.