Illustration: Dani Pendergast

The Burnout Effect

The Dangers of Trying to Be Superwoman

The need to be everything to everyone is causing chronic stress. Here’s how to put yourself first while managing life at work and home.

Published in
9 min readMay 6, 2020


This story is a part of The Burnout Effect, ZORA’s look at the pressures to perform and produce in an already chaotic world.

In 2009, Lisa,* then age 23, landed in the hospital due to a series of health issues caused by chronic stress. After some testing, her neurologist delivered startling news.

“You’ll be dead by 26.”

She wasn’t expecting to hear those words several months after celebrating her new job as a manager overseeing 13 rental car locations in New York City. Lisa felt fortunate to secure the position, especially as a new college graduate during the tumultuous 2008 financial crisis. But she quickly learned how intense her new role was. Lisa worked 10-hour minimum shifts that more often stretched to 12 or 13 hours. She had a wide range of responsibilities, including cleaning cars, scheduling employees, and customer service. She also managed subordinates who challenged her authority due to her gender. One co-worker repeatedly asked her out until she had her boyfriend pick her up from a shift.

While she was grateful to have the means to provide for her then four-year-old daughter, Lisa felt guilty for not being more present. “I was so exhausted that I didn’t have time to parent. I was just going through the motions, which weighed heavily on me,” she said. “I also felt like for a mom, there’s no option to quit. You make it work and find a way to deal with the difficult things as opposed to walking away from the difficult things.”

Lisa’s mother, who provided extra childcare outside of daycare, was unsympathetic when she would complain of work challenges. “Opportunities are really scarce, especially in a recession. So I think her advice was from a place that she understood as an immigrant [from St. Kitts], which is [that] we’re not really valued in this country, we’re expendable. And anything we get, even when we work for it, we should just consider ourselves lucky,” Lisa says. “And because we consider ourselves lucky, then we really can’t complain…