Burnout - The Insidious Social Problem That We Need to Start Talking About
BY SOPHIE CHUNG
When did perpetual lethargy, daily meltdowns and alcoholism become normalised?
2 MAY - 2021
Some may think burnout is bullshit and a standard way of life, but we’re here to tell you it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way.
I first met Julianna three years ago at a VIP concert in mid 2018. I had already bought tickets to see the concert so I was in one of my hysterically excited moods to see the star up close and personal - lot’s of wide-eyed shallow breathing and I was probably a bit too eager about the cocktail bar.
Julianna and I had been liaising via the ol’ electronic mail for a wee while and when we met for the first time at the event, her face was one of the prettiest I had ever seen. She looked as pure as Snow White but with a stylish twist. At the time, it seemed like young women in their 20’s ran the media and PR space - I think they still do but I also think many of them have quit large agencies and have moved into smaller, niche agencies or better yet, have just gone on their own.
The industry can look fun and glam with the parties and the bubbles, but to be honest, the sparkles fade when you fade. Agency and media life can be incredibly demanding and a lot of us balance our hard work with equally hard play. For the social butterflies, it couldn’t be more of a blessing but after a few years, it all turns out to be a curse when you’re being shipped off to a hospital in an ambulance. It seems that we all learn the hard way that health is wealth.
Some are open about their love for partying while others are more secretive about it. But I’m pretty sure that for the majority of us, a glass of wine is what we use to take the edge off after a hard day’s work - make that four glasses if you’re in a toxic environment.
Julianna came off quite shy. I knew she was a fun girl though, deep down, past the polite BS facade. It’s only recently that we connected on a spiritual level after I read her story dealing with severe eczema, burnout and Topical Steroid Withdrawal. Since COVID and all of us having a lot of time to self-reflect on the past as well as our futures, I feel as if the new health movement has moved into quite a genuine space. A lot of it is still BS marketing but a lot of people are trying to resolve their health problems by addressing the root cause instead of putting it off because of our jobs - jobs that don’t really serve us as much as you think it would.
I’ve been wanting to interview Julianna Permitin for the longest time and I’m so ecstatic to be doing so. We’re going to dive deep into the insidious toxic cycle of modern work life - something that affects most people in the workforce. From deteriorating mental health to chronic stress and burnout.
We should be addressing burnout urgently considering how so many young individuals are struggling with depression and anxiety. Strap in - there’s a lot to go through but if you’re wanting more at the end of this, Julianna is now a Chatty Chum, so you’ll be hearing from her about the glum realities of real life.
Sophie: Where to begin? I guess… the beginning? What was a typical work week like for you?
Julianna: I mean you really do start your career with a bang, you’re wearing those rose tinted glasses, prancing down the CBD with your (at the time) regular order of a grande, soy, caramel, latte - thirsty to make your mark. Although that coffee order shortly turned into 2-3 long blacks a day and my health began to deteriorate, I still look back at the start of my career being a really happy one. In media, no day is the same, that is why you sign up for it. You want the thrill of having no idea what curveball is going to be thrown at you. I loved every moment, until, well you realise your timesheets are at 47+ hrs and you’re on a first date with an amazing guy (apologies to the dates of 2018), but you’re making excuses to go to the bathroom to check your emails, ensuring boss, client and inbox is happy. Let’s just say I was a terrible bachelorette back then.
Obviously it went up and down but an average day was:
6.30 am: Wake up aka snooze for another 15 minutes with the other three alarms about to spring
6.45 am: Get ready, putting on those jeans I couldn’t afford but now cannot fit because my diet is living off soy caramel lattes, cheese scones from the office cafe, Maccas hunger buster meals, red wine came in shortly.
7.00 am: Popping as many vitamins as possible - constantly on anti-flu medication and antibiotics for my UTI that wouldn’t leave me alone (now I understand it was coming on every few months because of the stress and fight mode).
8.00 am: Arrive at the office, my heart would sink if I saw my manager’s car there before mine.
8.15 am: See that 8.30 am catch up with my manager and even if it wasn’t on a negative topic, I’d be anxious AF.
9.00 am: I’d leave the office to go to my university classes, taking 2 hours in the day, twice a week. Naturally that would mean that my lunch break would be cut out and I’d also be working late to make up the hours. But a proud moment for me at the time, that TV show, ‘Girl Boss’ was trending.
11.15 am - 6.30 pm: Come back from uni, probably have a coffee shot + be told about my to-do list. I started slowly feeling like I was on a hamster wheel and that if I wanted to be viewed as ‘worth the hire’, I’d need to say yes to everything.
6.35 pm: Walk back to my car in the dark, most likely bawl my eyes out about something to do with work, love life or friendships. Those years were so rough on my social relationships.
7.15 pm: Get home and jump straight into uni work whilst eating my weight in pasta (take note, I am beyond gluten intolerant at this point but had no idea it was ruining my gut)
9.00 pm: Ensure all of my work emails were cleared before bed, so I could calmly go to sleep. I’d most likely have a glass (1-3) of red wine at this point and a lot of ‘Bridget Jones in pjs ice-cream’ moments.
10.30 pm: Either Netflix, bitch to my flatmate or swipe on Bumble - the only real down time I saw. Can’t imagine feeling any validation from a right swipe these days, but at 21 - boy, oh boy, did dating apps fill the void of actually giving dating some time in my calendar.
But as I started getting to know the industry, I’d be invited to more and more events which meant the university work became a deadline juggle, I’d be home at 2 am instead, with a belly full of vodka red bulls (gross!) and chicken nuggets. Wake up, roll back at 6.30 am to do it all again. I wish there was a manual that would tell us that you did not have to party as hard as the industry/ bar allows. A free bar tab is not an invite to blow out - for me, it was a great escape from the stress.
I know agency life is not 40 hours/week and you have to fit socialising, the gym and some sleep in there too. Can you describe how you felt during the early days?
Ah, well - I didn’t. I was actually still finishing my degree part-time when I started out, whilst working full-time agency hours. I had a gym membership I never used, which meant an eating disorder was in the works because of the guilt and shame I felt for not having the time to exercise. As I mentioned, socialising was only available when work wasn’t taking up my time. And even then, we’d go out to these events with colleagues, drinking to the work we were doing. It was a cycle and naturally the bottles of red wine invited themselves back to my flat after a hard day. Cheers to that, I was also going through my very first heartbreak - enough said.
What was your work environment like? Do you have any memorable moments that make you flinch to this day?
This doesn’t even need an explanation. I once had a manager tell me that if I ever needed to cry, I should do it in the back staff toilets because a) no one goes back there and b) it’s embarrassing for a junior to be seen crying. I did this on a regular occasion. There would also be the “hey, can you stay behind so we can talk.” Which would be a scene caused in front of the rest of my team. It was embarrassing and it made me feel like I wasn’t playing my part. I definitely was - it was just a power play on the manager’s half. A confidence boost for them to feel power.
I remember during these dark patches I promised myself that when I’d become a manager, I’d reflect and try to understand “why” - the why of how someone could treat another junior the way I was treated. Well here I am, in the present day, rocking the same title. Except, the only silver lining is now I know what not to do. I know the feeling of walking into an office where you are surrounded by such large, intellectual personalities. As a junior, it's your golden time to learn and have fun, not have someone ‘higher up’ telling you to suppress your emotions. I was also once told by my ex-boss to not tell the rest of the team that my grandad had passed away, because of the heavy workload at the time. So back I went to the bathroom, declining any form of emotional process. It damaged me for the next year or so - I actually went and saw a psychic healer who brought up how much grief I had been building up because of my old role.
The people were not toxic when they started out, it turned toxic because of the competitive nature and because everyone was dealing with their own burnout and health issues. It’s heartbreaking to see some of my friends having chronic health issues that are all caused by this level of fatigue and stress.
Where were your anxiety levels sitting at this point? I feel like you were keeping it all together pretty well from what I could see but I guess emails and Instagram is not a very good reflection of reality!
It is SO easy to cover up your dark days on Instagram, just post a throwback photo or take a photo at a glamorous event you are working or attending. That part was easy. What was very frightening was that I became addicted to my anxiety. If I wasn’t feeling anxious, I was slacking off and sinking in my first year of the industry. I needed to be in that adrenaline from 3x-long-blacks-in mode.
The anxiety is so crippling that as my alarm would go off in the morning, my heart would start pounding, I would be shaking putting on my makeup, my hair (thinning at this point) would give me anxiety with how long it would take to straighten. I’d swallow all of my pills, run to my car and then have to wait in traffic. I wouldn’t remember the drive in because I’d be creating scenarios in my head of what my boss would tell me off for that day and how I’d reply etc. At the office, if I’d see any of my senior team talking, I’d think it was about me. I’d actually pace from the desk to the printer room to try and stop my shakes - whether it be from caffeine or anxiety. It started to shut my body down. Here came the weight loss and then the dramatic gain, digestive problems, binge eating...The cycle continued. The only real ‘switch off’ I’d be able to have was if my boss gave me a “you did good this week”.
I was a pro at covering up my depression. I had an alter-ego when I’d be out. But I was genuine whenever I connected with new people and new friends in the industry who lifted me up. We were all going through it without directly talking about it. Plus, signing off with “have a wonderful weekend babe” was on autopilot by that point.
Let’s talk about burnout. It’s real! Obviously! Can you describe how it revealed itself and how you felt? Not to be grim, but I remember wishing I could run through the windows and escape reality. I was really depressed and perpetually exhausted. Busting my ass, day in, day out and barely getting by on my awful salary - it’s a toxic cycle for so many people and my outlook on life was incredibly bleak. I remember thinking, ‘holy shit - is this it? Is this what life is? Working all day in emotionally harrowing workplaces with no future in sight?’
I can absolutely relate to how that felt. There was this one day, where I was crossing the road on the way to work and I thought ‘if this Prius hits me, I could probably get the next few days off.’ That, in itself, is just ridiculous. I think I was almost waiting for something and someone to stop me. Because I was in a toxic, abusive relationship with my job, I didn’t want to leave. I was doing a great job - “killing it” - but also killing my health. My illness was killing me slowly and I was left with a chronic illness that I am now still working through.
The eczema - when did it start and at what point did it get completely out of control? Not to sound all woo woo and hippy dippy but would you say your lifestyle that was very heavily skewed to work and not so much life, triggered your eczema to unravel at lightning speed?
My eczema had always been part of my childhood. The doctor said I would grow out of it, which I did until I started working under that ‘agency expectation’ umbrella. Shortly after, my arm patches grew out behind my ears, down to my legs and then my entire face was covered.
This was over the course of three and a half years of starting out in the industry. A slow, but violent process. My work was my life. I was proud of it. I think being able to announce, “I am the girl with the big career” was what allowed me to put up with ignoring the pain I was in. Plus, a few tubes of steroid cream was getting me through it. As a freshly single, early twenties, passionate grad, I did not have a life outside of work and I didn’t really want to - I was living for the thrill of climbing up the ladder.
Stress relief. In the theme of being honest - let’s talk about alcohol. How much did you party and drink on an average week? I used to drink so much and party hard to make up for the insane stress and burdens I had to carry. Everyone has their issues that they have to deal with but when you are overworked on top of it, a bottle is what we naturally turn to for instant relief. I think I was hungover most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
I think a lot of us go through a party phase once you’re going through your first true heartbreak. A large part of why the relationship ended was because of my career and just how much of an anxious mess I had become. I now also had a lot of free time. Free time = anxiety but what doesn’t = anxiety is a lovely red wine, especially when that glass of red is encouraged by the drinks trolley at work. I was probably drinking 3-4 times a week. 1-2 of those times a week was a full on binge sessions, out at a concert/ event/ night club. I remember sitting at brunch with my boss on a Thursday morning after fashion week, who turned to me and said “wow, you had a big one - I can smell the champagne on you”. How’s that for rock bottom? At least I was drinking high end bubbles... Pretty sure I was also still tipsy at that brunch.
Looking back, I cannot believe how much alcohol we were all consuming. There was always a fridge full at work and at my flat. Although it was painful, my illness really sobered me up and the party phase was short and sweet. I quickly learned that I definitely couldn’t do my job hungover and it was a way to double the anxiety. That chapter definitely sped up the process of my depression and physical illness unraveling.
Pushing down stress and anxiety with continuous partying definitely takes its toll. In the beginning, I couldn’t eat during the day and lost 10kgs in 6 months. My health deteriorated and the problems escalated all of a sudden and my period cramps were so painful I had vasoconstriction. They lasted up to four hours and after seven of these episodes, I thought ‘f**k it’ and decided to start contracting and just sleep for a while. What did your journey look like? How did your body scream at you?
It breaks my heart to hear that. I remember seeing photos of you very thin, but never thinking anything of it. It’s that Instagram filter lifestyle, the smile on your face was such a cover up. I think many of us have to reach that rock bottom before we say ‘fuck it’. For me, it was November 2019, I got back from a dermatologist appointment (which gave me anxiety going during the work day) who told me that I should consider this special injection for my unknown condition with a side effect of potential infertility.
Having those forms on my desk while seated in my office chair, I was covered head to toe in this burning eczema - I couldn’t hand write anymore because my hands were swollen, the steroid creams weren’t working, the air con burning my face. I even slowed down on how fast I could type, because it would create new wounds on my hands. I was quite literally falling apart.
What were the choices you made after this?
It was actually during my second long term relationship, my boyfriend (at the time) sat me down and spelled out just how much my entire human existence was impacted by my work day. If I didn’t reach a KPI at work on a Friday or got a passive aggressive email, my entire weekend would be ruined. I’d be glued to my inbox or texting my manager for reassurance (anxious girl 101). But he didn’t pressure me, he said it in such a warm manner, it stuck. I think it was seeing the genuine worry, sadness in another person and how much he was living to see my physical and emotional health vanish, from “just a job”. It took one very calm, collected conversation. I’ll never forget it. I was on LinkedIn the following week.
I will also never forget the moment I resigned. I felt fear, I felt shame and most of all, I felt so guilty that I was leaving something that I had fought for. But looking in the mirror and not being able to stretch my arms or fingers out was a well enough “sign from the universe” or whatever you want to call it.
But about one week into my new role at a new workplace, I realised just how much of a toxic relationship I had with my previous role. It was more than the workplace itself, it was how I allowed people to walk all over me. I had zero boundaries. And you best believe, I have never looked back since.
The burnout, depression and anxiety, eczema - the culmination of all these things would’ve made you feel so resentful towards the world. What was going inside your head?
I never resented the world, but I did want this all to end, including unfortunately feeling like it should be my own life. I have always been the fun, outgoing, “yes girl” but it got to the point in my illness that I couldn’t even leave the house, tie my converse, wash my hair without being thrown into a panic attack. More so, I think it was that grief that I was losing my twenties being so unwell. Which was all caused to me not picking up those bloody warning signs!
How did you overcome your depression and what are your learnings from going through all of this?
I was stripped of being able to do normal day-to-day things, like taking a shower, eating out with friends, being able to break a sweat in a workout. It was honestly when I began slowly (under a naturopath’s supervision) introducing different elements back into my life, like being able to have a coconut flat white in the morning. It sounds corny as heck but lining up and paying that $5.50 never felt more fulfilling. It was like I had this huge reset in my life. I also would never allow myself to reach that burnout again or let anyone treat me in that way and run me into the ground.
Do you have any advice for young people who are going through similar struggles?
Listen to that body of yours and your mind. If you have an ick, gut feeling or anxiety over your work life (or any area of life for that matter), it's probably for a good reason. I had the worst imposter syndrome, thinking I was not smart, strong or creative enough. But in the end, I was swallowed and really just abused for not trusting my worth. It was a ‘me’ problem.
If I could shed any light it would be to have boundaries, even if it's just that 6 pm yoga class on a Tuesday night. Put it in your diary and leave. Honey, I promise that the (34) inbox will be there in the morning. I gave up so much, so many first dates, trips away, workouts just because I wanted to prove myself. The most admirable thing about being a ‘yo-pro’ is not being up to date on what ‘bussin’ means. It’s actually knowing how to protect yourself and speak up - whether it's from a typo, an abusive boss, or when you’ve got your third UTI of the year and you need to leave the office pronto. Do it. Do it for yourself and your future wellbeing. I did not want to be that senior with boxes of pills on my desk, dressed to the nines but breaking apart. Devil Wears Prada is a great, aspirational film. But Miranda was poppin Xannies left, right and centre. No thanks!
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
‘This too shall pass’ - although I couldn’t bear hearing that from someone that was completely healthy with a whole set of hair. It is very true. You are the only narrator for your story. Be a fucking epic main character. And as that narrator, cry if you want to - it's a sign you’re identifying that something isn’t right within your aura. Surround yourself with intellectual, confident but empathetic people and know that what may leave you is a sign it is not meant for you.