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Is it time to change how we think about burnout?

With Tigist Kebede and Caroline Kell

Season 4 - Episode 2

22 Nov 2022
Podcast 21:54
Tigist Kebede in our podcast studio

Are we ready to look at the bigger picture of what is causing so many of us to burnout?

Maybe you know the feeling. A couple of stressful days turns into a couple of stressful weeks, then months... and sometimes even longer.

It doesn’t feel like stress anymore, more like exhaustion. You’re tired in your bones. So, are you burned out?

You might think of burnout as something that only happens in the workplace, but as our work life extends beyond the bounds of a regular 9-5, we’re discovering that burnout can look very different these days.

Tigist Kebede, a senior counsellor at Pola Psychology, explains how our thinking around burnout is changing, how to spot the warning signs and build your own burnout resilience amid all that overwhelm.

  • Transcript

    Caroline Kell  00:05

    I was working as an executive director in Aboriginal Health. And the stakes at work were really high. At that stage, we were very much working in the COVID-19 response. The proximity to community and care was just immense. And I think there were just a number of interrelated factors that led me to experience burnout. One was just the sheer volume of work working 12 to 16 hours a day in health. But I think, I think it goes back a little bit further than just the pandemic and 2020. For me personally, I think for me, I've had to really examine my relationship with work in some of the habits that I had cultivated prior to taking on an executive director role.


    Sandro Demaio  01:01

    Caroline Kell is a Mbarbrum and woman, she hosts a podcast called Yarning Up, and she's the founder of Blak Wattle, coaching and consulting, where she supports First Nations women experiencing burnout. Not long ago, Caroline was going through a period of burnout herself. But this wasn't a new experience for her.


    Caroline Kell  01:21

    I think if I'm being really candid with myself, I'd probably been experiencing periods of burnout. In other workplaces, or in other jobs, leading up to that moment. I think I had probably just normalised these experiences of burnout. But for me, at the end of 2020, I realised something was wrong when I stopped getting my periods. And a number of my relationships was starting to suffer. And just this constant, chronic fatigue and pains in the body that was starting to emerge. And I think all of these things, my body was just screaming out to me to just slow down and to look after myself. But I was oblivious just due to the mountain of work that we had to get through at the time.


    Sandro Demaio  02:20

    Caroline's story may sound familiar, but there are layers to her burnout.


    Caroline Kell  02:25

    For me, as a First Nations woman and a First Nations coach who works now in this burnout space, we really have to go back to go forward, when we look at the historical context of labour in the colony. My nan, who had basically been kicked to the fringes of societies to help build roads, and clear sugarcane fields, in the early 70s, late 60s, and they did this for little to no pay, often for board or for housing. And so, I think it's important that when we look at burnout, we understand how that's come to be. And ultimately, not just Aboriginal people, but we will all plucked from families and communities and place into factories and workplaces through the Industrial Revolution, and we've all been taken out of our very tribal, very community, kinship, lineal state, and put into factories that don't often share our same values. And so I think it's really important to understand that history in the context of why we're all working, and how do we derive a sense of self from our workplace. And I guess I don't have to tell you when we think about it in the context of labour, that labour in the modern world extends far beyond the nine-to-five grind that we that we live in.


    Sandro Demaio  03:50

    So how is our thinking around what burnout is and what causes it, starting to change? Are we ready to look at the bigger picture? I'm Dr. Sandro Demaio. And this is In Good Health. There's so much to this topic. So let's start at the beginning. To help us I'm talking to Tigist Kebede, a senior counsellor at Polar Psychology Tigist, what is burnout?


    Tigist Kebede  04:17

    The best way it's kind of understood is it being defined as an experience of chronic so like long term, emotional, interpersonal stress, and I think it's most commonly known from the workplace. And you know, there's a lot of studies done around the hospital setting and the industrial setting as well, or corporate settings, where people might, because of the nature of their work, experience a lot of stress. And there are certain occupations that are more likely to be experiencing burnout and people are a little bit more aware of that in those sectors. But I think it's kind of gone out to the general public now because of the socio environmental factors that happened in the last two, three years, where I think as a society together collectively we've experienced long, chronic, sometimes acute, stress.


    Sandro Demaio  05:09

    So what is the difference between regular stress and burnout,


    Tigist Kebede  05:14

    Stress is biological, it helps us kind of function and do tasks. There's three dimensions that we kind of look at and especially when you're going to seek therapy, or when you're trying to get help around this, these are the three areas that people largely look at. And the areas are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency. We're thinking of these three things over long periods of time, in the context of something specific, right? If you're feeling, over a long period of time, really worn out, you're unable to engage in your work in terms of energy, and you're feeling quite fatigued while you're doing your work. And outside of that work as well, you're going home, feeling really depleted, loss of energy, and almost like that you can't physically be engaging in that. And it can be that mental exhaustion that some people experience as well of being like overstimulated, and not being able to kind of feel like they have a bit of rest. And even when they are getting rest and not feeling rested.


    Caroline Kell  06:16

    For about three or four months, I was bedridden and seeking therapy, medications, you know, a lot of osteo, a lot of movement back into the body, my body had been in a fight of chronic fight-or-flight response.


    Tigist Kebede  06:39

    But then we kind of go into the second, which is the cynicism Which is kind of what we're talking about is kind of like the psychological and emotional side of things. So feeling like you have like a loss of hope, in the work that you do like a loss of idealism, you'll notice that you're kind of socially or emotionally withdrawing


    Caroline Kell  07:01

    My relationships and started to suffer, not being present or available for my partner or family. And just this kind of lack of being divorced of joy almost and that kind of having an impact on the people around you. You know, how we showing up at work and how we're bringing that home can really start to impede some of those relationships.


    Sandro Demaio  07:30

    So you have these burnout, symptoms of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency. What does inefficiency look like?


    Tigist Kebede  07:38

    It's actually it talks about like, reduced personal accomplishment. So finding that you're not being as productive as you normally would be. Or you're having lower capacity to where you normally used to be. And that can kind of like mirror, with cynicism, in terms of low morale as well, like, I don't feel like doing it, why should I do it anyway, I can't be bothered. And it's inability to cope with kind of what's going on. So I think when all those three things are kind of happening at the same time, that's when we, that's when organisations and when people when society and community, I say, hey, this, this might be burnout because these three things are existing in the context of work on the context of a particular thing.


    Sandro Demaio  08:22

    So to use when people are dealing with these really systemic stress factors, it's much harder to address than just taking a few months off work, right?


    Tigist Kebede  08:31

    And I think this is the reason why there is such discussion around burnout because there, I think originally we've individualised burnout as being an something that a person has gone through, it's kind of their fault, and they need to figure it out, instead of this acknowledgement that we exist in like systems, right? Because the traditional methods of dealing with burnout is, you know, supporting someone getting them time off, and you're helping them figure out how to do their work. And then maybe we'll just rearrange a few things and that's it. But these are Band-Aid solutions, right? And yes, sometimes we can do Band-Aid solutions because you have to triage right? Triage exists for a reason. But without going to the cause, I think we're going to see more and more people continuously being [burnt out]. I think that we're moving away and focusing from individualising these issues within people to being like, ‘okay, so how do we create better environments?’ And a perfect example that's come out of this is like, these flexible working arrangements that's happened in so many organisations that can and I have the privilege to be like, okay, you don't need to be on in here all the time. It responds to burnout. But it also responds to a greater issue, which is around like, how do we work in a sustainable way?


    Sandro Demaio  09:43

    There's actually a lot of nuance to grasp when we're trying to understand the causes of burnout, isn't there?


    Tigist Kebede  09:49

    When we think of burnout, we don't think of the system. We don't think of the larger issues. And we don't think that people also have, like complex identities. So if you're in a way workplace and you're like, ‘Oh hey, I'm working.’ So me as a African Australian woman who works in this space. I will experience marginalisation as a woman. I'll experienced marginalisation as an African woman, and people with diverse identities and identities that are marginalised,  or experience inequality, will experience that and have burnout in those spaces as well. So I know, there's a lot of people who are like, all these things that are going on in terms of the political landscape, people can be exhausted.


    Sandro Demaio  10:33

    Why is it that so many burnout stories take place in the workplace?


    Tigist Kebede  10:38

    I think it's the most clear-cut way to find burnout, right? So there's a cause, there's workplace, and then there is a cohort that are connected to that. So I think a lot of the studies that have occurred, whether it's in a hospital setting or the corporate setting, they're very nice and clean. And you can see what the cause is and what the outcome is. And I think that's kind of how it began. And it wasn't until a little bit later, and especially kind of what's been happening in the last few years, where there's multiple [crises] occurring on a global level, that we're now having conversations around, ‘hey, this thing that we saw, that happens within a system actually can be seen in a larger setting’. And the same factors kind of exist.


    Sandro Demaio  11:25

    For me, this is a really eye opening conversation, because I've always thought about burnout from an individual perspective. How does understanding these kind of macro factors change our thinking around burnout?


    Tigist Kebede  11:37

    A lot of the work that we are now doing is we're understanding that burnout exists within a system. And we're kind of mapping that and our understandings around how burnout doesn't exist by itself. I work with a lot of therapists, especially therapists of colour, who are doing amazing work, or therapists from marginalised backgrounds. And we noticed that during COVID, during the pandemic, and even afterwards, there was such a high intake of people from marginalised backgrounds wanting to engage in therapy, but there wasn't enough marginalised background, therapists of colour, that were doing it and they kind of didn't want to go elsewhere. So the work is personalised for a lot of people.

    And then that personalisation meant that when things occurred, especially getting more clients or where there was a high end, they noticed that they overcommitted because of their self-identification. I care so much, I'm going to do more than what I need to do. Because I care because I'm doing this again, because, I’ll use myself as an example, I want to see people in the African community engage in therapy. So I want to make sure that those who are engaged fully can have a therapist, so I'll do more. Like my friends say, I'll do the most right? Not the least, I'll do the most. And we overcommit, right? And through that overcommitment, we go with the short-term change, I guess all these people are getting therapy, all these things are changing and I'm seeing great outcomes in my work. But that short-term change that we see doesn't last long because the reality is I've overcommitted. I've taken out more than I can. So I'm you know, I'm only human.

    And then because I'm only human, I start to either feel guilty, or I resent the work. So I feel guilty for saying no, because I'm like, ‘now, I can't say yes, but why did you say yes? Now I have to actually say no to these people.’ Right? Or I resent it like, ‘oh, everyone's only seeing me’ and no one else is doing their share of the work. It's only me that's doing this, why isn't everyone else overcommitted, they should too.

    And that's when we experience episodes of burnout.

    And you'll see this a lot in the activism space as well, people who have like, tried their best to be the best advocate that they can. And they have gone through that whole system they told you [about] multiple times. And by the time they leave, they're so traumatised by that experience. So, if we're understanding it in that way, that we're existing in systems that can be quite traumatic. And it's coming because people are trying to survive. And then essentially what we tell people is you need to figure it out. Instead of, okay so how do we make this system not trigger your survival responses that you think there's a sabre-toothed tiger there in the room all the time? How do we make that system sustainable? How do we make it so that you don't need to overcommit? How do we make it that you can not  just engage in short-term change but we can create long term change?


    Sandro Demaio  14:48

    You've just outlined the types of compounding factors that affect people with marginalised identities. What needs to change to reduce those burdens?


    Tigist Kebede  14:59

    Yeah, I I think that's a great question. I think when I, when we think of this, and when I do a lot of the burnout workshops, right? We famously noted that as well-being is resistance. So taking care of self and taking care of community, then takes care of the system. And I think a lot of the time, what we're told is, the system needs to change, and then the community will change, and then the individual will heal.

    So I think it's actually the other way around. I think it starts off with, and we're going to go back to our little example, again, of workplaces, right? Because it's a great place to start. And it's like, okay, how do we, for the individual make it okay for you to be able to do these things? How can you work in a way that's functionable? In the society that we're in where you don't know if there's a flood, fire, petrol prices, or overheat? And if you're going to afford your house in six months time, right?

    So how can we make that sustainable for you? Is it a flexible working arrangement? Is it that we, you know, kind of create better EFT, what do you need? What do you need? And then that will then kind of be like, Okay, what does the collective need as well,


    Sandro Demaio  16:09

    Let's talk about the individual for a moment. So if people are feeling like they're burning out, you know, what can we do to protect ourselves to what are the steps we take on that journey of self-care?


    Tigist Kebede  16:21

    Starting with the individual, I think the first kind of triage response that I think of is pause. Because if you're at the space where you are so burnt out, that you are so cynical, and that you are so exhausted, you need to stop. And only when you can stop you can even have a conversation with your manager.

    So a lot of the time I'm talking to people who are speaking to their GPs, because it is a system thing about being like, look, this is what's happening to me, I think I need a bit of a break, and I get support around just taking some stress leave. So I don't think people will even know that they can engage in stress leave. And that gives them a time to just catch their breath. So I'm just kind of like, like a life raft or something that can allow you to float. And it might not be permanent, because you can't permanently be away from things forever. But even if it's your friends, or your marriage, or your parents, your relationship or whatever, I think being able to have space is really, really important.

    And then then engaging in, okay, once I'm back, how can I reduce to ensure that this can be sustainable. Because we're engaging in marathons. Work is a marathon. Advocacy is a marathon. Life is a marathon. We need to be able to have enough stamina to be able to cope all the way through. So there's something here that's happening, that's not allowing us, I think being able to engage in meaningful, intentional discussions around, again the individual situation or your workload, is there something there that's happening and being able to be reflective about that? If it's within your family, and you're like me, and you're the eldest daughter, am I taking on too much? Am I the one that's doing too much in the family? Can I share this with my siblings, and then starting off that way.

    And I think, being able to engage in self-care in ways that enrich you, whether it's engaging with community, or it's going getting a massage, or whatever, I think that's kind of the first kind of triage steps.


    Sandro Demaio  18:22

    And final question from me. In terms of the bigger picture, what do we do, to future proof, you know, our community to make sure that this is not just a burnout recovery that benefits some, but not everyone? What's the path forward for society from your perspective?


    Tigist Kebede  18:43

    First off, get understanding and insight that some of these things aren't your fault. [These are] things that I'm sure that you're aware of, that you carry, and that you experience, and that there is support out there for you that celebrate you and are able to help you understand. So that's kind of in the micro, right, in the in the individual stances if you have a partner, friend, or whatever. And you can see this and [have] those conversations.

    But in a bigger kind of social aspect. I think a lot of the issues that we have in society, we have the solutions for it. It's just that we're not actually engaging in those solutions for various political reasons. And I think if you are in positions of power, if you are in positions that you have means and access, really thinking about who is the bottom person that's most impacted by what's going on and including them in the narratives. So  thinking about who is the most impacted? And are they in the room with me for this solution? Because a lot of the time they aren't and even if they are in a room, are they given a place of authority within that space? Can they make decisions are they there only to ensure that I feel okay, because I'm making conversations about young people's only to have one young person there.

    But are these young people involved from the start to the end, and the inception in the idea, and I think that's kind of how we create kind of wider change by not just having diversity, inclusion access, not for the sake of it, but for the meaningfulness of it. And if you're doing it intentionally, and if you're doing it planned, then you are able to have solutions, especially if those solutions are given the power and the respect that they have - they can make change.


    Caroline Kell  20:37

    The recovery for burnout is a lifelong practice. And I speak about this with clients all the time, I say, you know, getting free from whatever it is, whether it's time management or limiting beliefs or our worth, it's a process but staying free is a practice it has to become an ongoing, routine, ritual, a way of life.


    Sandro Demaio  21:01

    That's Caroline Kell of Yarning Up and Blak Wattle coaching and consulting, generously sharing her experience of burnout, as well as her journey to both understand it and overcome it. We also heard from Tigist Kebede, a senior counsellor at Polar Psychology, about both the micro and macro causes and effects of burnout, and what we can do to address them holistically.

    If this conversation is brought up anything for you personally, or maybe you just want to find out more, you can head to our show notes to find a list of recommended resources. There's plenty more episodes to come to covering topics like sleep, exercise, and social connection.

    So make sure you're following us in your favourite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. In Good Health is a podcast by the VicHealth hosted by me Dr. Sandro Demaio and produced by Deadset Studios.

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.