Marie-Cécile Godwin remembers the day her burnout felt real.
“I woke up and nothing was possible any more. I was literally stuck in my bed,” she recalls.
“The only thing I could do was mostly cry. It took me a few hours to get out, and another couple to even have a shower.”
It wasn’t just mental. She also experienced physical symptoms: Extreme exhaustion, muscle aches, changes to appetite, as well as acute anxiety.
“You can experience things such as loss of hair, or your nails not growing any more just because your body is under such big amounts of stress and you can’t really handle it,” she says.
The user experience (UX) designer has dealt with burnout twice in her career.
It’s forced her to completely reassess how she approaches work, relationships, and boundaries.
Burnout came into my life when nothing made sense any more,’’ she says.
“I was exhausted, and I was trying to compensate, so I was working harder in a situation where I was not able to work as much, or as well as before.”
It can happen to anyone.
And for those who end up experiencing it, it can have a profound impact on their life.
“We think that only the weak burn out,” Ms Godwin says.
“You could think that you’re strong enough, combative enough, that you can deal with this, but no one sees it coming really.”
The pandemic has brought changes to everyday life for many of us, and you might be struggling at home as well as at work.
But in terms of an official definition, the World Health Organisation says burnout is only about work; specifically, it’s the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
A relationship breakdown
Professor Michael Leiter has extensively studied burnout, most recently at Deakin University in Victoria.
He sees it as the result of a relationship breakdown between the employee and the employer.
When you get hired, it’s a relationship with you and this entity that’s bigger than you and actually has a lot more power in the relationship,’’ he says.
“People who are burnt out, it’s not because the job’s all bad, it’s not because the person is flawed in some kind of way – it’s because the connection between the two of them has gone screwy.”
He says it’s important for both sides – the employee and employer – to communicate effectively, take necessary actions, and to listen to one another in order to avoid or rectify burnout in the workplace.
“If you have a relationship problem, if you say to your partner, ‘You go off and fix yourself and come back when you’re ready to be the way I want you to be and then we’ll be all fine,’ that’s not going to work,” he says.
“But that’s what employers are saying when they send you off to yoga classes. ‘You go fix yourself there. We’re not going to change a bit’.
“That’s not a relationship fix. That’s being silly and stubborn.”
Professor Leiter says when people go to work, they’re looking for a sense of fulfillment and belonging to a community that values and respects them.
“They’re looking for opportunities that confirm that they’re effective, capable people, and that this career has a direction that’s going somewhere,” he says.
A ‘match that’s trying to stay alight’
Alice Cooney, the Law Institute of Victoria’s Young Lawyers president, is another young professional who experienced burnout after years of pressure and stress.
“I think burnout is a really interesting word,” Ms Cooney says.
“It conjures a lot of imagery for me of how it must feel to be that match that’s trying to stay alight, and I think that imagery resonates with the feeling that I had.”
At the time, she was working as a lawyer in crime and family violence – an environment where she was constantly surrounded by the trauma of other people.
Independently of her employer, she saw a psychologist who was specialised in debriefing, and through that process was able to see her role with more clarity.
“I was able to recognise that I wasn’t in the exact right field for me,” Ms Cooney says.
“Although I got up and went to work every day, I didn’t feel this overwhelming sense of joy that I was going to do that.”
She decided it was time to change employers.
“One of the things I have been able to recognise with hindsight is that I have that feeling now that I generally enjoy waking up and going to work, that I feel a connection to what I’m doing.”
A profession prone to burnout
Some professions have high rates of burnout, and it can have deadly consequences.
Australian veterinarians are up to four times more likely than the general population to suicide, and around twice as likely as other health professionals.
Claire Stevens has owned three veterinary practices – her first at age 26 – and says that burnout in the industry is very common.
“I actually don’t think a single vet escapes it,” Claire says.
“I experienced it as a practice owner. It can creep up on you and before you know it, it’s starting to disrupt your whole lifestyle and can become quite debilitating.”
She believes the high rate of suicide in the profession stems from how often they’re exposed to death.
Psychologist Nadine Hamilton regularly works with vets. Her research points to a number of reasons for high rates of burnout in the profession.
“One is around euthanasia, so having to euthanise animals. The other is the financial issues,” she says.
“For those who are running and owning a practice of their own, it is still a business for them, and they still have overheads and other costs just like any other business, so that can be very stressful.
“And dealing with, dare I say it, difficult clients – clients who are non-compliant with treatment, or coming in with the expectancy that vets can perform miracles and that they don’t want to have to pay for it. They can make snide remarks, be bullying, or threatening.
“Also [vets] can get compassion fatigue, which is very high in the helping and healing professions.”
She says another factor is unrealistic expectations.
“That can be twofold: The unrealistic expectations that clients place on the vet staff to provide an instant diagnosis and a complete cure. The second aspect is the unrealistic expectations that vets place on themselves.”
How can we avoid burnout?
Regardless of whether you’re working as a veterinarian, a lawyer, or as a UX designer, the overarching theme for preventing burnout is through boundaries and support in the work environment.
Dr Stevens’ main advice for vets and caregivers who are wanting to avoid burnout is to be clear on their boundaries.
“It’s very easy to let them slip and do just one more late night or one more weekend shift. But that ends up being your modus operandi and you end up with an inability to say no,” she says.
“What was once a balanced life with family, exercise, and outside-of-work interests suddenly dwindles down to a really workaholic lifestyle.
“In order to prevent that from happening, you might need mental health assistance or a psychologist to get clear on your boundaries – what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you shouldn’t.”
Ms Godwin also had to learn new ways to avoid burnout happening in the future.
“This is a big learning [experience]: The boundaries between me and work, and also myself and others.”
She discovered that reconnecting with her body through exercise also had immense benefits.
“I learnt to run, and weirdly I hadn’t been jogging in my entire life and running kind of saved me, as well as yoga,” she says.
“It’s a very stereotypical thing to say, but yoga and running helped me to restore a healthy relationship with my body and learn how to recognise what was logical pain and what was pain that wasn’t really normal and was a signal all along.”
Professor Leiter encourages people to keep a daily diary so they can reflect on their work.
“[It] is a thing called job crafting, where you spend a little while writing down throughout your day, ‘How did I spend my time during the day? Which part did I really like? Which part did I really dislike, and what was neutral?'” he says.
“If you hated all of it, find another job. But hopefully you’ve got a mix.”
He says after a couple of weeks of making diary entries, reflect on your notes and think about how you can spend a bit more time doing the things you do enjoy doing.
“That’s an approach to thinking, ‘OK, can I start changing the job bit by bit?’ If you’re doing that with a friend, if it’s a shared project at work, it’s going to be much more powerful than just doing it all by yourself.”
If you or anyone you know needs help
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- ReachOut at au.reachout.com
- Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) on 1800 008 774.