The perception that women can ‘do it all’—or want to do it all—can be detrimental to mental health and career growth.
Back in the 1940s, Rosie the Riveter was the nation’s premiere poster girl. Rosie—with her stoic face, strong, flexed arm and clenched fist—was an empowering symbol for a generation of women joining the workforce during World War II. She helped women everywhere recognize the role they could play in improving their families, communities and nation. Fast forward 80 years and women are leading the charge in companies and organizations around the world.
But with that drive often comes the tendency for women to overburden themselves with myriad tasks that may not be beneficial to their careers or at home. What does that mean for employers? If your top staff volunteers—especially women—start missing deadlines or stop responding to requests, they’ve probably overextended themselves and are burned out. That can have real consequences in the workplace, not to mention a huge impact on the employee’s mental health.
“According to Gallup, employees who are burnt out are 2.6 times more likely to be searching for a new job,” reports Business.com. “Meanwhile, Limeade found that 40% of workers leave their jobs due to burnout—and many of them do so without even having another role lined up.”
Some additional food for thought from the Business.com report:
“Managers who saddle their employees with responsibilities beyond the scope of what they were hired for are setting those team members up for exhaustion and inefficiency. Adding unrelated assignments can disrupt workflow, increase frustration and lead to more hours on the job. Workers can get overwhelmed, focus on the wrong tasks and, ultimately, burn out.”
According to Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC, CEO/chief leadership consultant at CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence, women have traditionally been conditioned in our society to be helpful and supportive. While these are great traits, this conditioning often manifests in the work environment by women either being assigned extra tasks or volunteering for “supportive” tasks—while still doing their “real” jobs.
“Research shows that women tend to take on—or are assigned—non-promotable tasks. This can be challenging because many of these tasks are important to the organization and need to be done, but [they] can have an adverse effect on women’s careers since these ‘extras’ are not typically considered when making promotion decisions,” Maddalena says. “In addition, women are typically the leaders most often providing emotional support in the workplace, more than men. This also takes time and energy and adds to the other job responsibilities.”
The mental load or invisible labor of women at home also impacts women’s workplace roles in different ways. CUES member Soma Sarkar, CCE, EVP/COO at $425 million Credit Union of New Jersey, Ewing, says the invisible labor for a woman at home is different from invisible labor at work. At home, a woman plays various roles—a grandmother, mother, wife, daughter or sister, for example.
“There are different types of responsibilities tied to each role,” notes Sarkar. “Woman are raised to mentally think we must do this for our family, relatives, etc. We are raised with a sense of belonging. So now that we are mentally trained to take on invisible labor, we carry that attitude into work. We will always volunteer to help decorate, organize parties, etc.—tasks that are not part of a required job description. Even if we have an event planner at work, woman always like to step forward to help.”
Maria Martinez, president/CEO at $224 million Border Federal Credit Union, Del Rio, Texas, says it’s very common for a woman to multitask without even thinking about it.
“Most of us don’t see this as a burden but as the natural thing to do, because we have accustomed our brain and body to do it,” observes Martinez, a CUES member. “We developed this skill while growing up, and when we enter the workforce it’s almost impossible for us to slow down. We take on additional responsibilities because we trust ourselves to get things done. It’s not that we don’t trust others, but being in control gives us the capability of modifying a task if needed.”
Martinez joined the workforce in her late teens while regularly being involved in extracurricular activities. She then graduated from college, got a job and became a wife and a mom—and her role of multitasker climbed to an even higher level.
“But nobody told me to do more; to me, it just came naturally,” Martinez says. “It’s almost like your family is now giving you that extra energy to do more. They feed your soul and motivate you to do more.”
However, Martinez notes that when someone is multitasking, they often have to figure out how not to get overwhelmed and off track.
Companies and organizations have a role to fill when it comes to handling the “invisible,” non-promotional tasks that women tend to take on simultaneously with their “real” work.
Sarkar says non-promotable tasks benefit the organization more than it benefits the women doing them.
“It is not part of the job description, but somehow women are expected to step up, and in some cases, women volunteer to get the non-promotional tasks done,” Sarkar says. “Equally distributing the non-promotable tasks among both men and women would be helpful to consider.”
Sarkar advises organizations to create a survey to find out who is doing most of the non-promotable tasks and then strive to assign tasks to a diversified group of people, both men and women. She also suggests organizations allocate and prioritize time and resources adequately so that employees are not expected to multitask and juggle invisible work with regular responsibilities and home life.
“Provide work/life balance trainings to all employees. There needs to be down-time built into the schedule, whether at work or home, to take breaks,” Sarkar adds.
According to Maddalena, organizations also need to understand that this is not a small issue: How these non-promotable tasks have been traditionally distributed has had an impact on women’s promotability and contributes to the gender pay gap. That’s why, she says, organizations need to bring awareness to the impact and create structures to ensure tasks are assigned more equitably.
Maddalena suggests several ways organizations can approach this:
- Train leaders to be purposeful when assigning these types of tasks. Senior leaders and managers should be trained to understand the impact of these tasks on women and be more intentional about distributing non-promotable tasks.
- Larger initiatives that are important to the organization—for example, DEI—should be built into job descriptions and key result areas of the appropriate positions. Work in these areas should then be considered promotable tasks for those positions. Meaning, companies need to rethink the importance of initiatives that support the organizational culture; working on such initiatives should be prioritized and valued when employees are being considered for promotions.
- If possible, assign non-promotable tasks to support roles like an administrative assistant. Tasks such as parties, birthday recognition, taking notes in meetings and so on can be built into the job description of a supportive role, thereby taking the pressure off managers and leaders to add these extra tasks to their—or their team members’—workloads.
- Weigh resources. In Maddalena’s experience, many leaders are overwhelmed because companies expect more from people today—and the workload is often not reasonable. Senior organizational leaders need to understand that leadership positions have evolved, and organizations may require more support positions so leaders can focus on the most important impact areas.
Organizations—especially community-minded organizations like credit unions—should pay attention to activity outside the office or traditional job responsibilities when hiring or promoting staff. Candidates who take such initiative can be a great asset to the organization, Martinez explains.
“People who are actively involved in their community or who perform extracurricular activities can be more productive,” Martinez says. “An active mind is an indication that the person has a love for life and for personal growth, and therefore, professional growth.”
What Women Can Do
While organizations certainly have a role to fill in making non-promotional tasks more equitable, women must advocate for themselves.
“Women also need to learn to say ‘no’ and not always volunteer for the non-promotional tasks,” Sarkar says. “Be realistic, take on what you can handle, create a work-life balance.
“You do not need to work long hours or extra hours,” she adds. “Make a list of things and prioritize your list, … as we have other responsibilities outside work too. Delegate what you cannot do or do not need to do. It is OK to say ‘no’ or push back a little. Don’t feel the pressure of being called someone who is ‘not being a team player.’”
Martinez likewise stresses that women shouldn’t overcommit. They need to regularly analyze all of their tasks, prioritize and be ready to say “no” in order to avoid feeling burdened.
“If you feel burdened by the role or extra tasks you are performing, then stop and examine your options and then slowly release those tasks that are burdening you,” Martinez says. “Don’t overcommit, and if you do, then be able to admit your overcommitment and ask for help, step down or delegate to others, if possible.”
“Coach Ellyn” Schinke, MS, burnout coach and speaker, says boundaries are a massive component of what women can do to avoid taking on too much. However, before you can set boundaries that keep you from overload, you have to understand your capacity.
“That’s really the first part of all of this. Burnout cannot be overcome without self-awareness, and for most women, they’re not aware of what their capacity truly is. It’s as simple as checking in with yourself each and every week and asking, ‘How did this amount of work feel? Was it manageable or was it too much? What made it unmanageable?’” Schinke says. “Once you know the answers to these questions, you know when you do and do not need to say ‘no.’”
Organizations can take steps to help women strategically prioritize their workload and figure out when to say “no” to non-promotable tasks. But first, Sarkar suggests, the equity and empowerment of women should be factored into the strategic vision and goals of the organization.
“Gender diversity and equity are critical to … the cultural enhancement of female employees,” Sarkar says. “More and more women are looking for flexibility, and that is not the topmost priority for all the companies. Women are still significantly underrepresented in leadership roles; very few women hold C-suite positions.”
At the senior leadership level, Maddalena says, “organizations should strategically determine what are key initiatives and ensure tasks outside of those key areas are not automatically given to women.”
At the team and employee level, communication is key to the strategic prioritization of tasks. It seems so simple, Schinke says, but it’s important to communicate with your employees and truly listen to their feedback.
“I hear all the time about organizations whose leaders have the most tremendous vision for the company and keep coming up with new directions and priorities for their organizations. However, their employees pay the price with more projects and initiatives to balance than they have the time and bandwidth for,” Schinke says. “One of my favorite quotes about overwhelm is, ‘Overwhelm isn’t having too much to do; it’s not knowing where to start.’ The best thing you can do for your employees is listen to them and make it very clear to them where they should be starting. This will remove the uncertainty and lack of clarity that can waste so much time and bandwidth.”
Before you add a new strategic initiative, Schinke advises leaders to get a pulse on how your organization is feeling. Are they already overloaded? Or do they have the capacity for more? If they don’t have room for more, for the sake of a happy workforce, consider either waiting or removing something from their already full plates. And if they do have room for more, make it very clear to your organization where this new task fits in the grand scheme of things.
There are cultural changes that organizations can make to minimize multitasking by women both in the office and while working from home. Schinke notes that creating cultural change requires more than just saying what you want your employees to do. Rather, it’s about modeling what you want your employees to do, especially among your leaders.
“If you don’t want your employees to be working late and responding in the evenings, make sure your leaders aren’t working late and aren’t sending emails in the evenings. If you want your employees to be taking lunches and not working through their lunch, make sure your leaders are modeling it,” Schinke says. “There is also something to cultural accountability. Could your organization or teams set up Slack channels where leaders could facilitate subtle reminders to their direct reports to take breaks? To take their lunch? To make sure their team is logging off at a reasonable time?” These subtle nudges, done consistently, not only show employees that it’s OK to do these things but also reinforce that this is the expectation organization-wide.
Martinez reiterates the importance of prioritization to prevent overwhelm, stay on schedule and accomplish all assigned tasks.
“In the end, you have to move to the top of your list the things that will improve your life and career. If your interest is to be at the top of your organization, then you may want to take a look at all the things that you’re doing and devote your time to your success,” Martinez says. “We must take control of our tasks, not the other way around.” cues icon
Based in Minneapolis, Maura Keller frequently covers financial, legal, medical and other topics for regional and national publications.