The Burn-Out Syndrome and the SuperWoman Complex…

Recently I read an interesting article about the ‘Burn-Out Syndrome’, something which is affecting more and more people in our frenetic world, and more women than men are suffering from it, apparently because we are ‘people-pleasers’ (in a recent survey 8 out of 10 women find it hard to say no). This is based on the research of Harvard trained psychologist Dr Joan Borysenko, who has written a book about it and its devastating effect on women’s lives. (

We live in a competitive, fast-paced world, with an almost constant sense of urgency to everything we do, and with the current economic climate we are under a lot of pressure. Consider children, family, chores, and social responsibilities, and there seems to be too many women who are stretched thin, juggling too many balls, struggling to cope and who are exhausted!
Now, some of this we can’t control and have little choice over. There are some women who have to work, are carers for their family, and raising children, and they are the real heroes.
But, I think there is a part of this ‘Burn-Out Syndrome’ that can be attributed to the ‘SuperWoman Complex’: the belief that you can have everything and do everything.
Our mental, emotional and physical resources are not limitless though, and they need to be respected and replenished regularly to keep us functioning at our best. It is good to push our coping skills every so often, but not so they’re constantly stretched and we feel out of control of our lives – mainly because we’ve got too many responsibilities, AND we’ve overcommitted ourselves to a whole lot of extra stuff too.
It’s all about the elusive ‘balance’, the lady with the scales. And everyone’s balance is slightly different – your responsibilities, commitments, goals, priorities and energy are unique to you, so it’s not a one size fits all. But it is our responsibility to find our own balance and take care of ourselves.
I believe in the pyramid structure: if you get the basics right at the bottom of the pyramid, like sleep, diet, exercise, rest etc., you’re laying a good foundation, and are better equipped to deal with the goals and aspirations higher up the pyramid (I know, it’s not brain science). But it is about performance: we get the basics right, we can perform better in other aspects of our lives, and quite importantly enjoy ourselves too!
I’m guilty of it. How often do we sacrifice sleep, a healthy diet, and rest to cope with other pressures and meet deadlines?
But there is much research out there which reinforces that we need to take better care of ourselves in order to function well. There is evidence that our weekend experiences will affect our work performance, i.e.: time away from work relaxing and reconnecting with family and friends, reduces burn-out symptoms and improves health (to coin a phrase from Men’s Health: The Ministry of the Bleedin’ Obvious). Having a high strain job effects blood pressure, serum cholesterol, increases cardiovascular disease, negative pregnancy outcomes, and decreases exercise behaviour. Psychoneuroimmunology research has demonstrated that stress is an immunosuppressive, especially long-term stressors that have been adapted to, like a physical disability, unemployment or high job stress.
Lack of sleep is also a big contributor to burn-out – besides decreasing concentration and productivity, it increases weight-gain (messing with our insulin sensitivity), decreases our immune system, increases hypertension and risk for heart disease, as well as increasing depressive symptoms and emotional instability (unhinged woman anyone?). But in a Good Housekeeping survey of 1000 women, 64% only manage 4-6 hours a night. Most of us need 7-8 hours for the health benefits.