When Simone Biles – a black woman, trauma and sexual violence survivor and winner of 32 Olympic and world championship medals — spoke about the power of choosing herself in a raw and candid interview with The Cut last week, I was reminded that not only did she step into her power, but she also shared some of that power with Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour (BIWOC) around the world.
As a holistic Aboriginal leadership coach, a huge part of my job is helping First Nations women navigate the toxicity and racism of workplaces, and to safely reclaim the word ‘no’ to express boundaries and avoid spiritual burnout.
The true cost of burnout in Australia
Spoiler alert: the cure for burnout isn’t bubble baths and self-care — it’s the feeling of safety.
Amelia and Emily Nagowski’s ground-breaking book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle details how burnout is emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion and depletion often caused by prolonged periods of stress in unsafe interpersonal relationships. This includes experiences of sexism, ableism, misogyny and racism.
And while burnout is not a standalone clinical diagnosis, the cost of burnout on an individual and their ability to live their 'best life' is enormous.
Burnout costs Australian workplaces on average $14.81 billion per year in stress-related incidents and absenteeism. When the UNSW School of Psychiatry and Black Dog Institute spoke to over a thousand people from a broad range of professions in a landmark Australian study last year, the participants who experienced burnout also reported feeling, anxious, depressed, irritable and withdrawn. Many lacked sleep, passion, concentration and healthy libidos. Some participants even experienced physical symptoms of pain and nausea.
So why does burnout affect First Nations women differently?
Our pain is our ancestors’ pain
Aboriginal dispossession served colonial and capitalist interests. Colonisation coincided with periods of growth and prosperity in the western world, brought on by the industrial revolution: a period when the ideal of grossly overworking for ‘the man’ became the norm. This would give way to the normalised idea of overworking as a means of garnering more wealth that is common today.
In the 50s, during Australia’s white assimilation policy, my late Nan gave birth to my mum in a sugarcane field in Far North Queensland. Growing up, we joked that that’s why my mum is so sweet, but in reality the conditions of her birth — and the challenges she would face entering the world — were sinister. Nan, like all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the time, had little agency (there certainly wasn’t a vision board or 5-year plan for her and her family’s life). She was locked down in a mission system for decades, like the three generations before her.
She, like all Aboriginal peoples, was forced to the fringes of society. She was made to work exceptionally hard, often with no pay, in order to build the colony.
I often think about how prosperous my people would be, and whether “the gap” would exist, if we were rightfully paid for our ‘fair go’ of labour.
We carry the collective load
Epigenetics suggests that I share more than just my nan’s grit and determination: we might also share the same nervous system. Her trauma was passed down in my genes, just like the melanin in my skin. First Nations and Black women who experience burnout biometrically age more due to intergenerational trauma and grief, and the stressors placed on us by our daily lives.
The definition of burnout is wider for us too: it recognises the many non-traditional roles we take on outside of the 9-5. You would be hard-pressed to find a First Nations woman who isn’t juggling multiple and, at times, painstakingly competing roles — careers, children, kin, board and committee appointments, to name a few. Moreover, our expert knowledge is widely sought after but too often, not appropriately compensated.
The saying ‘boys will be boys’ was first recorded in 1598, and yet in 2021, there is still no female equivalent. Girls are conditioned to believe their worth and value is a direct reflection of being calm and helpful. And, of course, to 'smile, sweetheart'.
We suffer from Human Giver Syndrome
Humans have an evolutionary tendency to say ‘yes’. Working together and establishing collective reciprocity enabled harmonious tribal living through the fair division of labour and resources.
I was recently chatting with Wiradjuri behavioural researcher and writer Aunty Nola Turner Jensen. She worked with a team of people to examine collectivist cultures like mine, versus more individualist Anglo-Saxon cultures. She and the researchers found that on average, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are directly and indirectly responsible for the emotional and financial needs of over 50 people, as opposed to four to eight for non-Aboriginal people.
Saying ‘sure, no problem’ when we really want to say ‘no’ is what Amelia and Emily Nagowski call ‘human giver syndrome’; a moral obligation to prioritise the needs of others over our own.
This syndrome particularly plagues women, who are far more more likely to burn out — a figure which has likely grown since we have all taken on even more during the pandemic.
Workplaces can play a role in promoting safety
I always remind my clients about the wisdom of Dr Maya Angelou, who expressed that wellness and joy, like freedoms, are the rights of black women, too. Prioritising rest and nourishment is a deeply decolonising act.
However, tackling burnout at its core is complex and requires each one of us to think about our role in the post-colonial-cis-male-heteronormative world.
Over the years, through various reconciliatory endeavours, organisations have developed the belief that displaying a NAIDOC poster in the tearoom means that I, as an Aboriginal woman, will feel safe and looked after at work.
And whilst visibility is important, it is most needed in the boardrooms and not the tea rooms. Representation of First Nations people in workplaces will only be truly meaningful when organisations prioritise staff wellness and safety and recognise that addressing burnout is critical and necessary.
The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled us, as a society, to reflect on the importance of workplace flexibility and the role of organisations in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees. It is important that as workplaces eventually transition back to offices that we don’t revert to business as usual, and instead focus on further transforming the way we work and live in positive and lasting ways.
Workplaces should take measures, like introducing peer support groups, mentors and even coaches, so stressors can be recognised and worked through in a holistic, and constructive way. The unique and multifaceted talents and perspectives of First Nations peoples should be honoured in workplaces, and addressing burnout is a fundamental step for organisations to take in recognising our excellence as employees and as valuable, indispensable members of the broader society.
Caroline Kell is a proud Mbarbrum woman and the Founder of Blak Wattle Coaching and Consulting. She is a qualified Counsellor and former Executive Director turned holistic Leadership Coach. She is also a survivor of domestic and sexual violence and has her own lived experience with burnout. She is on a crusade to help empower people and organisations to understand burnout from a First Nations perspective.