Carolyn King reached a crossroads moment in her life, ironically, while negotiating a roundabout on the way to work.
She hated her job, but had always been able to push through the Sunday night dread to turn up on time. Yet on this particular Monday morning, almost two years ago, King couldn’t exit the roundabout.
“It was like I was possessed, my body was telling me not to go to work,” she says. “Instead, I turned around and drove to my GP.”
King was burned out. Her job of 17 years at an international manufacturing company, where she managed their accounts, office and IT, was sapping the life out of her, largely due to a “micromanaging boss”.
“I was very emotional, teary and agitated at work; I had a short fuse,” she says.
“It really hit home to me when someone said to me, ‘You know, you’re such a different person outside of work to who you are at work.’”
King, who is based in Victoria, quit the role almost two years ago and now runs her own small business.
But the effects lingered.
“Even three months after I quit, I found myself thinking, ‘I hate Sundays’, then I realised, ‘No, I don’t anymore.’”
A 2018 report for the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute found that Australian workers are completing 312 hours of unpaid overtime per year, which adds up to two months per worker annually.
Many employees are working 19th-century hours at the expense of their mental and physical wellbeing
Another 2018 survey by mental health technology company Medibio, dubbed Australia’s Biggest Mental Health Check-In, found one-third of Australian employees in the corporate sector are affected by mental illness, with 31% of those people suffering from stress.
“The majority of people in corporate Australia are living that dash-for-cash philosophy, and we are no longer working a standard week and having weekends off to enjoy downtime,” says Stuart Taylor, workplace expert and founder of corporate resilience training company Springfox.
“There is a sense of always being ‘on’ even when you’re not actually at work.”
An unrelenting workload was also familiar to Australia’s colonial antecedents.
In 1856, Melbourne stonemasons marched to Parliament House to demand an eight-hour day, marking the beginning of a series of progressive labour laws that enshrined workers’ rights to clock off at a reasonable time.
While these protections have been preserved to varying degrees in contemporary workplace agreements, many employees are nevertheless working 19th-century hours at the expense of their mental and physical wellbeing.
“These days, the people who get paid the most are those who are working the most hours,” says Michael Leiter, a professor of industrial and organisational psychology at Victoria’s Deakin University.
“It used to be those who worked the most hours were low-paid people trying to make a living.”
In a sign of growing concern over the increased incidence of workplace burnout, the World Health Organisation recently added burnout to a list of occupational phenomenons, although it stopped short of labelling it a disease.
WHO defines burnout as being characterised by exhaustion, cynicism or detachment from one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy at work.
This chimes with King, who used to love her job and got on well with her previous manager.
“But the new manager made me feel so devalued and like my opinion didn’t matter, even though I had seen the company grow over many years,” she says.
Leiter has been studying burnout since the 1980s, and says the global nature of the business world has chipped away at Australia’s standard working hours.
While burnout is “more intense” in the US, owing to precarious healthcare and higher levels of student debt, Australians are suffering too, he says.
“There are definitely some people in Australia who are working their allotted hours and then they go home,” Leiter says.
“However I think there is a significant slice in Australia, on the low and high wage-end of the scale, who are working ridiculous hours.”
As Leiter, points out, burnout seems to affect those earning at the extreme ends of the spectrum: commercial lawyers working 100 hours a week as well as underemployed gig economy workers who struggle to earn a minimum wage ferrying delivery food to the same corporate lawyers too busy to cook.
“The gig economy is totally hostile to a unionised framework, and then at the higher end of the pay scale if you want to compete globally, you have to scramble all the time,” Leiter says.
Which speaks to one of the common features of burnout: an overwhelming sense that your work life, your career, is out of your control.
A recent study by researchers from Montreal University tracking 2,026 people – half of whom were women – for four years, found that women were more likely to burn out because they had less authority or control over their work than men.
“Whether someone has input into important decisions that affect their work is a major factor [in burnout],” Leiter says.
“People have a real need for that autonomy. And by autonomy I don’t mean, ‘I can do whatever I like’, it’s about that feeling of making something happen as opposed to being acted upon.”
This was certainly the case for King, who felt worn down by a lack of agency.
“When my manager wanted something done, he wanted it done straight away,” she says,
“If I wanted to put in a new procedure, he wouldn’t allow it and always wanted it his way even if it wasn’t the best.”
Meaningless work exhausts people, and it makes them more cynicalMichael Leiter
Taylor has worked with scores of corporates to help build resilience in stressful situations and says both men and women, senior or junior, can feel they lack control.
“I know a lot of high-ranking executives who say they feel they have no control over what the board is doing,” Taylor says.
If your workplace is not allowing workers any freedom whatsoever, then maybe it’s time to look for another job, Taylor suggests.
“It may not be easy and it may take a while, but starting the process of looking is part of taking some control back,” he says.
How invested employees feel in their work can also be the difference between exhilaration and exhaustion. “Within reason, doing work that really matters does not burn people out as quickly and, in fact, it often energises them,” Leiter says.
And the problem, according to Leiter, is that many people are pulled away from work they enjoy to perform soul-crushing administrative tasks. “Technology gets a bad rap, but the problem with technology is that it allows employers to impose all kinds of administrative nonsense, such as compliance training, filling out forms, online time sheets,” he says.
“This meaningless work exhausts people, and it makes them more cynical.”
Leiter notes that millennials are more likely to feel the effects of burnout compared with other demographics, with a viral Buzzfeed article, “How millennials became the burnout generation”, capturing the mental load many young Americans feel.
It appears to be no different in Australia, with a stress and wellbeing survey conducted by the Australian Psychological Society finding those aged 18 to 25 consistently report lower levels of wellbeing.
“It’s a vulnerable time for burnout when you first start work as you’ve usually come from university or some form of training, which is more idealistic,” Leiter says.
“So there is a conflict between the reality and the idealistic vision of work.”
The tech-heavy aspect of much of modern work is not helpful for millennials either, according to Leiter.
“While information technology opens access to resources that further a person’s work, it also opens users to distractions and to administrative busy work that will hurt their productivity in the long run,” he says.
In King’s view, far too many of us have merged our identities with what we do for a living. “I honestly think a lot of people are lost and work is feeding people’s self-worth,” she says. “After all, you don’t have time to realise you’re unhappy if you’re working all the time.”