Everything will burn, baby, burn (Lyrics by Ash)

While the pandemic keeps grinding on, wearing down our stocks of resilience, there has been a reported increase in burnout amongst employees.

The online journal Women’s Agenda recently reported the results of a 2020 survey that found we happy-go-lucky Australians in fact suffer from one of the highest rates of burnout worldwide.

Of course burnout has long been with us. I can recall the phenomenon from personal experience of employment in a variety of settings, and it was interesting to observe the type of person burnout usually struck down. When I was teaching, the people affected were usually the most diligent of workers. The ones who adhered most strictly to recommendations and guidelines. Who made sure every ‘t’ was crossed, and ‘I’ dotted.  When the latest curriculum changes were introduced, they quickly embraced the requirements and added them to their already bursting workload. The lights in their office would be seen burning at night and they would go into school on weekends to prepare for the week ahead.

You might suppose that such attention to work demands would result in peace of mind, but the opposite effect was often the case. No matter how hard these people tried to fulfill work requirements, there would always be another hurdle waiting in its place. One teacher I knew with this fiercely honourable work ethic woke up one Monday morning to find her stomach churning with nerves. As she drove to work her anxiety increased. And as she sat in the school carpark waiting for her nerves to settle, the school’s sound system vibrating around her, she opened her car door and vomited. She never went back to teaching again.

Researchers from UNSW’s School of Psychiatry and Black Dog Institute have carried out  studies looking into burnout and the results tend to be consistent with my observations. Personality styles such as perfectionism, the studies suggest, could predispose certain people to burnout. I’ve observed the same pattern in other situations. The doctor I knew who suffered a breakdown because she couldn’t give her patients the time and care they deserved and the solicitor who couldn’t keep up with his case load unless he worked 18-hour days.

All of this is to suggest that in order to survive in a demanding work environment, that a worker does well to set more realistic expectations of themselves. And if the employer recognises a predisposition in their employee to burnout, consultation and compromise regarding workload might be a more effective and productive outcome, rather than losing a conscientious worker to the scrapheap.

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