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I am not Wonder Woman, and neither are you.

We’re all busy. It’s the new normal, so we’d better just suck it up and get on with what needs doing right?

Maybe not.

All this continual hustle, jostling and striving to work harder, faster and get more done in order to be successful doesn’t work. The more we do, the more we create and just like the never empty laundry basket, our mental in-trays keep refilling with more tasks, more emails, more meetings, more stuff. To survive we sacrifice other items deemed less important, even though deep down we feel guilty and mourn their loss.

Where is all this taking us?

To the yellow brick road of happiness and fulfillment?

Or to the brown-out zone, with high levels of stress and increased risk of mental illness and burnout?

As we celebrate RUOK? Day this September reflecting on what each and every one of us can do to reduce the risk of suicide, reflect on this.

We are not winning the battle against mental illness.

Every day an average of 8 Australians will take their own lives, 6 will be men.

The risk for Australian adults developing a mental illness in any given 12 months has been stated as being 1:5 for at least the last decade. But a recent study that examined the mental health of corporate Australia revealed the prevalence to be far greater with one in three experiencing some form of mental illness broken down to

Depression is the leading cause of non-fatal disability and is the third-highest burden of all diseases in Australia.

The statistics are scary, and especially for the younger generation.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 25 to 44 and the second leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24.

At a time where we have so much going for us, something is clearly not right when an increasing number of people are being diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

And these are just those who have sought help and advice. It is thought that 54% of those struggling with mental illness don’t seek help.

So, what’s the problem?

From a medical perspective, my observations are we have underestimated and ignored the impact of chronic levels of high stress at work on our mental-wellbeing due to

  1. Heavier workloads
  2. The expectation of continuous top performance irrespective of stress levels, time poverty and reduced resources
  3. Multiple interruptions leading to loss of focus and time available to complete tasks
  4. Massive change disrupting many aspects of our lives and work
  5. Insufficient downtime for rest and recovery

No-one is immune to severe chronic stress. We can manage it for a while but then it bites.

I know, because I’ve worn the T-shirt of burnout and it’s still hanging in the wardrobe.

And it can be an unwelcome return visitor, as I found out earlier this year.

2019 has been incredibly busy, business has been doing well and being a “doer” and a high achiever, I’ve been doing whatever it takes to stay on top. When fatigue kicked in, I put it down to frequent travel and working hard. When it didn’t settle, I thought I might have picked up a virus, become anaemic or developed an underactive thyroid.

(Doctors are notoriously good at self-diagnosis and ignoring the obvious)

Despite rest, the fatigue worsened, and my usually sunny mood darkened. My thoughts became ruminative, skewed to the negative and everything felt hopeless.

When I eventually realised what was happening, I knew I had to take urgent action to avoid falling further into the abyss.

We all have ways of managing our hectic lives and develop strategies to stay well. But equally we can slip into less helpful survival habits, thinking it’s only temporary, but then they become our norm.

Here are some of the things I did to reset, including

  1. Eliminating all non-essential tasks and meetings and rescheduling work to spread the load. I quickly got a lot better at saying “No” to requests for additional services and freebies.
  2. Changing my morning routine on home office days to reduce stress and boost well-being by
    • Drinking a glass of hot water and lemon on waking to rehydrate and avoid caffeinating my brain too early
    • Restarting my meditation practice and ramping it up to 15 minutes twice a day. This made a huge difference to my mood and mindset within a couple of days
    • Getting out for a 30-minute walk with the dog in the morning
    • Not looking at my mobile phone until after starting work and completing my first task for the day. I’d got into the bad habit of quickly checking emails and the news first thing, cluttering my mind with stuff, that really didn’t warrant my attention
  3. Setting a “down-tools” time at the end of the day to signal that was the time to stop any work-related activities.
  4. Making sure I got at least thirty minutes outside in some fresh air and sunshine.
  5. Being physically active – walking, cardio-Pilates for 45 mins to one hour every day.
  6. Getting enough sleep and snooze time while I needed the extra.
  7. Creating tech-free Saturdays (apart from interacting with friends to arrange social activities) to avoid catch-up work.
  8. Practicing self-compassion. Yes, I had been burnt out once before. Yes, I have experienced anxiety and depression and understand they can reoccur.  While some might say “surely as a doctor – you “KNOW” about all this and how to avoid it, yes that’s true and is the irony of expertise. But as a human, I’m just as fallible and imperfect as everyone else.
  9. Reaching out to friends and family. Staying social and participating in fun activities can be hard when the impulse is to lay low out of sight, but is a great mood booster and helps alleviate the sense of isolation and loneliness.
  10. Diverting my full attention to the important people in my life to be fully present.

Sustainable high performance only works when we factor in enough downtime for rest and recovery. The tricky part is to know when it’s time to pull back and take a break. This is how resilience works. Trying to be your own favourite Marvel Hero is nonsense because we are human not a comic character.

The steps you take to achieve this are unique to you. There is no one-size-fits all.

Self-care is never selfish. It’s about taking stock of who you are, tapping into your values and giving yourself permission to be the happier, more fulfilled version of you.

Only then will we as a society start to get better at turning the tide on the misery of burnout, loneliness and mental illness.

It’s time to look around and notice what’s going on, trusting the signs if you know things aren’t right and take action – now.

There is no shame in asking for help, but it’s an awful shame if mental illness or burnout means you’re out of action for a while. Life is short, why waste it on stress and over-work?

How do you care for your mental wellbeing and that of those around you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If you or someone you know is at risk of mental illness or burnout, help is at hand.
Contact your health practitioner
Lifeline 13 11 14 For Crisis support and suicide prevention www.lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au
RUOK? www.ruok.org.au

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