For two years, working parents in America have been running on fumes, hammered by the stress of remote schooling, day care closures, economic instability and social isolation.
Now, a new report says that 66% of working parents meet the criteria for parental burnout — a nonclinical term that means they are so exhausted by the pressure of caring for their children, they feel they have nothing left to give.
The report, published Thursday by researchers with Ohio State University, is based on an online survey of 1,285 working parents that was conducted between January 2021 and April 2021. It gives a snapshot of a different time, when America was deep in pandemic lockdowns.
But its authors believe parental burnout is here to stay, because working parents don’t have enough practical, structural supports to overcome the relentless stress, which isn’t abating. Any parent can experience burnout, but the new report focuses on working parents, who, the researchers believe, are at particular risk for exhaustion.
“Parental burnout isn’t just going to end magically when the pandemic finally ends,” said Bernadette Melnyk, dean of the College of Nursing at Ohio State and an author of the report. “The chronicity of the pandemic has taken a toll and depleted many parents’ coping reserves that will take time and patience to build up again.”
What are the signs of parental burnout?
Parental burnout isn’t a clinical diagnosis that would end up in anyone’s medical chart, but many psychologists recognize it as a subtype of burnout — a work-related phenomenon now recognized as a syndrome by the World Health Organization. (It is not included in the DSM-5, often called the “bible” of psychiatry in the United States.)
“As with burnout, parental burnout is defined as physical, emotional and mental exhaustion due to the ongoing demands of caring for one’s children,” said Dr. Jennifer Yen, a psychiatrist at UTHealth Houston.
Of course, raising children is demanding in all those ways, which makes it difficult to draw a clear line between normal periods of stress and burnout. Yen said parents should be on the lookout for signs like fatigue, irritability, changes in sleep, appetite and mood, or aches and pains. What sets parental burnout apart is how severe those symptoms are, as well as how much they affect daily functioning.
“It’s a state where you have been giving, and giving, and giving and giving — until you’re totally empty,” said Kate Kripke, a clinical social worker and the founder of the Postpartum Wellness Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Yen also noted other red flags that are specific to parental burnout, like feeling angry or resentful about having to care for your children, and starting to isolate from them physically or emotionally. Parents with burnout may also feel trapped or fantasize about leaving, she added.
Though the new report may be useful to clinicians, the researchers wrote it directly for working parents. It includes a new burnout scale they hope parents will use to gauge how they are doing, which includes 10 statements such as: “I wake up exhausted at the thought of another day with my children” or “I feel like I am in survival mode as a parent.” Parents can agree or disagree with each on a scale from “not at all” to “very much so.” They are then given a final score that can help indicate whether they have what the researchers would consider to be mild, moderate or severe burnout.
What to do about parental burnout
No matter where working parents fall on that spectrum, it may be helpful for them to first acknowledge that many of the challenges they’re facing are beyond their control. It is impossible to be a dedicated employee and a dedicated caregiver simultaneously without adequate support. Self-compassion is important, Melnyk said.
But parents facing mild burnout may be able to make immediate changes that will prevent more severe exhaustion. Find small ways to ask for help, the researchers say. If you are able, ask a family member or neighbor to pitch in with child care, even if it’s just to give you a short break. If you’re responsible for getting your children to and from school, activities and play dates, find others to car pool with so you aren’t running yourself ragged.
The report found that 68% of working moms say they’re burned out compared with 42% of working dads, so it may be especially important for women to take breaks and ask for help — though that may not be simple or easy.
Stressed-out parents may also find it helpful to tap into a sense of quiet and calm by practicing mindfulness. Research shows that mindfulness can help reduce parental stress, which may in turn help improve children’s psychological outcomes. It can be as simple as intentionally feeling the bottom of your foot on the floor and taking a deep breath, Kripke said.
But breathing alone won’t solve this. Parents with more serious burnout should reach out to a primary care practitioner or mental health provider immediately. They can screen for issues like anxiety and depression. (If you are unsure how to find a mental health provider, it may be helpful to start by searching free online directories, like Alma, ZocDoc, Monarch or Headway.)
Keep in mind that some mental health providers feel conflicted about the notion of parental burnout.
“This is the first I’m hearing of the term,” said Dr. Catherine Birndorf, CEO and medical director of the Motherhood Center in New York City. She said she likes the concept, and the idea of a parental burnout scale, if they help parents who wouldn’t otherwise recognize they are struggling. But she worries that some parents may write off what they’re experiencing as burnout, instead of getting treated for an underlying condition like anxiety or depression.
Birndorf also emphasized that the onus should not be solely on parents to recognize — and manage — their own burnout. They have been stuck in a situation she called “untenable,” caused not just by the pandemic, but also by a long-standing gap in policies that would offer working parents the day-to-day support they need.
“The issues are systemic,” Birndorf said. “Burnout is happening in the context of a national crisis, which is about paid parental leave and universal child care. Without those things, what are we supposed to do?”