14 Jul Burned Out? You’re Not Alone.
The triple whammy of the pandemic, working from home, and juggling other responsibilities have left many women at the end of their rope. Here’s how five professional women—and their very different companies—learned to adjust.
By Erin Chan Ding
Right at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020—from the stay-at-home orders and the beginning of her kids’ remote schooling— Michelle Youkhana knew she faced an impossible set of circumstances.
Youkhana, a lawyer based in the Chicago suburb of North Barrington, was working as general counsel for Pampered Chef. She was already juggling 60-hour workweeks while parenting a middle schooler and twin third-graders. After just three weeks of pandemic life, she went on Facebook to express what so many professional women were thinking: “I’ve said from the beginning that this is not going to be sustainable for me, and one month in, I am exhausted, my kids are behind on their school assignments, I am behind on my work projects, and my fridge smelled so bad yesterday from rotten food that I nearly threw up when I found it.”
That same night, Youkhana fell asleep on one of her kid’s beds at 6 p.m. with her laptop on and wide open, missing a virtual work meeting. She woke up a few hours later to find a handwritten card from her youngest daughter that read, “I love you so much.” This filled Youkhana with warmth, but it didn’t make her any less desperate for a teacher, babysitter, and housekeeper.
After months passed in this untenable state, Youkhana asked herself the pressing question: “Why am I living like this? And how can I better integrate my career with my life?”
Even after her kids returned to school, Youkhana reassessed the way she worked. She still didn’t think it was sustainable, so she quit.
“I was so stressed out in my former role,” says Youkhana. “I was struggling as a mom and as a worker. I was kind of like that supermom who thought I was invincible. And COVID was a huge slap in my face. I mean, it’s knocked me down a notch and made me very vulnerable, knowing that I couldn’t handle it all.”
Many working women have changed the way they approach their career, embracing remote schedules, hybrid work, or shifting to a different path altogether. Last March, Youkhana began working for Axiom, which places executive-level legal professionals at various companies, such as Sony or Whole Foods, for short-term consulting roles.
The role allowed her to set her own hours, choose her own clients, be there for her kids’ school plays, and take regular breaks and family vacations.
“It’s really been a life changer for me,” Youkhana says. “COVID has made me reprioritize what was important for me and for my husband and for our family. We started to sit around the table every single night for dinner together. I could get teary-eyed telling you this, but it’s brought our family so close.”
Companies, in turn, have realized that the flexible work necessitated by the pandemic has offered employees an unprecedented opportunity for work-life integration. It has also brought the importance of well-being and mental health to the forefront.
For instance, AT&T offers a suite of mental health resources for its employees, including resilience exercises and services, sleep studies, coaching for nutrition, physical therapy, telehealth, counseling services, and on-site health and wellness centers across the country.
“Protecting our mental health and making sure that our employees are on the up-and-up are how we take care of them so they can take care of our customers,” said Michelle Jordan, vice president of talent and leadership development for AT&T, which is based in Dallas. “We encourage employees to make it a priority.”
Jordan has had to shift her own work schedule several times, from a pre-pandemic in-the-office schedule, to working at home every day, to a more permanent hybrid plan in which she works from the office three days a week and from home two days a week.
She says this hybrid schedule fits best with her husband and two sons. It also allows for what she calls “life-work harmony” rather than “work-life balance.” Years ago, a mentor told Jordan that striving to achieve work-life balance was impossible because she would never achieve a “full-on balance between work and life.”
“I was determined at one point in my life to prove her wrong because I believed that I could actually crack the code, like it was an algebra problem I was trying to solve,” says Jordan. “As I matured, I realized that I could never perfectly parcel out equal attention. I knew there would always be a certain degree of conflict trying to achieve balance.”
Jordan says that now her family understands sometimes she’ll have demanding days at work and, likewise, her colleagues know there will be important moments in her family life that she will not miss.
“I make time for the people and the experiences that I value,” she says. “And I do it unapologetically.”
The fact that the pandemic has caused distress and hardship for families across the country is indisputable. But there have also been upsides for many when “business as usual” was upended across industries. Mary Devona says the increased work flexibility has improved her life in nearly every way. She sleeps more, works out more, catches more of her daughter’s soccer games and her son’s band performances, and helps her husband with grocery shopping and dinner prep.
Before the pandemic, Devona, director of market research for Xeris Pharmaceuticals, woke up each weekday at 5 a.m. to catch the 7:12 a.m. train, for the 1½-hour morning commute to downtown Chicago. In the evening, she didn’t step off her return train until nearly 7 p.m.
“I’ve missed a lot of my kids’ activities over the years because I couldn’t get back from downtown,” she says. “Going downtown gave me pretty much three hours a day of not being productive.”
Now, during the four days she works from home each week, Devona can sleep in until 7 a.m. and start working earlier than if she commuted. When she’s done with work at 5 p.m., instead of slogging to the train station, Devona takes a flight of stairs to the basement to work out. Amid all the pandemic adjustments, she even received a promotion. And thanks to her near-daily workouts, and eating healthier at home, she’s lost 18 pounds.
Though Hailey Johnson has worked as a software engineer for only three years, she says the pandemic gave her the mental and emotional space to start a side business that channels her restless creativity.
Johnson was fine with working remotely from her one-bedroom apartment in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her cat, an American shorthair named Tony Soprano. But as a 25-year-old professional, she felt she needed something else.
Then, the freeze on federal student loan payments during the pandemic gave her more financial freedom to try something different: she started her own professional organizing business called Organizing Imperfection.
Now, during her evenings and weekends, when she’s done with her engineering job, Johnson works on branding and marketing her business as well as organizing for her clients.
“I just felt my personal situation, my lifestyle—which was sitting down all day staring at a computer screen—was significantly contributing to me not being able to function very well,” she says. “So I wanted to find something where I would be on my feet, talking to people, out in the sunlight … there’s just a certain level of creative fulfillment.”
Zurich, a multinational insurance group, had already been shaping a program called Flex Work five years ago; prior to the pandemic, at least 60 percent of its employees worked part-time from home, according to Tracy Lampert, head of employee experience and culture at Zurich North America.
When the pandemic began, Zurich shifted nearly all employees to remote work—currently, about 70 percent of staffers are headed back to the office but have much more flexible schedules with a work-from-home component in an initiative the company calls Flex Work 2.0.
A key part of the thinking behind Flex Work 2.0, Lampert says, was to make sure teams’ in-office time was purposeful and focused on five Cs: collaboration, coaching, celebration, community, and camaraderie.
“We’re empowering teams to work together to figure out when they come into the office and how they best use their time,” Lampert says. “What we don’t want to have happen is people come in, and they’ve done the commute, and they’re doing essentially the same work in the office that they did at home with headphones on. We’re being very intentional about optimizing that time in the office.”
Chandar Potter, who works in Zurich’s New York offices as senior regional vice president for commercial surety, says the six-person team she leads is typically at the office about three days a week.
Potter says it’s a balance that’s been ideal for her. Before or during her home-based workdays, she has time to take care of life tasks like hauling her laundry up and down her fifth-floor Manhattan walk-up apartment or making a grocery run.
“It’s much more of a breather to be able to do that,” Potter says. “It helps with my sanity. It helps me feel accomplished. I’m giving myself more leeway to do that, but Zurich has given me that permission without [officially] giving me permission.”
She still enjoys the office environment, where she can better read nonverbal cues from her colleagues—and make use of two large computer monitors and proper work furniture.
And then there’s the natural bonding that happens while working in person.
“We get a chance to goof around,” she says. “We learned about people on [Microsoft] Teams, but in the office, I know who likes chocolate or who doesn’t like mushrooms. We bring in goodies; you feed someone, they’ll eat more, and they’ll tell me more about themselves, too.” DW
Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist based in Chicago who writes about business, travel, technology, fitness, health, parenting, faith, and race and identity for a variety of magazines, newspapers, nonprofit organizations, and online publications.
“Companies have realized that the flexible work necessitated by the pandemic has offered employees an unprecedented opportunity for work-life integration.”
Thinking of making a big job change or wanting to find more personal, career, and family fulfillment during the pandemic?
Here are a few tips from women with experience:
Follow what your gut and your heart are telling you. It took Michelle Youkhana, a lawyer, a whole year of mulling it over to quit her job as general counsel for one company to join another with a much more amenable schedule for her family. “My gut instinct was to do it a year earlier and I waited another year—I wish I hadn’t done that, because it all really did work out for the best for me to make that jump,” she says.
Give yourself grace. “Simply put, women often take on a heavier load, and we also are our own biggest critics,” says Michelle Jordan, vice president of talent and leadership development for AT&T. “I think it’s so important to give ourselves grace, and to be okay, and to lighten the burden. And being okay with, ‘We will never get this perfect if we’re trying to balance it.’ Recognize that we will always be a work in progress.”
Find firm personal financial footing. “Make sure you have solid ground underneath you to make decisions from,” says Hailey Johnson, a software engineer who started a new organizing business during the pandemic. “Because you don’t want to be making business decisions based on a fear of not having enough. So if you can have a stable financial situation underneath you first, I think it’s the best way to get started. But there are also tons of low barrier-to-entry ways to do what you want to do.” —ECD