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Work Overwhelm – The New Aussie Pandemic

Work Overwhelm
One in four women is at risk of burn out, a new Australian study has found.

Work overwhelm is something any working Aussie woman can relate to, but a new survey report by Workplace Diversity and Inclusion specialist, Samantha Sutherland over the past 12 months has found that risk of burn out and unsupported environments is higher than ever before. 

The report, which surveyed almost 1300 Australian working women, highlighted that despite decades of understanding and discussion on equality in the workplace and at home, COVID-19 revealed that little systemic change has actually occurred in that time. 


Work Overwhelm + Burn Out 


The study found that one in four women is at risk of burn out and there is a desperate need for non-gendered support – of equal paternal and maternal workplace flexibility across the board in the Australian workforce. 

From claims of wage theft (more hours, less pay), and utter overwhelm, to increased parenting demands left largely to mothers, the survey, which covered both women’s work and home experiences in the last year was largely a sombre tale. 

Other key research findings include:

  • 24 percent (1 in 4 women) said they are at complete overwhelm and have no sense of balance whatsoever between work and home
  • 30 percent  (almost 1 in 3) are working more than they did pre-pandemic
  • 45 percent feel that they had an increased parenting load due to the impacts of COVID-19 while 69 percent  feel they do more parenting than their partner/co-parent
  • 27 percent  felt that Covid-19 had a negative impact on their ability to progress their careers
  • 60 percent  feel guilty that they’re doing neither work nor home properly
  • 81 percent  would like to see a continuation of flexible work options going forward 
  • 50 percent  would like leadership development opportunities.

Work Overwhelm Silver Linings?

Thankfully, there were some silver linings, with 55 percent of women surveyed reporting they were enjoying more flexible work at last and 30 percent saying they have enjoyed a slower pace over lockdown periods

Despite this, however, the surveyed shone a spotlight on the fact that that despite a shift in ways of working over the last 12 months, Aussie women (particularly Mums) are more stressed, overwhelmed and unsupported than ever before. It also highlighted the imbalance between men and women that still exists in the workplace.

Mum Vs. Dad


“Evidence is mounting that working women have felt the effects of COVID-19 more than men and mothers are hardest hit,” says Samantha. “They’ve borne the brunt of increases in the volume of domestic labour, unequal labour in the home and, in particular, periods of home-schooling during various lockdowns and school closures.”

According to Samantha, the concept of ‘working mothers’ needs to shift to ‘working parents’ in company policies and we couldn’t agree more. “There needs to a non-gendered approach to parental leave policies, flexible working and part-time opportunities for all employees. The pressures between domestic and work life are not mutually exclusive, and employers, whether they realise it or not, have a largely influential role to play in helping address this domestic and workplace imbalance,” she says.

“One case I know was a father working in a ASX50 company who was on a three month trial compressing his days from five to four so he could look after the children on Fridays. Everything worked really well, and at the end of the trial HR said, ‘you can’t continue doing this, because then everyone will want to do it, and flexible working is for mothers.’

“That type of attitude completely entrenches the view that a woman’s place is in the home and a man’s place is at work. It’s a direct barrier to women participating in the workforce.”

How To Navigate The Imbalance And Prevent Work Overwhelm

Samantha reveals strategies to help navigate the workplace imbalance, while at the same time prevent workplace overwhelm in five strategic steps.


1. Have that hard conversation in the workplace

COVID’s widespread flexible working arrangements were often implemented without an update of formal policies and procedures. Now is the chance to ask your employer update your formal arrangement and implement a work schedule that is mutually beneficial. It’s your right to find out if company policies have been updated post-pandemic and support your current needs can be met if the situation arises. Ensure you are informed about the flexibility other employees in your team are implementing, and how your flexibility fits in with that. It’s helpful to know whether you’re asking for something that is well-supported or out of the ordinary.

Also consider the implications for your role. Some of your tasks can be easily done remotely, while some may require face to face. Many companies still value having time when the team is together to build relationships. Clearly demonstrate which of your tasks can be done remotely and those that require you to be in the office to connect with colleagues.

Don’t be humble – be sure to highlight your past and recent successes. After all, we’ve all shown it’s possible to be successful working remotely. Compile positive feedback and successes you’ve had while working from home, to highlight that it has not and will not impact your performance in a negative way should you continue working to this model moving forward. In particular, if you’ve improved performance in areas due to uninterrupted thinking time at home, list those examples.

Practice the confrontation by having a friend role play the conversation with you. This way, the first time you’re saying, ‘I’d like to work flexibly’ isn’t when you’re in front of your manager. Practice what and how you’ll say and also respond to potential resistance. Now go and book your meeting!

2. Beating Work Overwhelm


One of the biggest findings from the research was women (especially mothers) are on the brink of burnout. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at the lack of support, know that you’re not alone. 

Change the conversation at home. Tracey Spicer shared with me that equality starts in the lounge room before it gets to the Board Room, and she’s right. Overwhelmingly, women pick up the bulk of the domestic load, but there is always an opportunity to discuss the shared load at home, and speak frankly to your partner (if you have one) about how it is shared – or not shared if the case may be.

On that note, lighten your load when you can. If possible, let things go or delegate responsibility to someone else. If you can afford a cleaner, or grocery delivery, or any other support in the home, use it.

While self care is a term that’s probably a little overused, looking after yourself is essential. Support your mind and body to perform in all areas. Get enough sleep, move in a way you love, eat healthily, and take guilt-free time away from the family.

3. How to get the promotion you deserve 
Research shows that women are less likely than men to apply for jobs when they don’t meet 100 percent of the selection criteria. However, rather than being due to a gap in confidence or advocacy skills, it appears to be a lack of understanding about how hiring and promotions really work.

In many situations, it’s simply a case of don’t ask, don’t get. Asking for what you want is the way to get what you want, or arrive where you want to be. Speak to your manager to lay the seeds that you’re ready for more responsibility and ask for a formal conversation to discuss it. Take your list of achievements to support your case and be clear with your ask.

Be sure that you have your documents and examples together to support the specific job or promotion that you are seeking. Write a short document outlining your achievements, when you’ve added value to a deal to the company, and any positive feedback you’ve received. Make it specific, and wherever you can include the monetary value of your contribution or the outcome. Make it easy for your boss, or indeed a potential employer, to see your body of work. Keep your LinkedIn profile updated, current and demonstrative of not just your skills, but your achievements in past and present roles.

Remember, this is just the start of the conversation! Follow up, keep talking, and keep self-advocating. 

4. Change the narrative on ‘working mothers to a conversation about ‘working parents’

Work and home life are more intertwined than ever before, especially with so many people continuing to work from home. We know that women carry the bulk of the domestic load, but fathers are missing out too. A gentleman I was consulting with after he changed jobs for more flexibility put it best when he said, “These big companies are paying men not to see their children”. 

Workplace overwhelm is a systemic issue that can’t be anded by just one individual as there are myriad issues at play, including perception of part time workers’ ambitions, availability of flexibility, gender role steroptypes, and more. However, you can start to push for changes in your own workplace and home.

Firstly, try asking for non-gendered support at work. It is a key starting point for enabling men to contribute more in the home, so women can participate more in the workplace. Check your company’s policies for parental leave, flexibility and part time work. If they’re gendered and refer to women or mothers, speak to HR about changing policies to support all genders. 

Similarly, assumptions may still linger that part time workers are not ambitious, but this research proves the opposite. Women want to work and seek opportunities to progress. These survey results support the conversation about part time and job share opportunities at senior levels. 

If you have a partner, speak with them about taking part time work and having this conversation at their own workplace. Many men realised how much they enjoy picking kids up after school and being a bigger part of their lives. As men push for that to continue, it helps everyone. 

Work Overwhelm
Workplace Diversity and Inclusion specialist, Samantha Sutherland conduct a study over 12 months that found that risk of workplace overwhelm and unsupported environments is higher than ever before. 


Written by Shonagh Walker

Shonagh Walker is an award-winning lifestyle writer and author specialising in beauty, health, travel and pets.

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