Katie Gray ‘had it all’.
A high-flying partner in a prestigious Singapore law firm, she’d reached dizzying heights in her profession, while at the same time navigating three maternity leaves and three international relocations with her husband and family.
It’s the stuff dreams are supposed to be made of – but instead, she suffered complete and utter burnout.
“I never really dreamed to be a partner, but when the opportunity arose, there was an almost reverse gender component – there was a lot of men, and we need more women in those positions, so there was almost that kind of pressure too,” she tells.
“I felt that my mission here was, ‘oh, if I can make this work with two lawyers in my family – he’s a lawyer too – then I can show that this all works, and I can do it all. That really drove me. I mean, this is the weakness in my case, if you will – I wasn’t that passionate about upstream oil and gas! I was passionate about being a role model.”
With a demanding and high-pressure job, and three kids under four, Katie struggled on for years in search of the mythological ‘balance’, to no avail.
“I could balance two things – home and work. But what I realise now, it’s not about balancing those two things. Life’s supposed to be a three-pronged thing – wellbeing being the third piece that holds it all together, and I had none. If I wasn’t with the family I was working and vice versa, and barely getting any sleep.”
“And then criticism or critiques tend to permeate more, if you were less exhausted and more resilient.”
While she knew things weren’t quite right, Katie didn’t even know to call what she was experiencing burnout. Usually a positive person, she was lethargic, pessimistic and acting, in her words, ‘quite strange’.
“I would go into my office and shut the door and just retreat and try and hide, and that wasn’t me. And because I only had two parts to my life, it really permeated everything.
‘It’s one thing to be busy, but it’s another to feel that you’re never going to be enough’
Finally recognising that her lifestyle was no longer sustainable, Katie left her high-powered job in favour of working on her true passion, helping and coaching others – including advising women on how to deal with burnout, after being a recipient of similar advice and counselling.
So, how can you tell that you’re burnt out?
“Look, it can be sometimes be difficult,” says Katie. “But start checking off that list: Are you exhausted? Is there cynicism creeping in? Are you not as effective as you used to be? Do you feel like retreating from the world?”
According to research by Gallup, there are five top ‘root causes’ of burnout – and all of them can be caused by employers:
- Unfair treatment at work: Those who feel as though they’ve been treated unfairly are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout, and can include bias, favouritism and mistreatment.
- Unmanageable workload: Too much to do? You’re 2.2 times more likely. HOW people experience their workload has a huge impact however – for example, employees who are engaged but have job flexibility tend to work more hours, but report higher wellbeing than those whose work feels burdensome, difficult to do well or endless.
- Unclear communication from managers: When bosses don’t tell you what’s required, life gets difficult and frustrating quick. Workers need to regularly discuss responsibilities, performance goals and priorities.
- Lack of manager support: It can be tough when you’re on your own not know what you’re supposed to be doing, or when you’re not supported in the work that you’re doing. Employees who say they’re supported by their bosses are 70% less likely to experience regular burnout.
- Unreasonably time pressure: Employers are also 70% less likely to experience regular burnout when they have enough time.
“I really like these five to sum it up because I identify with all of them, and I have an emotional connection to them. Burnout isn’t just about working long hours – if all of this is going on, or even some of them, it can lead to that cynicism.”
So, what can an employee do about burnout – especially if its root cause is thanks to employers?
“From an organisational sense, the research shows that it’s not a personal weakness – these are all systemic things. That can be at home, in society and the workplace. It’s not a ‘I can’t hack it’ thing.
“But individually, the most helpful thing I found that people can do individually is to understand stress better. When the topic of stress comes up, organisations will replace the cookie jar with fruit or hand out gym memberships, but won’t actually look at stress and how people can better manage it.
“Stress lives in the body – people think it’s in their head, but it’s in your body and it hangs around, even after the stress has ended. You meet a deadline, the stress is still there, so you have to release your stress cycle. There’s a great book, Emily and Amelia Nagoski: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, where they identify six ways to do that – physical activity, breathing, positive social interaction, laughter, affection, crying and creative expression.”
For Katie, she chose to leave her job and found her own professional development business, Principals of Practice, and says she’s finally found some much sought-after balance.
“I’m really enjoying working in the area of what I’m passionate about,” she says with a smile. If there’s anything I’d want to tell other women, looking after your wellbeing is so important, it’s your right as a human. Looking after yourself is part of your role.: