Balancing the Scales: Work-Life Balance, Burnout, and Women

Balancing the Scales: Work-Life Balance,
Burnout, and Women

By Micheline Murphy


At Cisco Live this last June, I had the chance to have a few conversations. Some involved solving the world’s problems on a cocktail napkin. Several times. Some conversations were about the best super-power. Flying, of course. And maybe force bubbles. I even had a conversation about the depth of pockets in women’s jeans versus men’s jeans. But one conversation really stuck with me.


It was about studying for the CCIE lab exam. The engineer I was speaking with had young children, and lamented how hard it was to devote time to study. “They can’t understand why I can’t spend time with them....” was the gist. The engineer wasn’t sure if a next lab attempt was going to be in the cards because of how difficult it had been to balance work (because let’s face it, studying for any certification is work) with family.


It stuck with me so long, that I decided to explore the whole subject of work-life balance. What is it? Why is it important? How is it different between men and women?

Just what is work-life balance anyway?

I began my research on work-life balance with a search for the definition of work-life balance. Somewhat ironically, a commonly used or agreed upon definition was not forthcoming, even though it seems as if everyone is always talking about it. A survey of Google hits for the question, “what is work-life balance?” gave a variety of answers that swirled amorphously around the idea of work-life balance.


The Business Dictionary defined work-life balance as:


A comfortable state of equilibrium achieved between an employee's primary priorities of their employment position and their private lifestyle. Most psychologists would agree that the demands of an employee's career should not overwhelm the individual's ability to enjoy a satisfying personal life outside of the business environment.[i]


A consulting firm specializing in work-life balance solutions for businesses defined work-life balance as “Meaningful daily Achievement and Enjoyment in each of ... four life quadrants: Work, Family, Friends and Self.”[ii]  That font of crowdsourced wisdom, Wikipedia, defined it by what it was not: “[T]he lack of opposition between work and other life roles. It is the state of equilibrium in which demands of personal life, professional life, and family life are equal. “[iii] One writer went so far as to say that the definition was like beauty... in the eyes of the beholder.[iv]


Taking all of these different definitions, I came up with a short list of commonalities:


  • Equilibrium between work and non-work.
  • The ability to take comfort, satisfaction, or enjoyment from non-work that is not overwhelmed by the demands of work.


The opposite of work-life balance is burnout.

Despite largely superficial differences in definition, there is broad general agreement on why work-life balance is important. Because work-life balance reduces job stress and job stress is BAD. Just two months ago, the World Health Organization classified job burnout as a bona fide syndrome, with recognizable symptoms, and a clearly defined cause—chronic workplace stress.[v]  Estimates of the financial impact of chronic workplace stress/burnout put it in the billions of dollars. $450-500 billion annually, by one estimate.[vi]


The well-known analytics company, Gallup, studies workplace stress extensively, and found that about two-thirds of full-time workers experienced job burnout. That high number of burned out employees contributed to some measurable business impacts. Burned out workers are:


  • 63% more likely to take a sick day.
  • Half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with a manager.
  • 23% more likely to visit an emergency room.
  1. 2.6 times more likely to leave their current employer.[vii]


Gallup followed up by studying what factors most closely correlate to burnout. On their list were the usual culprits: unmanageable workload, unreasonable time pressure, lack of clarity in expectations or job duties, and lack of support from the manager. But the number one cause of burnout was unfair treatment at work, including “bias, favoritism, and mistreatment by a coworker...unfair compensation or corporate policies.” Gallup found that when workers are unfairly treated at work, high levels of burnout are 2.3 times more likely. 


Dudes! It’s all about the money!

There are a lot of reasons why work-life balance is harder for women. Let’s begin with that number one reason for chronic job stress—unfairness. In many cases, women workers are subject to additional stressors that their male counterparts are not subject to, and might even be (unconsciously or consciously) contributing to. 


One obvious example is the coarse co-worker. Having to deal daily with a sexist co-worker or co-workers does take its toll, and in fact, one study of women in the tech industry found that 23% of the 1000 respondents had experienced gender discrimination, and 12% had been sexually harassed.[viii] 


But far and away, the biggest inequity that women face in the tech industry is regarding the bottom line--pay. Consider these statistics from the same survey of women in tech:


  • 46% of respondents believed that their male counterparts were being afforded more career opportunities than they were.
  • 46% of respondents believed that they were being paid less than their male counterparts.
  • 45% of respondents identified wage growth as their biggest challenge.
  • 33% of respondents expected to have stagnant wage growth some time in their career.
  • 28% of women with children believed that they were passed up for a promotion because they were a parent or had another family responsibility.
  • The number one reason women left tech was lack of career growth (28%).  The number three reason women left tech was salary stagnation (24%).


In all, these facts result in women leaving the tech industry in rates much higher than their male counterparts, as much as 45% higher. This loss is despite the fact that 80% of those who said they wanted to switch to a different role would have been more likely to have stayed with their company if there had been a clear path to do so.


Put the shoe on the other foot. If you were stuck in a dead-end job, with no opportunities to advance, no chance of wage growth, and you were being paid less than your colleagues for the same work, would you stay? No, of course not.


So, now we come to the billion-dollar question. How can this inequity be addressed?


One way to address pay inequity is through transparency. One of the things that I really liked about working at a union-shop law firm was that every job description was easily available, along with its corresponding salary range. Also readily available were advancement criteria, and because job descriptions and advancement criteria were negotiated between the union and management, the criteria were fairly objective. It’s one of the reasons that union-shops tend to have a smaller gender gap than non-union shops.


That’s not the case for many if not most employers. But, the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce are well-known, and reducing workplace stress reaps its own financial rewards. For tech industry employers seeking that extra edge over the competition, it pays off to take a look at your own pay practices. Consider:


  • How large is your gender pay gap? Do you even know?
  • How transparent are you about each job description’s salary range? Is it readily apparent and objectively measurable what skills each grade requires, or are employees placed in their initial job grade at the judgment of the hiring manager?
  • How about your advancement process? Are the criteria to go from grade to grade readily known and objective, or are individual managers given wide discretion in whom they promote? Take a look at who has gotten promoted in the last year or five years. How often do women in your company get promoted and how does that compare with the frequency that men get promoted?
  • What about career advancement? Again, is the job description and salary range readily available? Are the criteria for qualifying for the job objectively measurable? Who makes the decision about career advancement and how is that decision made?


For the everyday engineer, talk amongst yourselves. We can’t get to challenging the gender pay gap in our own workplaces if we don’t know about it. Being able to talk frankly with peers about compensation, benefits, and other conditions of employment is the first step. Hollywood is rife with stories about how much more an actor is paid than his co-starring actress, and it all started with knowing what you make compared to your peers. [ix]


If they can do it, so can we.  So let's get crackin'.





[ii] (Emphasis in original.)


[iv] The author argued that work-life balance means different things to different people, depending on your age.  That might be the case, but I would argue that just because work-life balance is achieved by different means, does not alter the basic definition.