Working Moms Have a Burnout Problem

Burnout specialist Dr. Jaqueline Kerr identifies four chronic stressors that contribute to Working Mom Burnout and offers some actionable solutions.

portrait of Meg Embry
by Meg Embry

Published on June 29, 2022

Edited by Jennifer Cuellar
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Working Moms Have a Burnout Problem
Image Credit: MoMo Productions / DigitalVision / Getty Images


On paper, Dr. Jaqueline Kerr is the ultimate working mom success story: Thompson Reuters counts her among "The World's Most Influential Scientific Minds." She has over $56 million in research grants. She runs her own business, has a popular TED Talk, and hosts two podcasts — one of which is called "Overcoming Working Mom Burnout."

But off-paper, her life hasn't exactly been a cakewalk. Recently, Kerr suffered her own bout of severe burnout. "I would cry all the way to work because I was so exhausted," she said. "Then I would cry all the way home because I knew that what waited for me there was equally overwhelming. No place offered relief from my desperation."

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Ready to start your journey?

Kerr has made it her mission to save other working moms from the ravages of burnout. In this interview, she unpacks the four chronic stressors moms are up against today and offers her expert advice for overcoming them.

Parenting Burnout: The Exhaustion Gap

The Facts:

"Women have always done a disproportionate amount of the unpaid labor at home," said Kerr. "It starts from the very beginning, especially if the mother takes time off from work to be with the baby and the father doesn't. She becomes the default manager of all the things: doctor's appointments, childcare, schools, camps, playdates, medications, sleep, and eating schedules. Even if her partner shares responsibilities, it isn't the same as managing that mental load. It's a full-time job."

Mothers also bear the lion's share of the family emotional load — a burden that got even heavier during the pandemic.

"The kids were distressed; normal boundaries went out the window. Working moms had to be emotionally present for struggling kids while simultaneously managing their own mental health and trying to excel in their jobs. Moms are exhausted."

  • The Fix:

    "What can we do at the personal level?" asked Kerr. "Moms: It's time to ditch martyrdom motherhood. The world may call moms 'superheroes,' but you don't have to be a hero. You don't have to sacrifice everything."

    "A good coach or therapist can help you find ways to make motherhood more manageable by letting go of expectations, making changes at the family level, enlisting your partner as an ally in the home, and processing the shame and guilt that come up as a working mother."

Occupational Burnout: Overworked and Undervalued

The Facts:

"Overwork, lack of autonomy, and lack of recognition contribute massively to burnout. Anyone can experience these things, but working moms are more likely to because they aren't moving up the ranks," said Kerr.

"Companies often fail to value the unique skills mothers bring to the table. A really good example of that occurred during the pandemic, when women did a much better job of looking after the well-being of their teams. Employee well-being affects the bottom line, but only about 25% of companies reward that kind of work. Women are spending a lot of energy doing crucial but undervalued and under-rewarded work."

  • The Fix:

    "What can we do at the organizational level?" asked Kerr. "Managers: It's time to start making well-being a key performance indicator. Reward the hard work mothers and women are doing to keep your business running."

    "Moms are stereotyped as nurturing because that's something we are actually pretty good at. It's a valuable skill to bring to the workplace — especially right now — so why is it not incentivized? I want to see managers start to value collaborative leadership more."

Barrier Burnout: The Broken Rung and the Maternal Wall

The Facts, according to Harvard's Gender Action Portal:

  • Childless women are 8.2 times more likely to be recommended for promotion than equally qualified mothers.
  • Mothers are recommended to start at significantly lower salaries than childless women, childless men, and fathers.
  • Mothers are perceived to be 12% less committed to their jobs and 10% less competent at those jobs than childless women. (By contrast, fathers are perceived to be 5% more committed to their jobs than childless men.)

"When someone becomes a mother, suddenly everyone believes her new commitment to her family makes her less committed to her job. Meanwhile, a dad in the exact same situation is considered more committed to his work because he is now also committed to a family," said Kerr. "How can the same situation result in two different assumptions?"

"Mothers, of all the groups, are on the bottom rung, the broken rung. Mothers of color are even further down. And heaven forbid you do step out of the workplace for a while and then try to come back — you just can't get the same position at the same pay. You end up doing work you're overqualified for. It's deeply frustrating, because you know you are skilled and capable. But you just keep coming up against that maternal wall. No one warned you this was how it was going to be."

  • The Fix:

    "What can we do at a systemic level? CEOs and business owners: You must institute tools and procedures to help overcome systemic biases. The biases against women are further perpetuated against moms," said Kerr.

    "That means you need to make hiring a team decision, preferably a diverse team. Use structured interview questions and materials. And for goodness sake, create reward structures grounded in performance, not potential — the data shows that we almost always judge a man's potential higher than an equally qualified woman's."

Crisis Fatigue: Sending Kids Into a Scary World

The Facts:

  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, over 13 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic.
  • At the same time, firearms have become the leading cause of death for American children. According to the White House, more children have died by gun violence in the last two decades than on-duty police officers and active military combined.
  • A 2019 poll by the American Psychological Association found that 62% of parents live in fear that their children will be killed in a mass shooting.

It's always been tough to send our kids out into the world. But since March 2020, it's been excruciating: Waiting to understand how the pandemic would impact children, waiting for them to get access to vaccines, and waiting to learn what long-term effects a COVID-19 infection might have on their developing bodies. There's still so much we don't know.

"Pandemic stress has been chronic," said Kerr. "We've undergone constantly changing recommendations, constantly changing norms. Uncertainty is something human beings cope with very poorly. Uncertainty about threats to our children is a major source of fear and stress."

On top of the invisible but ever-present danger of COVID-19, we are also coping with a school shooting epidemic. "As a result, 'out there' — away from Mom's watchful eye — has become more threatening than ever. Moms are tasked with determining what precautions will keep their families safe in a scary world — an impossible burden," said Kerr.

"It's important to realize that as a white mother, I have a certain level of fear for my children. It's constant; it's distracting. But that intense surge of fear that we all experienced in the aftermath of Uvalde is very real at all times for Black mothers. Statistically, the chances that their children will be victims of gun violence are much higher. Crisis fatigue is a daily reality for those moms even in 'normal times' — an added layer of emotional exhaustion, a terrible strain."

  • The Fix:

    "Some things we can't just fix without collective action, collective political will. But empathy can be very powerful, so take a moment to recognize that people you know are living this reality all the time," said Kerr. "Being seen means a lot."

Feeling inspired to support moms? Here are three things you can do right now:

  1. Share this article. Do your part to normalize the conversation.
  2. Empower the moms around you to say "no" to office housework tasks and focus on the performance indicators that will get them promoted. Celebrate their successes publicly.
  3. Promote policies and practices at your workplace that support working parents of all types — because collective action is the key to culture change.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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