The Burnout Tree by Kathleen Stoop
Unlike my closest friends in high school, I was one of those kids who left school not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I was drawn to teaching, but I knew that I didn’t want to be a schoolteacher. I was fascinated by the workings of the human body but knew instinctively that medicine was not my calling. Like many of my peers, I fancied the idea of studying psychology.
It was my father who first raised the idea of me working with “deaf children” (political correctness was never his strong suit). I researched speech pathology and realised that the course in “Speech and Hearing Therapy” appeared to combine all my interests. I applied and was offered a position in the programme.
The head of the programme was a brilliant professor of speech pathology and a leading world expert in her field. She published prolifically, travelled overseas frequently, sat on boards and committees, ran the department, raised a family, and somehow still managed to find time to pursue her passion, which was hiking. From my vantage point, she was a superwoman, who proved that women really could have it all. But, years later, she would burnout to the point of nervous breakdown.
I remember feeling devastated that something like that could happen to such a brilliant mind. But what I remember most about the experience were the hushed tones in corridors and the unspoken rule that this was not something to be discussed. Fast forward 22 years, and I found myself on the brink of a similar experience.
The topic of burnout is no longer taboo, as living through a pandemic has opened conversations on mental health, but there is still stigma attached to the experience of burnout as well as confusion around burnout when compared to stress or depression.
The burnout seed was planted seven years ago, when my husband and I immigrated to Australia from New Zealand. We had emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand 14 months prior, but our plans were derailed following the earthquakes in Christchurch.
The process to achieve recognition of my professional qualifications in a new country had been arduous. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of paperwork that needed to be completed, the numerous application fees that needed to be paid, and the copious letters I needed to write to justify why I should be allowed to sit an entrance exam (despite the immigration department deeming my masters degree in Audiology equivalent to the masters degree in Australia).
In the interim, I needed to obtain a local TAFE qualification in Audiometry and Hearing Aid Dispensing so that I could gain employment. Once again, I faced a mountain of paperwork to apply for recognition of prior learning and a bill of $5000 for my efforts. Then there was the process of preparing to write the exam, over and above the demands and stresses of working full-time at a new job in a new country. Once I had passed the exam and completed my year of supervision, I would finally be able to earn the full salary advertised.
My new job in Australia was vastly different to the ones I had held back in South Africa or in New Zealand. I was accustomed to roles that allowed autonomy and flexibility around how I structured my day. I found full-time hearing aid dispensing in a busy clinic with set appointment times overwhelming and what I had previously considered a passion and career was quickly reduced to a job. I may have appeared well on the outside, but I began dreading Sundays and the thought of going back to work. The financial remuneration once I had finished my supervision may initially have eased the burnout progression, but the burnout tree was growing, and my survival response was activated daily.
I decided that if I were going to survive working an inflexible 9 to 5 job in a dispensing clinic, I would need to find an organization that resonated with my personality and personal ethics. And so began my fight to find a job where I belonged and could re-establish a career. Ironically, this fight response frequently activated the flight response, where I would quickly recognise that a new job was not a good fit and move on for fear of wasting time and energy in a role that would not turn into a career. Paradoxically, my efforts to trim the branches of the burnout tree were instead fertilizer for the burnout tree to sprout and grow. I became increasingly disillusioned about the prospect that I would ever feel like I belonged or have a career again.
And then an opportunity presented itself that held the promise of more autonomy and the possibility that my husband Gerhard and I could work together in a new dispensing practice. He and I had worked together in South African and New Zealand, and we are one of those couples who are at our strongest when we work together. For the first time in seven years, I could sense a level of optimism. I knew that I couldn’t take on the challenge of a new business by myself, but with Gerhard by my side, there was a real chance that I would belong.
We made the decision to embrace the new opportunity. In the first few months, I sensed increased stress levels, but I attributed this to taking on a new challenge, mastering new skills, and pushing beyond my comfort zone. I felt a compulsion to prove to myself that I could succeed at this and made a commitment to make it work. I was struggling to do everything by myself and reached out to management to say I needed assistance and that Gerhard was available to provide support at minimal or no cost. I was told that I had misunderstood the contract. Gerhard would not be able to support me in the business, even if it were in an unpaid capacity. I felt sick, as I knew at that point that I was well and truly in over my head.
The months wore on. Some days were harder than others, but I pushed on. Once again the survival mode was activated, and the fight response kicked in. I decided that I would ask colleagues who were managing their businesses profitably for advice. If I could discover the “secret sauce,” then surely, I would succeed too? I figured that if I worked an extra two hours a day and put in a day’s work over weekends, I would be able to keep up to date with everything that needed to be done. I would balance the extra work hours with self-care: I would drink green smoothies, keep a gratitude journal, and go for regular beach walks to unwind. Gerhard disagreed with my plan and cautioned that it was unsustainable; I knew that he was right, but I couldn’t see an alternative solution. There were only so many variables that I could control and support from management was minimal.
Before long, I was working seven days a week to keep up with work demands. Friends had given up on inviting me out as I was always working, and the green smoothies were replaced by a 3pm coffee and chocolate and increasingly late dinners. Who had time for a walk on the beach if you were leaving home in the dark and returning home in the dark? The burnout tree flourished.
The months passed and it was the first anniversary of the business. I felt confident that I would surely now be able to bring Gerhard on board and things would take a turn for the better. Instead, I was told that I was the only business-owner that was not coping, and I still was unable to access support. There was no way that Gerhard could assist me in the business. I felt an increasing sense of shame and isolation.
Slowly the layers of Maslow’s hierarchy began to erode; the burnout tree grew taller and the roots grew deeper. When I was at home, I was rarely mentally present. The growing to-do list overwhelmed me and dominated by thoughts. When I was at work, I felt resentful and unproductive. There was simply no escape.
The prolonged stress eventually culminated in a panic attack. I had never experienced a panic attack before and was fortunate to have a colleague recognize it for what it was and help me calm down. I booked an appointment with my GP, who diagnosed burnout and gently explained that the only solution was to remove myself from my current work environment. This was easier said than done in my situation and I wondered how I might navigate my doctor’s advice.
My body made the decision for me. For years, the flight-fight response was activated daily to the point of autonomic dysfunction. My body decided that I could no longer fight and there was no way to flee, so in a final survival attempt, it activated the freeze response.
I had no idea that this response existed, until my body simply slammed on the brakes and shutdown. I got dressed for work that day, as I did every day, but found myself inexplicably “stuck” as I attempted to leave my bedroom to enter our kitchen. I felt numb and detached from reality. My body felt heavy and unwilling to move. I could hear Gerhard asking me why I was just standing there? The burnout tree roots had cracked through the foundation. Eventually I gained control of my body and for the first time I recognized the level of damage that prolonged stress had caused.
It was only in a new position with a new team that the burnout tree finally began to wither, and the roots began to die. Recovering from burnout to wellness has been a long journey and it turns out that wellness works much better in a supportive team environment. I began to eat well and take those walks on the beach. I stopped working on weekends and began to reconnect with friends. When I was at home, I was mentally present and lived in the moment. My marriage grew even stronger, and I became clear on how I used my energy and who I chose to spend time with.
I am now 18 months into my wellness journey, and I am slowly beginning to feel that I belong. I have no idea what my career will look like going forward, but I am excited to take a new direction and find out.
* You can connect with Kathleen Stoop via Linked in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathleenkathstoop/