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For Yumiko Kadota, it took a fatigue the likes of which she had never before felt, and a depression so deep she could barely get out of bed, before she realised just how burnt out she was after years working as a surgeon in Australia’s hospital system.
In a blog post published days after she officially resigned from her role as a surgical registrar, Yumiko wrote that the experience of working for days on end without a break, and with no support from her workplace, had left her broken.
She spent time in hospital being treated for sleep deprivation and took herself to a yoga retreat to try and regain her sense of self. It was a long journey, and it ultimately led to her book Emotional Female, which was released in March.
In it, Yumiko writes about her entry into the world of medicine as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed intern, keen to make her mark in the industry. Back then, she would never have guessed at how thoroughly the system would chew her up and spit her out.
Part of the problem was that being busy and stressed are almost seen as markers of success in our workforce culture in Australia.
“I think that we glamorise burnout, because it just shows how hard you’ve worked to get there, when really it’s not a good thing to work too hard, because it affects your function and it has tremendous impacts on your mental health down the track, especially if you go through a severe form of burnout,” says the author.
For months before her final breakdown, there were warning signs that Yumiko was struggling with the demanding schedule of weeks in a row of shifts with no break.
Despite repeatedly asking for a meeting with her supervisor to discuss rostering, there was no meaningful attempt to address the issue.
Looking back, Yumiko can see that the impact of her burnout wasn’t just restricted to herself.
“If you’re very burnt out or sleep-deprived, it affects the quality of care that you can give others. So in the end, the people who suffer are also the patients, not just the individual healthcare workers.”
It’s an alarming thought and one that definitely requires attention from all corners of the medical sector to ensure our healthcare staff are able to support their patients without sacrificing their own health.
Added to the demands of the job was an underlying culture of toxicity and misogyny in some of the hospitals where she worked.
Yumiko is appearing in Canberra on Tuesday 4 May to speak as part of YWCA Canberra’s She Leads in-conversation series, and has been reflecting on the way that gender played a role in her experiences.
“In Australia, only 11% of surgeons are women,” says Yumiko. “I think that plays a huge part in your experience because the lack of visibility does affect your day-to-day experience because people aren’t used to seeing a woman in surgery and so you have all these unconscious biases.”
“When you have more women in the workplace, there is less sexism and misogyny. Even things like sexist jokes wouldn’t really pass if there were lots of women around you, but if it’s an all-boys club, it’s a lot easier for those kinds of things to slip through.”
Now, with the process of writing the book acting as a form of catharsis (albeit a draining one), Yumiko is clearer in terms of her own limits when it comes to work and also when it comes to what she looks for in a workplace.
“Culture is the most important thing,” she says. “If you’re able to talk to someone who already works there, I think that is the best way to get an idea of what it’s like.”
If you can’t speak to a current or past employee, the next best thing is to research the organisation’s policies.
“What are their policies on maternity leave, carers leave, all of these workplace benefits? Are they going to look after you when you need to take some time off? What are their policies on all of those things? I make sure I read up on that before applying for any job.”
It’s clear that Yumiko’s experiences have resonated with hundreds of Australians, from all sectors. Her ability to share what was a dark period in her life with empathy and warmth is a testament to her resilience, and further proof that when things are toxic, it’s not about the individual it’s about the system.
Yumiko Kadota will be speaking at the She Leads In-Conversation event on Tuesday 4 May at 6 pm. Tickets are available here.
Feature image: Michael Windle