The broken rung: Why South Asian women are emotionally burnt out

South Asian woman burnt out
4 min read
28 March, 2023

Emotional burnout or fatigue is the state of being emotionally drained because of accumulated stress. This usually happens when we have been overextending our emotional resources for some time without replenishing them.

A recent survey by LinkedIn revealed that of almost 5,000 Americans, 74% of women said they were stressed for work-related reasons, compared with just 61% of employed male respondents.

Women, generally but especially in South Asian cultures, are conditioned to carry the emotional baggage of the people around them.

That means that they tend to take full responsibility for the emotional well-being of the people they love. This is an unhealthy pattern to have. No matter how much we care for the emotional well-being of our loved ones, we cannot carry their emotional burden in addition to our own.

"Women, generally but especially in South Asian cultures, are conditioned to carry the emotional baggage of the people around them"

We will be doing both ourselves and them a disservice if we do so. This usually happens with women since they are socially conditioned to be the nurturer and the caretaker. While a positive thing when done in moderation, it can often translate into weak boundaries with other people and internalizing their emotions.

Even in relationships, be it romantic or familial, women generally tend to do the emotional heavy lifting which results in relationships taking a heavier psychological toll on them.

In most eastern cultures, mothers are the ones providing the better part of emotional support to children. Dads are usually confined to their roles as disciplinarians, avoiding emotional conversations with children and denying them their affection or approval. The onus of emotional availability then falls on the mothers which depletes their already worn-out emotional reserves.

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The topic of emotional fatigue has gained traction since the pandemic. The Women In The Workplace 2021 report shows that the burnout gap between women and men has almost doubled since the previous year.

Recently Forbes published an article which explored the “exhaustion gap” faced by women since the pandemic, which was significantly higher than that of men.

According to an estimate, working mothers are at the most risk for burnout. According to an analysis, they are 28% more likely to experience burnout than working dads.

This is because in addition to the work stress, women are also expected to carry the burden of childbirth, childcare, or social pressure (to be thin, physically appealing etc.).

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For women, in addition to the management required to have a good work-life balance, the fact that they are underutilised at their jobs also leads to burnout. Underutilisation and boredom with having a stagnant career are major stressors that culminate into burnout.

As women strive to work their way up the ranks in their careers, they face obscure barriers.

Often referred to as the “broken rung,” this indicates an inherent bias practised by those responsible for promotions.

According to research by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of colour are promoted. This is why women are more likely to be underutilised in their jobs and experience a higher level of dissatisfaction.

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Other workplace stressors include long hours, low income and shift work which in addition to the psychosocial pressure women face to also maintain a functional and healthy home life. This traps women in a vicious cycle.

Cultural expectations of women vary by country but most countries expect women to be the primary caregiver for children.

Such cultural expectations of childcare have forced working women to either attempt to physically care for their children while working if their workplace has daycare facilities or to pay for licensed child care, which adds to their financial strain.

Emotional burnout usually shows up as physical symptoms or somatisation of stress such as fatigue, body pain and fertility issues.

It can also manifest itself in emotions like apathy, heightened emotional reactivity, temper tantrums and crying spells. Recognizing the signs of emotional burnout is the first step to ensure that it does not negatively impact your personal or professional life.

Rabeea Saleem is a clinical psychologist and a Karachi-based freelance cultural writer and literary critic for numerous international publications including The Irish Times, Chicago Review of Books, The National UAE, the Spectator, and Book Riot