'Career gap year' to soothe worker burnout


After almost two decades working in events, Leah says there are days she feels she can't breathe.

All her ambition and drive have disappeared, replaced by apathy and exhaustion.

"Screw the whole petrol in the tank thing. That was a year ago, my car is gone," the 43-year-old Melburnian tells AAP.

Leah, not her real name, has been suffering severe burnout since Victoria's first lockdown in 2020. The ones that followed took things "to a new level".

"I was in survival mode, exhausted, stressed out. It affected my personal relationships with everyone around me," she says.

Leah has been self-medicating with wine to cope with the stress brought on by constantly pivoting from her role in business development and events at a catering and functions company.

Since COVID hit, her duties have expanded to recruiting, bookkeeping, IT, debt collecting, and deliveries.

"Having to change your role to keep the company afloat, I found it quite exploitative," she said.

But that is all about to change.

In a couple of weeks, Leah will use the money she makes from selling her home to embark upon a "career gap year".

She hopes it will give her a fresh perspective, help her re-skill, bring back her drive and learn to breathe again.

"I'm going to take a breath," she says. "It's all about just really trying to make sure my health is being looked after."

Leah is not alone. A Wisr survey of more than 1300 Australians has revealed resignations and job mobility rose almost five percent between November and February.

Burnout, characterized by exhaustion, lack of accomplishment, and feeling cynical or withdrawn, was the number one reason for wanting to change careers or take a break.

Half of those surveyed planned to take one to three months off, 20 percent will take six months, and 16 percent a year.

ANU mental health researcher Liana Leach says studies clearly show workers mental health has deteriorated since early 2020.

"We could see quite early, within the first couple of months of the pandemic, that mental health - things like depression and anxiety - had increased across the population," she said.

"Within those first six months, people were probably already feeling burnt out and I would say that's continued over time."

While staying in a job while feeling burnt out isn't good, Dr. Leach says stopping work altogether is a luxury not everyone can afford.

She says employers and managers with workers suffering from burnout should regularly check to make sure they feel supported.

Centre for Future Work policy director Fiona Macdonald points out that returning to work after a break can be disproportionately harder for women.

"There can be real penalties associated with taking a career break," she said.

"Studies have found two out of three women come back and they're coming back to lower-skilled jobs.

"They sort of fall off that career track because of assumptions they've lost skills or they're less committed."

She said portable long service leave, which allows workers to accrue leave when they change jobs within the same industry, maybe a better solution.

"I think the other thing is, employers, embracing the idea of encouraging workers to take those breaks and seeing them as a positive," Dr. Macdonald said.

"If somebody doesn't return, would they really have been the right person to have stayed in that role anyway?"

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