How does burnout creep up on women and what can we do about it?
In the first Women’s Agenda Women’s Health News webinar, Dr Stacey Jenkins, entrepreneur Naby Mariyam, Dr Jenny Brockis and contributing editor Georgie Dent spoke about the importance of identifying burnout, especially in a year where all our lives have been turned upside down.
The launch of Women’s Health News, along with this first webinar, was made possible thanks to the excellent support of Charles Sturt University.
Dr Jenny Brockis is an educator, mentor and author of several books, including Thriving Mind: How to cultivate a good life, Smarter Sharper Thinking: Reduce Stress, Banish Fatigue and Find Focus and Brain Fit: How Smarter Thinking Can Save Your Brain.
She began by laying out the three key symptoms of a typical burnout.
“It’s really an occupational syndrome,” she said. “Burnout comes in three parts. It’s extreme exhaustion, a sense of depersonalisation, feeling distanced from one’s job and a loss of efficacy. When you feel you’ve lost passion and desire. Like you don’t care about your work anymore. That is burnout.”
Naby Mariyam experienced these symptoms a few years ago while she was setting up her own business.
“I kept pushing and pushing, running on the highest level of cortisol,” she explained. “I was endlessly pushing my business and then suddenly felt exhausted all the time. A colleague suddenly said to me ‘…maybe you’re experiencing burnout?’
That was precisely what the founder of Insuretech Startup Coverhero needed to hear. “I built a business on wellbeing and I couldn’t recognise burnout myself,” Maryam continued. “I needed to give myself permission to accept the doom and gloom of what I was experiencing.”
Mariyam founded Insuretech Startup Coverhero just under three years ago as a platform to protect the Gig economy and the self employed workforce to create financial security and holistic wellbeing. She was part of the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance in 2017 and has a background in hospitality.
“As a founder, I felt so guilty taking time off,” the young entrepreneur said. “But when I had my ultimate breakdown in 2018, it made me change my life, and the way I live.”
Georgie Dent is no stranger to the burnout fatigue. The mother of three said she has had a variety of different experiences with burnout.
“I had a spectacular breakdown as a lawyer at 25,” she said. “I’ve written about it in my memoir, Breaking Badly. I had 18 months of feeling physically collapsed. I spent four horrendous months at my parent’s place, battling vertigo. I was unstable on my feet. I felt dreadful. Ultimately, a physician said I need to have psychiatric care.”
Dent spent two weeks in a private hospital, where she underwent an emersion in physical and mental care.
“I resigned from the law firm, and when I returned to work, it was in a different work,” she explained.
“There was the recognition that I needed to embed actual regard and self care into my everyday life. It’s not something you tap on at the end of the month. That’s not how self care works.”
This year, like many of us, Dent has had to work flexibly. This year also saw her take on a new role as director of The Parenthood.
“There’s been so little division between my house and work. I have three small children. There’s a limit to what we can do, and being always at our homes might not always be necessarily good for us.”
Her experience is familiar for many parents who are at even greater risk of burnout. Dr Stacey Jenkins is an academic and lecturer at Charles Sturt University, specialising in work-life balance and human resource management. She’s also a mother to four children, and said one of the reasons women experience burnout is because they have always been taught to say ‘yes’ to everything.
“We’re all living busy lives with children and partners. I‘ve also always been a person who has said yes,” she said.
“I try to surround myself with people and information to help me manage that. That’s what’s got me through so far. Putting in place strategies that help me recognise this.”
As a Wagga Wagga resident, Dr Jenkins says she hears a lot of stories of mothers trying to juggle work, home and homeschooling this year.
“It’s important to see where I’m pushing myself too much here or there, and to tell myself, I need to slow down. My colleague told me not to do emails over the weekend. They told me not to touch my computer. Those are important steps — creating barriers and trying to take control of that.”
Connecting with Jenkins’ advice, Dr Brockis shared her own experience of burnout in which she found herself lying in bed, unable to answer the phone.
“I worked so hard until I was physically unable to do things. I couldn’t even answer the phone,” she explained.
“Thankfully, I had the help of an amazing psychologist, who I was embarrassed to see. I had to get over that shame and guilt. It was a very slow process.”
But this breakdown forced the Brockis to reevaluate and ask herself: “What am I truly here for?”
“Self care is not about chocolate cake and bubble baths,” Dent said. “It’s about creating a life you don’t want to escape from.”
Dent spoke about the importance of removing oneself from the question of “should I?” – instead, focusing on what you actually want and need.
“Even before 2020, it would be difficult to not be close to burnout,” she said.
“There has been so much stress and uncertainty. There are so many hurdles we’ve all had to face this year, including elderly parents, borders closed, health uncertainties, working from home.”
“We are human beings who have vulnerabilities. We have to look at what is being reasonably expected from each other. We are programmed to be pleasers, but actually we can’t do everything.”
Dr Jenkins said addressing her diet and getting enough sleep was important for her in her healing.
“It’s important to rediscover how to relax and have fun,” she said.
“Take a vacation, or go for a drive. Buy some lollies and eat them while singing in car. Take little steps. Set up routine, or go for coffee with a friend. Have good people around who support you.”
She believes these small steps will reduce the likelihood of experiencing decision fatigue.
“Just make the decisions you can at the time you can and don’t be too hung up if you think you’ve made the wrong one.”
Jenkins also believes in the importance of speaking up in the workplace and letting your bosses know what you’re going through.
“I understand some people fear that if they speak up, they’ll lose their jobs,” she said. “But I think if you try to challenge it from a WHS perspective — duty of care, I think that’s the key. Approach a supervisor, someone you trust, who has influence, and talk to them about the design of your job. They have a legal obligation to do that.”
“Talking about what might work for you and coming up with options is key. Identify what’s going to work for you. I hear a lot at workforce wellness practises and I research in that space. Make sure organisations have this. Make sure they’re aware of what’s going to work and for whom. Supervisors should take that lead. They ought to be asking things like “How are you all feeling?” They should suggest a coffee or a walk. Communication is vital.”
Dent believes in trusting your instincts. “Most of us know when things are not 100 percent,’ she said.
“We’re terrified of letting anyone down. If we don’t, we will disappoint ourselves. If I’m feeling panicked and worried as opposed to feeling on top of things, that’s my warning sign.”
So what does she do?
“I message a few different people. I own that. I take a step back and decide not to do a few things. I prioritise my own wellbeing. And I’d encourage everyone to do the same.”
For Naby Mariyam, feelings of belonging and having a support network that is built into her everyday life is critical to staying away from burnout.
“I worked with a personal coach and learned to integrate my values,” she explained. “I saw a nutritionist, and ate healthy. I made sure I did little things including deciding how I’d know when my day starts and ends. I turn off my phone at 7pm and I have affirmations on my phone to remind me things are going to be okay.”
Being disciplined and having habits have become integral to the Sydney-based entrepreneur’s life.
“Often, you’re too busy taking care of everybody else, so self care is harder for women. Doing all these things is mentally exhausting. If you’re stressed, you can’t access your best version of yourself.”
Setting strict sleeping hours is also important. Mariyam recommended lighting candles in the evening to wind down the body, putting on music, casting mood light in the house.
“Wholistically, if you do this everyday, it’s part of the self care routine. Commit to do something that will move the needle — what you can do and you will do.”
Dr Jenny Brockis wants every woman to begin the process of keeping ourselves safe from burnout by showing kindness to ourselves.
“Be clear about non- negotiables,” she said. “I know that unless I have those boundaries in place, it’s so easy to say “I’ll just add this, do this”.
“I do things that that nourish my soul and make me shine. I make it part of my daily routine. When I do that, everything falls into place.”
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