How Burnout Impacts Men and Women Differently

Do women and men experience burnout differently? If we can pinpoint the ways men and women experience burnout, then folks like me who work to help busy professionals better prevent burnout can tailor better, earlier and more specific interventions.
05/14/2014 01:54 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

I've written and spoken about my experience with burnout a great deal this past year, recounting the intense blend of physical, psychological and behavioral issues I went through during the last year of my law practice. I was researching burnout and gender recently as part of my preparation for an upcoming keynote, and I wasn't sure what I was going to find. I don't consider burnout to be a women's issue or a men's issue -- it's an issue that anyone who works must consider; however, I was surprised by the few studies I did find speaking directly to the gender differences with this health issue. So, do women and men experience burnout differently? Is there a pattern men and women typically follow that leads up to burnout?

The first study I reviewed assessed the prevalence of burnout in male and female physicians (general practitioners, specifically) using the three-factor Maslach Burnout Inventory which examines the following dimensions of burnout: (1)

Exhaustion: Feeling emotionally exhausted, depleted, and a loss of energy.

Cynicism: Having a negative attitude toward clients and those you work with, feeling irritable, and withdrawing from people and activities you once enjoyed.

Inefficacy: Experiencing diminished personal accomplishment, a perceived decline in competence or productivity, and expending energy at work without seeing any results.

This study found that men and women process these burnout dimensions differently. Women experienced exhaustion first, followed by cynicism, then inefficacy -- they didn't think they were being effective care providers so they stopped to evaluate. The men, on the other hand, tended to experience cynicism first, then exhaustion. Interestingly, many of the men in the study kept practicing because they didn't feel as though the symptoms from the first two stages impacted the quality of care they provided. They didn't reach the inefficacy stage because they thought they were still being effective.

A second study examined the association between burnout, depression, anxiety, and inflammation as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Researchers discovered that for women, there was an association between burnout and inflammation (as measured by specific protein biomarkers), but this same association was not found in men. Interestingly, it was depression, and not burnout or anxiety that produced similarly elevated levels of inflammation in men.

A third study simply referenced other studies showing that the combination of high demand at work and low control (having little autonomy) was associated with high burnout levels in women. (2) Another study found that the very same combination (a high demand job with low decision latitude) increased the instance of cardiovascular disease in men. It appears that this combination is unhealthy in both men and women.

While the number of studies focused on gender and burnout is limited, I think the implications are important. If we can pinpoint the ways men and women experience burnout, then folks like me who work to help busy professionals better prevent burnout can tailor better, earlier and more specific interventions.

What are your thoughts?

Additional References

(1) Leiter, M.P., & Maslach, C. (2005). Banishing burnout: Six strategies for improving your relationship with work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. See also, Maslach, C., & Leiter, M.P. (1997). The truth about burnout: How organizations cause personal stress and what to do about it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

(2) See also Norlund, S. et al. (2010). Burnout, working conditions and gender. BMC Public Health 10, 326; and Rafferty, Y., Friend, R., & Landsbergis, P.A. (2001). The Association between job skill discretion, decision authority and burnout. Work Stress, 15, 73-85; and Schaufeli, W.B., & Bakker, A.B. (2004). Job demands, job resources, and their relationship with burnout and engagement: A multi-sample study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25, 293-315.

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