Why Women Are Burning Out at Work Before 30

Gabrielle Karol

Symptom #1: You look forward to your mid-afternoon snack in order to break up your workday.

Symptom #2: You’re critical or impatient with your cubicle-mate.

Symptom #3: You feel like you should be working more efficiently at the office, and that there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Diagnosis? It could be a standard case of the good ol’ Monday blues … or you could be on the path to burnout.

Burnout is a psychological stress syndrome that occurs as a “response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job.” Besides feelings of excessive stress, burnout can ruin personal relationships and cause fatigue, insomnia, depression and anxiety.

What’s worse? It may be spreading through Gen Y women like wildfire.

What’s Going On

Larissa Faw, a Forbes writer, claims that burnout among under-30 women is pandemic.  Pointing to McKinsey research, she writes that while 53% of entry-level corporate jobs go to women, they make up only 37% of mid-management and just 26% go on to become vice-presidents and senior managers. Meanwhile, men are twice as likely to advance at every stage.

The culprit? Faw says that women may “have simply reached their breaking point after spending their childhoods developing well-rounded résumés.” Additionally, many women may have had unrealistic expectations about the working world, including the long hours demanded of them and the “day-to-day drudgery,” which may come as a shock after college.

To top it all off, working women are worse at caring for themselves, she says: Men are 25% more likely to take breaks during the day for personal activities and 35% more likely to take time solely for relaxation. They also go for walks and head out to lunch more often than their female colleagues.

And, in Addition …

Given that many young graduates started their college careers in the recession and have doubtless been hounded by data on the flagging job market (have you seen that, for the first time in history, more unemployed people have some college education than not?), it could actually be more than too-high expectations and too-little self-care (though those are undoubtedly factors).

Rather, we believe that any burnout particular to young women stems (in addition to the usual culprits of unclear expectations, dysfunctional office dynamics, poor job fit and lack of control) from the fact that women have many expectations placed on them in addition to those set at the office.

Expert Carol Frohlinger, author of “Her Seat at the Table” and “Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It” agrees, saying women grapple with society’s expectations that they should be in a committed relationship, with their eyes on the prize, so to speak, of marriage and family. (And once they achieve those things? Then they have to deal with the “double shift” of work and motherhood.)

8 Steps to Avoiding Burnout

So, what can you do about all of this? While you likely won’t be able to get your boss to turn your 7-to-7 into a 9-to-5 or get your parents to stop asking when they can expect grandkid #1, you can prevent burnout.

Here’s how:

1. Readjust Your Own Expectations.

If Faw was right, and you were expecting that your B.A. in English was going to turn into a staff writer position at The New York Times the day after graduation, then it is time to readjust. Everyone has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is generally at the bottom of the pack.

Keep your head held high, and know that proving your competency at even the most menial tasks while maintaining a positive and professional attitude will help keep your career moving in the direction you want.

2. Learn How to ‘Manage Up’

A dysfunctional office dynamic is one of the leading causes of burnout, and issues with a superior are the most stressful. Learning how to “manage up” will help you deal with a boss who is mean, hypercritical or insecure as well as help you figure out the most effective way to reach her expectations. Read our how-to guide.

3. Realize It’s Okay to Say No

Employees who try to be everything to everyone and who are always working to their most-efficient max are extremely at-risk for burnout.  Additionally, the worst thing you can do for your career is to overpromise and then under-deliver, says expert and “Great on the Job” author Jodi Glickman. However, there’s a right and a wrong way to say no. Learn the difference, and when to draw the line. 

4. Quit Comparing Yourself

We all have that one Facebook friend who seems to have three months of vacation time, the money to spend those months traipsing across Europe and the Abercrombie-model fiancé she’s traipsing with. Forget her. While healthy comparisons can help you determine exactly what your goals are, “comparisonitis” will ruin your finances and your happiness as you endlessly try to keep up with or one-up your friends or family members. Think you’re suffering from comparisonitis? Here’s how to tell.

5. Make Sure You Take Your Vacation Days

Americans will give up roughly 226 million vacation days this year. Don’t be one of them. One report found that 48% of workers felt happier and more positive about their workplaces after taking a vacation. Since feeling cynical about your office is one of the key causes of burnout, taking a vacation is an easy (and fun … and potentially margarita-filled …) way to keep yourself going.

6. Develop Your Interests and Hobbies Outside of the Office

Is your self-worth and identity solely based on your work? If so, you’re highly at-risk for burnout. Devoting time to your interests and hobbies outside of the office will make you a happier and more well-rounded individual. If you can’t remember the last time you indulged in a hobby, think back to what you enjoyed as a child or teen. Consider joining a sports team, picking up a foreign language or volunteering.

7. Take Breaks

As we said earlier, we don’t think that women’s reluctance to take breaks is the primary cause of burnout, but it definitely doesn’t help. So, take the time to recharge during the day. Pause your work to help you maintain good eyesight, or take a walk to help you stay in shape, even when you don’t have time to hit the gym. Alternatively, ask a co-worker out to coffee. Establishing positive relationships at the office will make you happier and help you live longer. (Seriously … science says so.)

8. Take Time to Evaluate Your Career Path

If you’ve been chugging along on the same path for a long time and are feeling signs of burnout, take the time to consider your career. Have your values changed since you first started in your profession? Or is it that the values of your particular company or employer have changed? Are you not being sufficiently challenged—or are you overburdened? To help you figure out whether it’s time for you to change jobs or professions, or go back to grad school, check out our free Build Your Career bootcamp, which will help you figure out the next step that’s right for you and your long-term goals.

  • Amanda

    I completely agree – I burned out at 24, just last year….at a job that I was not supported by my manager and the workload kept on growing and growing until I couldn’t handle it anymore. It ruined my relationship and some of my friendships….until I decided to change my life and I grasped many of these 7 factors to not burning out…..and I found a job where my boss supports a good work-life balance.

    • Caroline

      So out of curiosity – did you change your field or just your employer?

      I’m struggling to figure out what to do post-burnout.

  • shannon

    I’d like add that this applies to woman in their 30s as well. The new “work life” of laying workers off and forcing the work amongst the remaining workers and expecting them to act happy they still have a job gets old real quick!

    • erin

       I agree, Shannon, especially for people who work in social services/helping professions (which generally employ more women) and are subject to the whims of state/federal budgets and grants. There is an expectation that employees continue to do more with less. For example, the case workers at a local mental health agency have 250+ people on their caseloads. Many of the folks I’ve talked to experience exhaustion as their baseline emotion. It’s not sustainable.

  • Amylineberry

    Work life balance is extremely hard for those of us that are single. Unmarried women (and men) often have to do longer shifts or work the back shift because we aren’t “attached”. Seems the people who are married (especially with kids) don’t have to do crazy hours as much. This can lead to burnout and animosity towards co-workers. Managers need to understand that singles need time for life as well!

    • Razedahell

      That’s why you lie and say you have kids. All the women always use their kids as an excuse to call out or leave work early. Not feeling so good? Wanna go home and watch maury on the couch while sipping wine at 11am? Just say your kid is sick. Works every time.

  • guest

    I would love to see a followup article about what to do after you burn out. It happened to me last year and I still haven’t recovered. My relationship is suffering, I am very unhappy and going to work is depressing.

    • Engchik

      it will pass- i had this, and it did take a year or three. baby steps, swimming, yoga and just a smile with mom or good friends helps! good luck!

    • Caroline

      I couldn’t agree more! I hit burnout in my career two years ago and have been wandering around a bit aimlessly ever since. I took a semi-related job in another field for 15 months before the department was dissolved but wasn’t happy there. It appears that after working 70-80 hours/wk for a five years I’ve forgotten what a balanced life looks like. I’ve had trouble meeting people and motivating myself to do things so I spend most nights zoning out to the tv or obsessively trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing in life. A followup article would be GREAT!!

  • L.L.

    This article is so timely for me.  I had a rude awakening with myself yesterday – my boss was out of town for the day on personal travel.  I have to move in 10 days and just had an opportunity to begin the packing process as a result of long hours and working weekends at the office.  I decided to email in for a personal day (which requires no notice or reason) to spend the day organizing and packing because the next 10 days of my work life were going to be consumed by just that, work.  I get an email back saying that it was not a good day to be out of the office and the trip was canceled because of project deadlines.  It was implied before but it was the first time I’d been directed to come into work because my personal life isn’t as important as a deliverable.

  • Cathswart

    I can really relate to women having higher overall stress – everyone I know (including my boyfriend’s parents and siblings, and my boss) directs comments about marriage, family, and having kids at me – as if I could propose to myself and pop out a kid without him – and nobody ever says anything to him about that kind of stuff. And, the responsibility of taking care of someone else (if you live together, which we do), even if you try to split chores and responsibilities equally, is stressful too. I can only imagine if my job was super-stressful too. I’m often more stressed outside of work than at it!

  • Yvonne

    It took me five years in the financial industry to completely & utterly disintegrate. Coming out of college I was sure I was going to be a superstar (expectation adjustment needed!), and spent my life trying to achieve that through long nights at the office, weekend working and frankly, trying to do what I thought a man would do (emotionless pitbull workaholic).
    As work took over, I became an extremely hostile person, did not have any hobbies or do anything I enjoyed other than drinking and sitting on the couch. The pressures I felt, and placed on myself, were overwhelming. It wasn’t easy, but I decided to quit my job and find something more fulfilling and that could offer me a work life balance. I realized, for my sake, I could take a pay cut if it meant I’d have more time to live my life. The job was not my passion; doing a GOOD job was my passion. I can do a good job anywhere.
    Fast forward, I’m doing great! I work at a non-profit, have a great relationship with my boss, and have time for myself like never before. It was, no doubt in my mind, the best decision I’ve made to date. I no longer live to work, I work to live.
    We all need to reassess what’s important to us and how you want to live your life. Stressing out for 12 hours a day was not my idea of a good life, so I changed it.

    • Emilia


  • http://twitter.com/rungranolarun Dana Solof

    These are great actionable pieces of advice. Female burnout in this country is so rampant, it’s disheartening. The entire way we work is unsustainable for women who want to have lives or families beyond the office. The system does not work for us. And with many more women graduating from colleges than men, we have to change it! 

    The hardest period of my life was my early 20′s after graduating college (and dropping out of law school b/c I realized it wasn’t my calling). To coin the angsty 90′s movie – reality does bite – especially when you have been living in a protected private school bubble. It would help the transition if there wasn’t such a disconnect between academia and the working world.

  • OlderModernLady

    i agree with much of this article but i STRONGLY experienced/ believed that men are treated differently at work.  Women are almost always given the “motherly” task (notes, cleaning, planning, hostessing) of details as men walk away from the drudgery of certain tasks/ job functions. and since MEN are in more power positions, it’s their norm & mind whenever a woman confronts these things.  the expectation that sooner or later, and the men bosses are all waiting for it, for a woman to get to “the have kids” stage of her life, womens’ career path aren’t taken as seriously and as a result, given less attn and opportunities and thus “stuck” and get “burned out”…  

  • FEMillenial

    I think a lot of the stress women put on themselves in their 20s has to do with our biological clocks.  We think if we work our butts off and grow quickly in our careers in our 20s, we will plateau in our careers at a time when we are comfortable slowing down or even putting our careers on hold to start a family.

    I am 25 and I clearly don’t have all the answers yet as I just got home from a 12 hour day and brought my laptop with me… but I’ve looked for my own personal motivation behind all the effort and hours and this seems to be true for me and many of my friends. 

  • L.L.

    Something I’m finding that I often struggle with in my position at work is that I find my work fulfilling, however, how do I achieve that work-life balance?  For the past year since I was hired, I’ve worked long hours and have been very accommodating, being that I’m able to afford it because of my single lifestyle.  But in all reality, I’ve shelved my friends, family, and most importantly (and quite unfortunately) my relationship with my boyfriend (now ex) to be available for project deadlines.  Work is fulfilling but why am I still unhappy about the work-life balance that I have yet to achieve?  Not including the fact that I graduated into a work-force where everyone was chomping at the bits to take my job from me because there were none to be had.  It’s tough being a workaholic woman who actually “appreciates” her job and gets along with her boss but recognizes that there’s more to life and not enough time or energy to be spread between work and life.

  • Victoria Scott22

    I relate so, so well with this article. I’m only 23, about to be 24 but I’ve been working full time jobs since 2007. My current job is what is literally killing me though. My supr hates (is intimidated by me) me; she is constantly making up stuff in an attempt to get me fired (right now its that I’m not working a full 40 hours because I also go to school full time and even though she approved my new schedule to fit college she started that rumor) and I’m honestly quiet tired of it. I’ve been at this job for a year and a half and don’t have much prospects in sight (the supr has made sure of that). Like I said I attend college full time while working full time for the last year as well. Its hard. I’m in class/at work from 8am-8pm and I get home and instantly start doing homework. I’m also going to a tutor about 4 times a week to make sure I maintain my 4.0. I have a desire to quit and go to school full time to become a Physician Assistant but I’m scared crapless to try. I’ve never taken out student loans yet and I have a car loan that makes me feel trapped. I don’t have family that can help, I come from a very low income family which is why I immediately started working as soon as I left. And when I talk to my middle class grandma she doesn’t seem to understand that I’m beyond my breaking point. I make what a college graduate makes even though I don’t have a degree, but the pay is not worth the stress, the tears and the depression that everyone sees in me. I’m hoping some of these sub-articles will help me figure things out.

  • Ms

    I am 29 yo female and I think I burned out last year… even my coworkers started to comment on how unhappy I was. For me the biggest problem was the difference between work and school. School is individualized, merit-based, continuously learning/improving. Work is politics, nepotism, group effort, stagnant and very depressing. I have less than 5 years experience and I have more responsibilities than people with 20 years experience. I feel like I never got to be NEW, like I just got thrown in to babysit people who should be teaching me. Why are they not held to the same standard? Why do so many people get away with not living up to their job description? It is insulting how hard I had to work to get here only to be partnered up with people who didn’t have to work hard and still don’t. All the stress, frustration and anger have caused me to gain almost 30 lbs! Recently I’ve started exercising daily and just won a full-paid scholarship to return to school. The only way to fix my problem is to get out of this job. It is very bad for my health and well-being. When I graduate I will open my own business rather than get stuck working with a bunch of weasels! The real world is a real kick in the nuts!

    • FEMillenial

       All of your points hit very close to home for me.  I also feel like I babysit people at work (below me, peers and above me).  People call/come up to me to ask about things they should know- they’ve been here for 10 years I’ve been there for 2!  I don’t know if it’s laziness, forgetfulness, or what, but I can’t be everyone’s eyes ears and brain…But I also can’t do my job if they don’t do theirs. 

      Is this widespread across all types of companies?  Are my expectations of people too high?  Do I care too much?  Probably all of the above- but how do I cope? Is this something you just get used to?

      Also, as a woman how do you escalate the issue of someone not doing their job?  I feel
      like this action is perceived to be gossipy and dramatic. Does anyone else feel this way?

      • Ms

        I definitely agree with you on being a whistle-blower. It is okay to have more responsibility than your superiors, but it is definitely not okay to point it out. I’m so low on the totem-pole that I would expect to be fired. Or worse. Passive-aggressively punished by corrupt slackers. Ugh. Never ever under-estimate how clique-y the real world is. I hope things get better for the both of us and we find jobs that we can take pride in AND that make us happy. Best of Luck. Maybe all that you have put into this job will lead you on to something great!

      • http://shahanastyle.blogspot.com Avy Caplan (Shahana Style)

        I can’t agree more with this especially:

        “People call/come up to me to ask about things they should know- they’ve
        been here for 10 years I’ve been there for 2! I don’t know if it’s
        laziness, forgetfulness, or what, but I can’t be everyone’s eyes ears
        and brain…But I also can’t do my job if they don’t do theirs.”

  • http://www.lorneswellington.com/ Lorne S. Wellington

    I know I burned out when I just took a job, I am grossly over qualified for, just to get out of debt. I was rather I am an entrepreneur and working for someone is necessary but awful. However, from this I know I need to care more for me.

  • Bob

    This is a phenomenal article. Great advice, we should all print it out and post it on our walls.

  • crtr_lvr

    This article certainly hit a nerve, judging by all the comments! I “hit the wall” about 7 years ago and it’s been a long road back. I can’t say I’m completely out of it yet, but it’s getting better and there is hope for those of you who feel this way now.  Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, prioritize what has to be done vs what can wait, put yourself on that list, and keep breathing.  One trick I learned to survive was to ask myself if the issue at hand was going to be significant in 5 years. If yes, I dealt with it.  If no, not so much.  And as far as those associates, don’t make yourself so available.  Tell them it’s going to be a week or so before you can get them whatever they need.  And be consistent about it for awhile, they’ll find someone else to bug!  

     I agree it is a wonderful article, and contains valuable information. We are reaping the rewards of the feminist movement – we wanted it all and we got it all.  The problem comes when those around us don’t change their habits (as in men helping out around the house……I’m not even going down that path!). There may not be much we can do for the Gen Y women (sorry ladies), BUT we MUST educate their baby girls and boys in ways to keep this burnout from happening to them and the work is spread out in at least a slightly more equitable manner.

  • Kellyjean81

    Some of us don’t necessarily burn out but feel that our time and energy would be better spent raising our children. Just because women can do anything doesn’t mean we have to.

  • Alisha

    Lack of personal development after college is a primary driver behind burnout for many people (male or female) by 30. That’s why I started using this app at http://ourepic.com to set goals with my husband.

    It was easy to manage myself personally but planning my life with someone else was stressful. Anyone else experience that?

    • pseudointellectual

      Yes. agree wholeheartedly. The stress associated with stagnated professional development is a killer. Get out as soon as you can.

  • http://twitter.com/CharonSystem Charon System

    Cause/effect – you’re doing it wrong.

    Ever consider that women are burning out from working as hard or harder than the men in similar jobs, skipping their breaks and not taking their vacations so they aren’t seen as slacking off, and still not being able to get the promotions your numbers indicate?  Not having children isn’t the magic bullet to promotions, either.

    You must remember, it’s still the case that an assertive woman gets judged negatively, as a “shrill b****”, and possibly “uppity” as well if she’s a woman of color, by both male and female superiors, should she dare ASK for that promotion.  It is very difficult for a couple of shrill uppity b****es to change a old boys club style corporate culture, and when one does make it further, she will still always be suspected, by male and female subordinates, of having slept her way to the top if she’s even the slightest bit attractive. 

    Not everyone has gotten the memo that we’re in the 21st century and are supposed to have this thing called gender equality in the workplace, yet.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XUSIAFVEIZBFQVVOHTZLB7NC2I Ana

    I burnt out of my last full time job about 1.5 years ago. I was told I was mediocre by the VP. I was told I was not a team player by manager and director who spent all their time preventing me from building anything.
    After I left, I spent a few months just building stuff I wanted to build, but never got a chance. My hope was to start earning from my own projects. Many of those projects failed. I went back and did some contracts. Started teaching as well. I still think recovering is a process – slow and steady. But, it has helped me find what I care about. I have a team now that I love and trust. You can see from apps I built, I am not mediocre. http://infinut.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/finding-my-team-building-what-i-know-doing-what-i-love/

  • D_rima2001

    Absolutely true…I burned out due to all the reasons mentioned above! Currently on a break, am not sure if I will get another job!

  • Maircuse

    What do you do if you are fearful of losing your job because you take a break? I barely get lunch breaks, have been told I cannot use the restroom, am constantly berated in front of clients and have been denied overtime. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to handle this? 

    • pseudointellectual

      Get another job, quickly. If you can’t get another job quickly, leave. Your health is immeasurably more valuable than the kind of sh*tty ‘job’ you are describing.

    • Razedahell

      That’s illegal. By law you have to let your employees use the bathroom. Even if they have to go every hour. You can sue for that.

    • Razedahell

      Denying overtime that you have worked is also illegal

  • paperbackwriter

    The culprit? How about women getting burnt out from leaving work for a “second shift” of household chores and childcare! How is this not even addressed in this article?!?

  • Razedahell

    I think the reason why more women are burning out than men is because women are paid a lot less. If women made more money it would motivate them to work harder and it would make the stress and bullshit worth dealing with. Why should women bust their butts for less? You wanna pay me 78 cents for every dollar you pay men, prepare for only 78% of production.

  • Thatchic

    Are you kidding me? Way to dance around the giant elephant sashaying around the room. In just a single day, I have had two male middle managers obviously attempt to casually take credit for my ideas and work, a third male colleague literally rephrase what I had previously said in a meeting and get applauded for it when I heard a chorus of crickets and a fourth male colleague ask me to stop what I was doing to give him a date that I had presented to him in three other places, had he only took the time to read, because I appreciate being treated like every mans personal secretary despite my education and experience.

    There is not a single male colleague who clocks the hours I do both in and out of the office. I doubt any would even last a week if they tried. In fact I had to hide my wild scoffing last week when a male colleague threw a toddler tantrum after being asked to stay til 5:30 because his wife “had the sniffles” meanwhile just several weeks ago I pulled an all nighter and delayed a flight to a funeral in order to complete a proposal and attend the pitch – which we won. And before you regurgitate the ol’ just say no tripe, there is no saying no. If I say no, I am reprimanded meanwhile male colleagues don’t even get asked “out of respect”. Also, may I add, I get asked because my male counterparts don’t even know how to do something or where to begin learning. I get asked because my higher ups know I will do the necessary job right, not cut corners and half ass, only to get called out later. Because though we may both have the same degrees, most of the male colleagues I have believe that they were done learning, and their expectation is that they only deserve higher accolades from here on out. Unfortunately, it’s usually the chics who pick up the slack. Because male privilege makes it easy. Because articles like this make women believe that there is something wrong with their “expectations”. Listen, straight up, my expectation after colleague was to be able to work and earn responsibility and title commiserate with my performance, not have to cover for and defend myself against 99% of my male colleagues.

    And single ladies, I’m really really really going to need you to stop making it easier for the guys and point the bullets where they belong – instead of at your girlfriend’s back. When I was single and doing more work, I fought tooth and nail to get OT added to my salary. It was nasty and hard, but that is the correct way to handle disparate work loads. It’s really not your female colleague, because she’s doing what she agreed to, it’s your manager not recognizing your performance and choosing to take advantage of the situation.
    It’s not ok to ask women with children to respect your choice if you are not respecting theirs. Especially if you are placing the blame of your crap boss on her shoulders.

    Forbes is a notoriously biased boys club and research can be fudged. I’m going to need you to step out from behind your laptop and step into the fray at the frontlines with the rest of us before you decide to write some more fluff about how girls can’t take the heat. Cuz let me tell yah, this is one girl holding a giant torch…and it’s not the ladies screaming ;)