'I was forced into early retirement to avoid a complete burnout'

"What had started as a passion became such a burden."

As I  walked into my overcrowded workspace, I felt the tears well up once again. I had engaged in a stern conversation with myself to ‘toughen up’ whilst driving to work. I made a hasty detour to the bathroom and had a quiet cry. Quiet because the other stall was occupied. They always are. There was no place at all to go to be by yourself to collect your wits. “It’s going to be alright,” I sternly told myself. Only six hours to go and you can go home. But the quiet, yet insistent little inner voice said “Its only Monday, you have to do this four more times … and then there is next week”. Steeling my resolve, I walked out into the noise and heat. But I knew it was not going to be alright. Something was broken that I could not fix.

I had not been sleeping well, my stomach was in knots all of the time and I cried at the drop of a hat. Every weekend was spent in dread thinking about going in to work. Work? Yes, it was work that was doing it to me. In fact, thinking about working was so depressing because basically I felt like I had come to the end of it. I had three serious chest infections in a row, and then three bladder infections. I was swallowing antibiotics like lollies. My back ached and I couldn’t lift with my left arm. People kept asking me if I was alright, and I didn’t know what to tell them. They could tell I wasn’t and if they were nice to me I would just burst into tears. The only comfort was that some of my colleagues were feeling the same way.

I am well over sixty, and the first few years in my job working with young people with disabilities were exciting and challenging. I enjoyed my work, even the harder days, because I believed in what  I was doing and understood that it was necessary and valuable work. People with intellectual and physical disabilities are valuable members of our community. I enjoyed helping clients with work experience, or learning new skills. But the challenges were often very hard. With a six hour day divided into two three hour shifts, lunch breaks were not included and so we would eat on the run. Our award states that we get a ten minute break if we are working six hours, but that would never happen. It was just go, go, go. Relentless.

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Then there were  changes to our workplace, in Government funding, in fact so many changes that I could hardly keep up – heavier work loads, and the expectations of constant shift changes and split shifts and less support from our supervisors made the stress even more difficult to cope with. I found myself lifting clients by myself because there were no other staff to do so. Providing personal care (toiletting) in challenging and unhygienic bathrooms became increasingly difficult with outdated and faulty equipment. One of our buildings closed so we were cramped into the remaining one. 

The use of our fleet vehicles was curtailed so I was obliged to use my car more often which then deteriorated from carrying obese clients who could also urinate or defecate in my car, with no clean up assistance provided by management.

What had started as a passion became such a burden. The last straw was when I would find parts of my body would no longer function – that is my hands would loose strength temporarily, or I would find my legs would start to buckle for no reason. Concerned, I went to visit my doctor who has known me for many years. He basically told me that I had two choices, be medicated to remain in the job till retirement (three years away) or leave to avoid burnout.

So I left. A courageous act on my part, as finding more work until I retired in two years was not going to be easy. But the wonderful thing was that my health improved daily even though I acquired an auto immune disease and cannot work full time again. As the stress rolled away, I started to laugh and enjoy life again. People kept telling me I looked younger and so much happier. I have spent time restoring my health both mentally, physically and emotionally in spite of the illness I now have. My doctor said that stress and antibiotic overuse contributed to this illness.

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So, burnout has to be dealt with. My doctor basically said I would get an immune system meltdown if I did not deal with my stress. What stress do you have in your life, and how do you deal with it? Can you keep working, even if it is killing you?

Have you ever been in a position like this?