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You know burnout is real when people are jealous of your hospital stay

Sabina Read
25 Sep 2019

Last winter, I had surgery to reconstruct two shredded tendons in my foot. Eight days later, I entered the same hospital on a knee scooter to have a growth cut out of my eye. I rationalised that if I was down for the count I might as well get a two-for-one deal, at least with regards to taking time off work.

While I was convalescing, numerous people, all women, confessed they wished they were under doctor's orders to ensure bedrest, no driving, and to pull back from work and family responsibilities.

While many people wear "busy" as a badge of honour or have found ways to normalise the frenetic pace at which we operate, the notion that the only way to give ourselves permission to slow down and re-prioritise is to endure an unexpected health issue raises a red flag or two.

Burnout is considered a poor response to chronic workplace stress and is not a medical condition. Once mainly the domain of those working in the helping professions including doctors, nurses, and psychologists, burnout has since bled into the lives of high-powered execs and even aging rock stars.

The World Health Organisation lists the syndrome as an occupational phenomenon, that “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” However, in my clinical experience, burnout now seems to impact everyday folk who feel exhausted, disconnected, and ineffective personally and professionally.

For many parents, burnout is an all too familiar experience that occurs when the combined load of work and home overwhelms us. Dr Sarah Cotton, co-director and organisational psychologist at the workplace consultancy Transitioning Well, says parental burnout echoes what has traditionally been considered professional burnout.

“Women often carry the mental load even for tasks they aren’t executing, hold unrealistic expectations, subscribe to perfectionist thinking and can be unacknowledged and unsupported as working parents in the workplace,” she says.

It seems any combination of pursuing a successful and meaningful career, meeting the demands of your boss, wrangling the ever-changing needs of children, supporting aging parents and navigating a significant relationship all while trying to maintain friendships, wanting to "give back" and keeping up with the tsunami of admin can mean even a bikini wax holds some kind of warped allure because at least you’re (being forced) to lie down for a minute.

So, if moon boots, eye stitches, and hot wax don’t unlock the key to managing chronic stress, what does? Part of the answer is perhaps simpler than we realise. I cannot count the amount of times I have witnessed people formulate their own best advice when given time to reflect and listen to their own inner voice when it’s not drowned out by busyness, self-doubt, fear, alcohol, perfectionism, or the perceived unrealistic expectations of either self or others.

So, if we know better, why don’t we do better? Like it or not, I’m going to suggest that being time poor is not a satisfactory response. Perhaps the desire to please, excessive worry about what others think and need; as well as the fear of rejection, failure, or worse, being irrelevant, are valid contributing factors. Maybe the “having it all” myth also adds insult to injury.

I cannot count the amount of times I have witnessed people formulate their own best advice when given time to reflect. Sabina Read

Most of us understand what restores wellbeing and mitigates stress, but we choose to ignore what we do know, often at a significant cost to our mental and physical health and to the relationships we hold most dear.

We know that daily exercise helps immunise against the toxins of stress, yet it falls down the list in favour of competing demands. We recognise that time with people we love recharges us and helps gain perspective but we fail to prioritise time with them (and pets).

The idea of work-life balance lures us in like the Wizard of Oz until we pull back the curtain to find the real wizard is actually the ability to identify our values and needs and set non-negotiable boundaries to enable us to live by those.

Rather than quoting an expert or recent research paper at this point, please allow me to share some parental pearls of wisdom from my octogenarian dad, "we all need to keep some slack in the system.”

Room to rest, reflect, recharge, or just ponder every day is a necessity, not a luxury. Crafting some dedicated “non-space” into our days, weeks and months becomes even more vital when unexpected, yet inevitable, curve balls cross our path.

If burnout is kryptonite, our superpowers are championing good choices about how to spend our time, setting boundaries, creating slack and listening to our inner coach; at work, at home, and everywhere in between. The good news is we don’t need to be recovering from surgery or even getting a bikini wax to put those into action.

Sabina Read is psychologist, social commentator and communications specialist. She is passionate about normalising the universality of the human experience, believing that we all have more in common than we often realise.

This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on August 30, 2019.

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