From the Great Resignation making headlines throughout the pandemic to sobering stats revealing that four in five Australians have experienced burnout over the last year, a few things have become clear about our work lives: we're tired, anxious and increasingly confused about how to navigate the professional world.
While trying to establish yourself in your career, upskill or work your way up the corporate ladder, the typical expectations are long working hours and going above and beyond what's required to 'prove yourself'. However, it's been made clear time and time again that these are a recipe for burnout. It makes the decision to opt for more fulfilment in your career feel like a double-edged sword — do you choose your mental health or career? Or is it possible to actually sustain both? We spoke to clinical psychologist Dr Aileen Alegado of Mindset Psychology to find out.
"Burnout has become more common as more demands and expectations are placed on us to constantly be productive and achieve," Dr Alegado tells Refinery29 Australia.
"Over time, society paints a picture of us being valued, loved and worthy if we are able to people-please, and self-sacrifice (which creates compassion fatigue)...In addition to this, the pandemic has made everything a pressure cooker. Our boundaries between home and work have come crashing down — we're expected to always be on."
Despite these expectations, Dr Alegado assures us there are ways to avoid burnout while also kicking goals in your career.
What is burnout, and what are the common signs?
The term burnout was coined initially by Doctor Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, in which he defined the feeling by three main components: emotional exhaustion from caring too much for a prolonged period of time, a decreased sense of accomplishment and an increased sense of depersonalisation and emptiness.
"Overall, the signs can be broken down into emotional and physical symptoms, which can look like depression and or anxiety conditions. But there are some really clear things to look out for that include an increased sense of failure and self-doubt, irritability and struggling cognitively," said Dr Alegado.
She also shares that burnout can present itself in a range of physical symptoms, including sleep troubles, appetite changes, getting colds more frequently, headaches and fatigue.
When does burnout usually occur?
Dr Alegado says that burnout generally occurs after a prolonged period of stress in a person's life, which can manifest in a variety of ways. She said one of the most common causes of burnout is a lack of balance between work, life and study, coupled with a lack of support from both co-workers and those in your personal life.
"A large number of our students are working and studying at the same time, or raising families, and taking a step to advance their careers through further study adds another layer of commitment that students have to plan for to avoid burnout," said Lynton Haggett, a Student Adviser at UniSA Online, explaining the circumstances in which he's seen burnout occur.
"If you are doing a lot and don't feel supported and never get an opportunity to switch off, this is a breeding ground for burnout," echoed Dr Alegado. "We have seen this really increase during the pandemic as the boundaries between work life and home life have been blurred," she says.
She also noted that jobs with extremes of activity — whether extremely monotonous or chaotic — can also lead to burnout, because constant energy is required to stay engaged. Other common factors that contribute to burnout include unclear job expectations, a lack of control around workload and resources, as well as difficult workplace dynamics.
Is burnout avoidable while trying to progress in your career?
Danielle Nunns is a Bachelor of IT and Data Analytics student at UniSA Online, who also works full-time.
"I have to be really disciplined with the way I structure my life so I can still do everything I love while studying. For me, I mix fitness and sport with my social life, so I get the best of both in one go," she says.
For Danielle, working a regular 40-hour-a-week job while upskilling in an area that's foreign to her hasn't come without its challenges. She shares that she's had to pull some all-nighters to complete her assessments, and getting up to work eight hours the next day has been tough. However, she shares that it's helped that she's studying online.
"Everything is done in the comfort of your own home, so you don’t need to travel to the university to complete your study, which saves so much time," she says. Haggett also noted that the uni's student advisor team is available seven days a week, which provides regular one-on-one check-ins with students to help manage workloads and therefore avoid burnout.
According to Dr Alegado, identifying chronic stressors and problem-solving ways to overcome them is the first step in avoiding burnout. For example, can you chat to your manager about your workload or if you’re studying, discuss your options with your student support services. She also suggests seeking both personal and professional support in the form of a GP or psychologist, making time for physical activity and getting enough sleep to help battle burnout.
"I allow for two gym sessions per week, one netball training per week, and one netball game per week. I’ve always had a rule that Friday nights are never study nights, and that’s the night I can have a few drinks and let my hair down. I usually pencil in two study nights, plus Saturdays and Sundays, and that seems to work well for me," shares Nunns, explaining how she carefully schedules her week to set boundaries.
Understanding yourself better and knowing the signs of psychological damage can help reduce burnout, says Dr Delgado.
"Identify your vulnerabilities — are you a people pleaser? Are you lacking in confidence to speak up? Often, if we can identify our weakness, we can set up stronger and clearer boundaries with our work, ourselves and our relationships from the outset".