Working mom burn-out: How to recognise it, and how to prevent it

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Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash
Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

You get up early to start work while also getting the kids ready for school, then tackle the school drop-off but don't forget to catch Suvir's mom at the gate to confirm she's able to help out with the school fundraiser next week, then back to the office to take the morning meetings while making sure there's a healthy lunch for the kids before they need to be dropped at their extramural classes while you finish the final report and check that there's something for supper and the homework gets signed off properly this time but then it's bath time and the kids are in bed at last so you can check your outstanding emails.... 

Exhausted yet?  

Thousands of working moms across South Africa tackle these demands on a daily basis, and whether they're single or have help... it's still overwhelming for many of them. When life is lived at full speed, it can be hard to realise when you're about to crash. 

But how do you know when you're just overwhelmed by this week's challenges or when you're actually facing burn-out? 

Anja van Beek, Agile Talent Strategist, Leadership Expert and Executive Coach, tells Parent24 that we are all 'expected' to strike a reasonable balance between the needs of our personal lives and professional careers. But in reality, it is a very tough task. 

"And we are now dealing with a new reality: Zoom / online fatigue is very real, to be a working parent on top of all of this adds a new level of complexity and pressure," she says. 

"Have you ever calculated how many of your 24hrs you are in "work-mode" – whether thinking, doing, or responding to a quick mail at a family braai?" she asks. 

"I have noticed that many people struggle to find time to cope with the demands of modern-day life, especially as we are surrounded by technology. The "always-on" mode was heightened during this pandemic now that most have settled into remote working routines," van Beek says.

"Many of my clients say they feel overwhelmed by what we need to do and achieve in a day. They also say, "there is just not enough time in one day" (sounds familiar?) and sometimes they even feel run-down, frustrated or anxious," van Beek says.

Must read: 'More a science experiment than reality': How the pandemic has impacted working moms in South Africa 

How to recognise burn-out

After decades, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally put burn-out on its International Classification of Diseases (ICD) list. 

Early warning signs include reduced performance and productivity, anxiety, detachment, low mood, difficulty concentrating, lack of creativity, fatigue, negative attitudes towards one's colleagues or job, low commitment to the role, loss of purpose, quickness to anger and emotional numbness. 

A common theme that has developed during the isolation period is the importance of self-care. 

"For years, we have tried to 'find' work-life balance and work-life integration," van Beek says. "During the past couple of months, we had to learn how to set clear boundaries to survive the blending work and life spaces. A reminder that you are not working from home – you are working while being at home – and this is different." 

This has forced us to learn to prioritise a full stop to our day, she says, indicating that it is time to close the laptop and start the "being home" part of your day. 

"To successfully work from home in the future, you owe this to yourself. The always-on-mode just isn't sustainable and 'lockdown burn-out' is real as many people are working harder than they would have in the office. Our bodies need to recover. Recovery is a critical part for you to maintain resilience and being a high performing employee. Simply taking a break is not good enough."  

Your brain needs 6 – 8 hours of quality sleep to function optimality, but stopping does not equal recovering. Rest and recovery are not the same thing. 

Van Beek asks, as a parent, how are you balancing the work demands and also your home demands to ensure this doesn't impact the rest of your family emotionally? 

Must read: LinkedIn finally adds Stay-at-Home Mom as a job title, but what does this really mean for mothers? 

How to prevent burn-out 

To protect ourselves from burning out, she suggests that we just say "no".

If only it were so easy! I asked her to share her tips for turning down requests, whether from work or school or even your spouse, and she says that as humans, we crave "connection" and saying no can feel as if you are disappointing the other person.  

"The truth is: if you say no, you are taking control of your life and prioritising what is more important to you at that current moment," she says. " So, when saying no, don't beat around the bush or offer a weak excuse; just say it."  

In a study done by Prof Hagtveld, he suggests one uses the words "I don't" rather than "I can't". 

The latter might sound like an excuse whilst "I don't" implies you have established certain boundaries for yourself.

If you find it challenging to say "no", focus on what is within your control.

For example, you can control the amount of work you can do. You can control the tone of your voice when saying no. 

You can control speaking candidly yet respectfully. You can't control the other person's response. 

Van Beek says a starting point is to provide an alternative "I will not be able to complete your request by this afternoon. I can schedule time tomorrow to complete the detail requested".

Warren Buffet says, "the difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything."

So, when you are asked by the school to again assist in planning the special fundraiser like you did last year, just say no, and move on, van Beek says. She reassures us that while it does take some practice to say no, it does also get easier after some time. 

Also read: 'Mommy, put down your phone!': Are you a distracted parent? 

But what about working mom guilt? 

We might accept that we can't do it all, but how do we handle the feeling that we're letting the family down when we can't be everywhere and do everything?

Van Beek says there is nothing wrong with being ambitious, wanting a (successful) career and being a (good) mom. 

"As a working mother, remember you are setting the example of earning a living and (hopefully) loving what you do. Most working women feel they need to take control of every single aspect of their lives – personal and professional… and that is exhausting! We need to remember that we don't have to do everything ourselves," she says reassuringly. 

So, how do you cope with the guilt when you are not available to help with the school concert as it falls at the same time as the monthly team meeting? 

Van Beek suggests a simple tool to use is to make a list with three headings: 

#1 – Acknowledge 

#2 – Decisions 

#3 – Let go of 

In column one, you list all the aspects that you can acknowledge about this matter. For example, "I feel disappointed that I can't help" or "I'm a dedicated mom even if I can't help with the school concert". 

In column 2, make a list of the decisions you can make. For example, "I can decide to ask my mother-in-law to help with the concert" or "I can stop comparing myself with the stay-at-home moms that might have more flexibility." 

In the last column, list the aspects that you need to let go of. 

For example, "I'll let go of my guilt as I'm doing the best I can in this circumstance" or "I can let go of feeling not good enough."

Also read: 'Bring dads into the fold' and other key advice for new parents 

Practical tips for working moms

Van Beek offers up the following nuggets of advice for busy moms looking for a gap. 


Strong daily habits in the form of a good morning and evening routine can do magic to support you in keeping the balls in the air and stop feeling guilty. 


Daily reflections can be an effective way of creating mind space as it allows one the opportunity to gain perspective on situations we find challenging. Many successful people make it a daily habit of taking time to reflect. An easy way to start reflecting is to do a one-sentence journal every day; also list and incorporate something that you are grateful for.


As we do with teams in the work environment, the same applies in your personal capacity. You need to delegate duties in your personal life as well.

Get a support system in place that you can rely on. It could be arranging a lift-club at school, assigning a tutor or Au pair helping the kids with homework or choosing to do your grocery shopping online.

Discuss sharing chores with your partner. Many modern partners are more open to taking on non-traditional tasks e.g., cooking dinner, doing the washing, packing lunchboxes or putting the kids to bed.

The best advice that I have received as a working mother was: "Be present in the moment". This simply means choosing to focus on what you're doing and not allowing your mind to wander to other urgent matters.

In my previous corporate life, I often found that when I'm busy helping the kids with homework my mind is already busy with the presentation for the next morning. I then needed to refocus and choose to concentrate on the important and not the urgent.  

You don't have to be a superwoman; decide what is important to you and stick with that.


Share your stories and questions with us via email at Anonymous contributions are welcome.

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