We’re living in a world with no off switches and our burnout is at a boiling point. Powered Down explores how the system has failed us and what we can do to find our way off the hamster wheel — for good.
In 2018, Giuli Hernandez* had it all going for her: She was a first-generation Uruguayan college graduate starting her first “big girl” job as a marketing associate for a mental healthcare service, was engaged to her long-time boyfriend, and was enjoying her post-graduate life in Atlanta, GA. But shortly after starting her new job, Hernandez started having panic attacks because of the toxic work culture, overwhelming workload, and low pay. She had suspicions that this wasn’t normal, but how could she be sure? She never saw her parents have issues like this at their work. Maybe the stress was from wedding planning or additional familial responsibilities like translating documents for her parents, writing emails to her brother's teachers, and helping keep her father’s business in order.
She confided in her mom and dad, but they had trouble understanding how she could have been so unhappy at work. Her parents, who’d immigrated with Hernandez from Uruguay, reminded her how privileged she was to work in an office with air conditioning while her father did outdoor manual labor, often in scorching temperatures. After this conversation, Hernandez felt guilty for how she was feeling. She tried to convince herself that she was overreacting, that this was normal, and that she needed to change something in herself for feeling this way; after all, who really likes work anyway?
But Hernandez fell behind on her tasks, was crying every day during the car ride home, and was developing a strong hostility towards her work. She didn’t realize it then, but she was experiencing burnout. We’ve all heard of burnout: it’s a byproduct of work culture in the 21st century and everyone feels it to some degree — the exhaustion, the cynicism, the staring at the computer for 30 minutes and realizing we haven’t done anything — it’s inevitable.
However, burnout has and continues to affect women more than men and, because women of color are likely to face more challenges in the workplace (such as microaggressions, discrimination, and extra scrutiny), they have an even greater risk of experiencing it. And this burnout can be even worse for first- and second-generation Latinas, specifically those entering unfamiliar industries that promote a capitalist culture of unrelenting productivity, while being expected to support their families along the way.
Burnout can be even worse for first- and second-generation Latinas, specifically those entering unfamiliar industries that promote a capitalist culture of unrelenting productivity, while being expected to support their families along the way.
In fact, while burnout is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon,” Christina Maslach (PhD), professor of psychology (emerita) at the University of California, Berkeley, and leading scholar on job burnout, explained to Somos that we often fail to see how our environments such as our unique occupations, socioeconomic situations, various personal backgrounds, and identities can affect our experience of job burnout.
Latinas are struggling to pay rent, have disproportionately felt the economic consequences of a global pandemic, are still earning lower wages than any other demographic group in the US, and experience on-going racism in the workforce. Further, according to the US Department of Labor, the low wages, occupation types, and high representation in low-wage occupations contribute to Latinas experiencing a “chronic state of working poverty,” with single Latina mothers having one of the highest poverty rates (28.7%) compared to other racial or ethnic groups.
We have to ask ourselves, says Maslach, “What is the situation [people] are facing in terms of living? In terms of working? In terms of how to get from home to work? All of those things could be chronic stressors.”
For example, taking care of one’s family isn’t normalized in dominant U.S. culture but in Latinx culture it's expected. Marianismo, the counter to Machismo, encourages women to strive to emulate the Virgin Mary by being self-sacrificial for the family. In modern times, this looks like happily providing financial support, translating for our parents like Hernandez does, providing free child care, helping out with family businesses, and, in some cases, putting our dreams completely on hold. These acts of love and responsibilities on Latinas can become additional chronic stressors worsening the burnout we feel at our already-draining 9-to-5s.
Angie Del Angel, a first-generation Mexican-American Houstonian, understands this push and pull firsthand. She had dreams of being a nurse, but one year before completing nursing school, she became pregnant with her first child. Del Angel made the difficult decision to step away from school to dedicate herself to being a mom. A year and a half after putting her family first, she decided to start her own small business, NG Jewelry, as a way to help make ends meet, raise her son, be a wife, and top of it all, a supportive daughter.
Even though Del Angel had the flexibility to work for herself, her burnout peaked as she strived to juggle all of her roles. “I feel like a robot … I do pop-up markets on the weekends. Then, when Monday rolls around, I have to clean the jewelry, clean my house, do laundry, still cook, still clean, take care of my son, and figure out my next [business] move,” she says.
She could only go through the motions for so long before she hit a wall; she would wake up with a debilitating sadness that transformed into thoughts of self-doubt and shape-shifted into a relentless anger toward the world. But she pushed through to continue to support her immediate family as well as her mother, whom Del Angel helps financially. “I want to make my mom proud. I want to be able to do things for her, to take her places that I could never imagine. I want [my mom] to know that all of her sacrifices were valid."
Pushing back against cultural and work expectations can be hard, but the good news is, Latinas are leaving work environments that do not deserve them. In fact, Latinas make up the largest demographic group driving the “Great Resignation.” Still, with 12.5 million Latinas in the workforce, the future of work needs to change. Our employers need to understand how being mindful and inclusive of our various identities and backgrounds can lead to richer, more-dynamic, and more-productive work environments. At the same time, it's imperative that employers fully understand what burnout means for individuals of underrepresented backgrounds both in and out of the office.
While our employers get it together, it’s even more vital that we are able to recognize symptoms of burnout in ourselves. After talking with various Latinas in the workforce for this piece, and even reflecting on my own experiences of burnout (where I repeatedly fell into a deep, debilitating depression at the thought of having to experience another 40-to-50 hour work week), I noticed that we all had difficulties identifying burnout. It took talking to sources to realize I had experienced it before. Why is it so hard for us to realize we’re burned out and take care of it?
Perhaps it is because of how our parents’ relationship with work was modeled for us: I remember my mom saying to me, “A job is just something that comes with life: you have to do it to live.” Or maybe it is because our work is now progressively different from our parents. As Hernandez mentioned, her parents’ occupations are in the service sector, which is vastly different compared to her “cushy” office gig. Or maybe there is a more systemic answer: Occupational segregation has left Latinas out of high-paying positions of power, so as some of us are entering new work spaces, we’re unsure of what to expect, how to implement a work-life balance, or how to voice our concerns to superiors before burnout affects our long-term health.
Occupational segregation has left Latinas out of high-paying positions of power, so as some of us are entering new work spaces, we’re unsure of what to expect, how to implement a work-life balance, or how to voice our concerns to superiors before burnout affects our long-term health.
Claudia Quintero, a Venezuelan native living in New York, learned the hard way how unidentified burnout can affect your health. She woke up one morning completely unable to move her head, having developed a pinched nerve in her neck from, what she presumes, all the stress in her life. At that time, Quintero was balancing a job as a program associate with a nonprofit organization, was in a full-time public administration graduate program, completing volunteer work, working out, actualizing two capstone projects, and trying to be fully present for her family.
Even though at first she could not recognize the burnout she was experiencing, this health emergency changed her perspective on her professional and personal life. “What was it worth being at 200% one week, when the next week you’re at zero? Nothing is worth risking your own health over,” she tells Somos.
This experience inspired her to take a different approach with her own organization. As a co-founder of Seek Common Ground, a non-profit that seeks to build and grow education advocacy coalitions, she is cultivating a workplace that reduces employee stress by not only encouraging boundaries, but also modeling how she protects herself and her time.
Meanwhile, Del Angel is expanding her business staff by bringing on her most trusted partner, her husband, to help ease the stress of doing it all on her own. And, with some initial resistance, Hernandez, who is now in law school, has begun to put some boundaries in place with her parents, but still tries to support them as much as her class schedule permits. As Professor Maslach says: “Solutions are not one size fits all — you have to figure out the chronic stressors that get in the way of people being healthy, doing their job well, feeling good about the job that they are doing, and having a good life when they are not working."
After all, the most radical form of protest for women of color is prioritizing ourselves and our well-being, and it’s time we take this advice to heart.
*Last name has been changed to protect privacy.