Or, fighting for the right to rest.

Tealight candles on a wooden surface. They are all lit. The focus is on the candle in the front.

Everyone is tired. Our teachers are tired. So are our nurses, our doctors, our ambos, all of the healthcare professionals. They’re on their knees. The systems are groaning.

Earlier this year, I completed some studies in Behaviour Change at Monash University. This was enlightening stuff, about honing in on individual actions to create broader change. I was finding it fascinating until I hit a wall with the realisation that it’s the systems that need to change, not just individuals.

This absolutely relates to climate change, where individuals are asked to reduce their footprint as much as possible, while massive industries – think petroleum, think plastics – continue their damaging capitalist crusades.

In the context of exhaustion, this is where the idea of self-care becomes trite. How can someone who is asked to work 16 or more hours a day, every day, be expected to recover with a few words of wisdom from Instagram and a warm bath? It’s just not possible.

The problem with asking people to take personal responsibility for their burnout is that we are doomed if the systems don’t change as well. Of course we can change our behaviour. We can go to bed half an hour earlier, we can exercise, we can meditate. But the reality is that the systems don’t want us to rest. They are designed to deplete us.

In my previous working life, I put in a lot of hours – nights, weekends, that kind of thing. This was the norm for me. We had government clients who demanded our services on tighter and tighter deadlines, and an underpinning principle of our business growth was that we always said yes. We always found a way. So, as the owner of the business, I unwittingly set up the system that created my collapse. While the business continues to grow and flourish under new leadership, I am still recovering from a bout of exhaustion that makes me wonder if it will ever go away.

The Dalai Lama was asked what surprised him most about humanity and he said:

Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.
And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present;
the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Does that ring true for you? What are you sacrificing right now? Me, I’m sacrificing money to recuperate my health. Many of my friends and colleagues are sacrificing their health, their time and their values to make money.

But for some of us, money isn’t the main thing that’s driving us. It’s the impact that we have on the people that rely on us. When I was in the business, I’d drag myself out of bed because there was an underlying purpose for the work – we made content accessible for people with disability, and by doing so we were helping more people actively take part in the community. There were also 20 or so people in the team relying on our success for their livelihood. Those were huge drivers for me.

For the teacher, it’s the kids. For the healthcare professional, it’s the patients. There’s a reason underpinning our will to get up and get on with it, and that reason is why we will choose to put ourselves second.

Usually, it’s ok if we agree to do this temporarily – maybe we need to work long hours while we attend a conference, or we put in some extra time because one of our colleagues is sick. On an interim basis, this is manageable. But it’s when it becomes the norm that the exhaustion seeps in and we start living our slow, burned-out death.

Burnout is a popular topic, as it should be. But it’s all too easy to let burnout become a buzzword and therefore be diminished. Instead, we need to grapple with it realistically. We need to stop blaming the individual for their inability to handle their workload and look carefully at the systems that create this style of human misery.

Governments have a role. So do businesses, schools, hospitals, organisations. Even though we’re still in a pandemic, we need to look carefully at what we’re asking of our people and work out whether the short-term financial gains we make by overworking people benefit us as humans in the long run.

This article for the health care system from Journal Feed has some fantastic ideas about how organisations can make changes – big and small ­­– to the:

  • work environment, including lighting, seating, views, noise and distraction. They encourage leaders to come into the space and listen and learn.
  • working conditions, including scheduling, software, training and support. Safety at work is a huge factor in this, as are flexibility and strong staffing levels.
  • workload, including the staffing levels and scheduling, allowing time for breaks and holidays. Planning for surges is vital.
  • emotional and psychological support that’s on offer, including creating a safe environment and supporting teams through stress.
  • complexity of work – by simplifying everything from processes to the work environment, organisations reduce the load on teams.

This great article offers me some hope. It suggests that if management teams take the opportunity to look carefully at their workplaces and what they demand of their teams, significant shifts can be made in the right direction.

There is, of course, the possibility that organisations will continue to make shifts in the wrong direction – toward those designed for cost-efficiency. When organisations can align their definition of success to a suite of measures beyond just the financial, including the health and wellbeing of the people who work for them, the underlying benefits increase.

If we couple systemic change with personal responsibility, we can multiply the results. Systems that let people rest lead to people taking the rest they need. A rested employee brings more energy to the job. And from the employee’s side, a supportive environment can let us turn down the demands of our personal work ethic and find the pace that suits our needs. From there, we can make choices about our priorities. And those choices will bring out our best.

If you're exhausted, here are some tried and tested resources that really help:

  • Rethink Performance – specialty coaches in burnout, bullying and executive exhaustion.
  • Dr. Maria Sundberg – a health coach with an understanding of deep health, looking beyond just fitness and nutrition, encompassing sleep, emotions and relationships.
  • Insight Timer – a meditation app that has hundreds of meditations to choose from – type in ‘exhaustion’ and you’ll see what I mean.
  • Restorative yoga – this style of yoga helps to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing your body to relax and sink into a deep rest. If you're exhausted and potentially facing burnout, I highly recommend seeking some restorative classes in your local studio or practicing with Kassandra on YouTube.

Stay well, and do look after yourself in every way you can. But I encourage you to take a look at the systems around you too.

Much love, Lyndall