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Brain fog, fatigue and chronic stress — 53% of U.S. women are burned out. Here’s how to cope

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Victoria Fricke is trying to juggle her work, virtual schooling and childcare during the pandemic.
Source: Victoria Fricke

Victoria Fricke had her first panic attack shortly after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The 34-year-old mother of two is a travel agent with her own business. The cancellations piled in as her children's school and daycare shut down.

One year later, Fricke is still struggling, often feeling burned out.

"There are not enough hours in the day" said Fricke, who lives in Indianapolis with her husband, 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. "I am working late into the night.

"I am not sleeping well," she added. "The anxiety and the frustration that I can't do it all, that's the hard part."

Fricke is one of the millions of working moms across the country trying to juggle their jobs, virtual schooling and childcare during the pandemic. Some women are dealing with loss of income, others may be caring for aging parents. They may be isolated from coworkers, friends and family.

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In fact, more than half, or 53%, of women said their mental health suffers to the point of burnout because of their jobs, all or some of the time, according to a new CNBC and SurveyMonkey Women at Work survey. The survey, conducted Feb. 22 to March 1, polled 6,821 U.S. adults.

"We are in an active state of trauma," said licensed psychotherapist Bea Arthur, CEO of The Difference, which provides on-demand teletherapy for companies and communities.

"This is an assault on our nervous system."

One of the root causes of burnout is lack of fairness, which is something women have been dealing with in the workforce for a long time, said workplace expert Jennifer Moss, author the upcoming book "The Burnout Epidemic."

This brain fog, fatigue and chronic stress has made ... small tasks really exhausting.
Jennifer Moss
Workplace expert

On top of that, women take on the bulk of the household work. During Covid, women spent 20 hours a week on caregiving and housework, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org found in their 2020 Women in the Workplace report.

"How can we expect them to still meet pre-Covid goals around productivity, also ask them to be engaged and ask them to take on 20 more hours of extra work per week, and then just say it is business as usual?" Moss said.

"It is completely unsustainable and it is unfair to many groups who can't meet those goals because they just don't have the physical time in the day to meet them."

While experts have called on corporate America to respond to the crisis, there are strategies women can employ to help overcome burnout.

Let things go

Have transparent and honest conversations with your peers and boss about your goals and flexibility around them, suggested Moss.

Also, have more self-compassion. Prioritize what is urgent and what you can let go.

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The same goes for the work at home, like emptying the dishwasher or folding laundry.

"This brain fog, fatigue and chronic stress has made those small tasks really exhausting," Moss explained.

Arthur suggests practicing compassionate detachment when confronted with an issue that makes you feel frustrated or resentful. In other words, observe something but don't absorb it.

"Our emotional energy is finite and negativity drains it the most," she said.

Take time for yourself

Westend61 | Westend61 | Getty Images

"Simple things, like taking a break, are incredibly important," said Claire Barnes, Monster's chief human capital officer.

For instance, take a walk outside or sit with a cup of coffee.

Moss likes to schedule a fake commute — instead of working during what would have been your commute time to the office, enjoy your breakfast away from the computer.

Then, there is managing your on-camera meetings.

"Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams are fantastic and really helped us to be productive over the past 12 months," Barnes said.

"However, it is not natural for us to sit in front of a camera for eight hours a day."

Space out meetings with breaks in between, or ask to jump off a meeting early so you can have some time before the next one.

Stay connected

Allison Harris-Turk started a Facebook group during the pandmeic to provide a community for parents.
Source: Allison Harris-Turk

Nurturing relationships with friends and family is important.

While you may feel too exhausted, picking up the phone to speak with a friend for 10 minutes will be critical to you getting through this, Moss said.

Some people have found help through social media. Allison Harris-Turk was amazed to see the reaction to her Facebook group, Learning in the Time of Corona. She founded it at the start of the pandemic as a place for parents to find support and share ideas. It now has nearly 17,000 members from around the globe.

"Women are just feeling defeated," said Harris-Turk, who is in her mid-40s and lives in San Diego with her husband and three kids.

Yet when anyone posted about a tough time or a particular problem, others responded — including mental health professionals and social workers — and shared tips, links and even personal messages to start a conversation.

Harris-Turk also sees some cause for optimism as the vaccinations continue around the country.

"My mindset has turned from 'how are we going to get through this' to 'how are we going to reenter,'" she said.

"I see a 'next' now."

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