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Running on empty: why are we all so exhausted?

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Women are burnt out. Don’t just take our word for it. The research backs it up.

A University of Melbourne study in 2022 found 50 per cent of workers aged 25 to 55 feel exhausted. The research revealed the toll of the pandemic on the workforce and showed women were particularly vulnerable.

While the ‘quiet quitting’ trend took hold in other countries and workers left their jobs in droves, Australians stayed put. And they paid the price.

“Burn out levels are at an all-time high,” says Professor Leah Ruppanner, sociologist and co-author of the research. “We’ll call it ‘the great burn-out’, rather than ‘the great resignation’.”

Leah, who is the founding director of The Future of Work Lab and the Gender Equity Initiative at the University of Melbourne and host of the newly launched MissPerceived podcast, is one of three panellists at Women in Media’s upcoming Canberra networking event on 28 May.

Running on empty: the impact of burn out on women in the workplace’ will explore why women are being run into the ground and what can be done about it.


Professor Leah Ruppanner

The pandemic upended life at work and home, but it also intensified existing pressures in a world where people were already on the edge, had too much going on, and were balancing too many demands, Leah says.

“When I was looking at what was happening during the pandemic, I was worried because I could see what was happening in terms of the pummelling, in particular, of women.

“We have to acknowledge that we’re in a burnout crisis at this moment in time, driven by the pandemic, but also driven by things that weren’t working before the pandemic.

“It was a trauma and people just went back to normal. No one’s had a chance to recover from it.”

Also featuring on the panel are Associate Professor Theresa Larkin, a medical science educator and researcher at the University of Wollongong, and Qin Qin, author of Model Minority Gone Rogue. ABC journalist, producer and editor Claudine Ryan will moderate the event.

The evening is an opportunity for journalists and media and communications professionals in Canberra to connect over a glass of bubbles and debrief about why we’re all so exhausted (or maybe discuss something more cheerful).

Examining why we’re all so burned out is a focus of Leah’s research, which also looks to quantify the mental load. But what we can do about it is a question Leah feels is bigger than the women affected.

“Women are in this incredible vortex of pressures,” she says. “They’re trying to be good at work, then on top of that they’re supposed to have great marriages, they’re supposed to have perfect bodies, they’re supposed to eat right, rest, relax and be more mindful.

“All of these are stacked up mental loads onto mental load. And then we say to them, ‘you need to figure out when you’re working towards burn out’.”

The solutions, Leah says, include overhauling outdated societal structures and putting the right supports in place, such as providing easy access to childcare and improving the aged care system to reduce the caregiving responsibilities that traditionally fall to women.

In the meantime, the ramifications of the burn out phenomenon extend beyond individual women who are trying to catch a break. It’s determinantal to society as a whole.

“What we lose if we have burn out is the opportunity for greatness,” Leah says.

“I think the question is, who enters the world with gravity and who enters the world with energy? Who’s carrying the burdens of racism, of sexism, of unequal care demands?

“What you lose is the energy of the people you need most in the conversation to fix the problems. You lose out on all the beautiful solutions, ideas and innovations that you’ll get from having everyone operating at full capacity.

“This is a time where we need everyone at full capacity because we’re going to be managing very serious and significant world problems.”


What: Running on empty: The impact of burn out on women in the workplace
When: 6.30pm to 8.30pm, Tuesday 28 May
Where: National Press Club of Australia, 16 National Circuit, Barton
Tickets: Book at Eventbrite $55 for standard tickets, $30 for students and concession, $40 for ‘Pay it forward’ ticket that will be made available to people who are unemployed, underemployed or studying. Ticket price includes refreshments and canapés.






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