Burnout and recovery are never the result of individual factors, or work-based reasons alone, but rather a combination of both (Salminen, Andreou, Holma, Pekkonen, & Makikangas, 2017). Burnout and other related mental and physical declines in health is an epidemic in remote community service delivery. Burnout can produce long lasting impacts on the people whom suffer it, the communities they work in, the organisations they work for, their families, friends and the health system in Australia. 

So what is it?

Photo Credit: Daily Nurse, 2017

“An enduring state of physical and emotional exhaustion involving lack of interest, helplessness, disillusionment, feeling overwhelmed, and being fearful of making mistakes. It is associated with excessive and prolonged stress resulting from working under difficult and demanding conditions, such as a chaotic and/or high-pressure environment” (Harris & White, 2018).

Burnout is due to excessive stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin accumulating in the body, depleting vital health and causing the body and mind to eventually shut down (Beyond Blue, 2019). Alarm bells should be going off if you identify a distinct change of character in yourself or someone in your team, who many have become cynical, angry, experiences chronic tiredness or fatigue, has become short-tempered, shows high levels of unwarranted suspicion, and/or has developed an excessive susceptibility to colds and headaches (Beyond Blue, 2019, Harris & White, 2018).

Sound familiar to someone you know? If you are a manager or supervisor, click here on link here for this quick easy tool to share with your staff to gauge stress or burnout levels.

Photo Credit: Neil Thomas

Almost all remote service delivery practitioners have come across burnout and likely experienced some or all of the symptoms personally, at some point in time. It’s a problem that is preventable, like other workplace health and safety injuries. The most important is in providing safe, knowledgeable and regular one-on-one support, to offset highly challenging work environments. 

Why does the condition of burnout have greater prevalence for practitioners and leaders working with remote Indigenous communities than in other social or human service contexts? 

One of the key reasons is that it is common that leaders and practitioners assume; they’re immune, are unaware of the prevalence, there is a lack of mentoring or supervision due to limited resources, a limited understanding on the phases and stages of burnout, there is an inappropriate allocation of workloads or supervisors are unable to give adequate support due to geographical distances (Harris & White, 2018).  

The non-linear phases that burnout can revolve through are: 

  • A compulsion to prove oneself
  • Working harder and harder
  • Neglecting one’s own needs
  • Displacement of conflicts (not realizing the cause of the distress)
  • Revision of priorities (friends and interests are neglected)
  • Denial of emerging problems
  • Withdrawal (reducing social conracts to a minimum, becoming walled off)
  • Inner emptiness
  • Depression

(Harris & White, 2018).

Compassion fatigue and vicarious (or secondary) trauma are slightly different, and are related to experiencing a traumatic event indirectly by working closely with a first-hand sufferer; whereas burnout is distinctly different due to some key factors (Putterman, 2005). The burnout scale is rather significantly associated with structural strains in the workplace environment (the tyranny of distances in remote service delivery), lack of social supports (often away from family networks), significant limitations to the right information and knowledge to be effective (limited understanding of local language or culture), and a lack of a sense of mastery in the work; such as feelings of futility (uncertainty of progress due to degrees of the other factors) (Putterman, 2005). 

Considering the very definition of burnout fundamentally describes many aspects of remote workplaces and context; such as structural strains, social and geographical isolation, cultural diversity and a high degree of uncertainty; its evident why, left unchecked, it’s almost certain to so many practitioners’ experience burnout to some degree, at least once (Putterman, 2005).

As described by Franklin (2017, p. 101) stress can be defined as an imbalance between the challenges we face and our perceived ability to deal with those challenges. Burnout is stress after extreme and prolonged exposure. The only way to offset it and ensure long-term success of community development in remote Indigenous communities is ensuring certain measures of support are in place to prevent this workplace health and safety risk (Putterman, 2005, Harris & White, 2018). 

Worried about someone? Here you can find and share a range of Standford Medicine Anonymous Online Self Tests

Keep in mind, that there is also considerable concern about burnout among clients or services users too; particularly single parents and carers (Harris & White, 2018). Burnout for both practitioners and potentially service users, can be in part due to ‘routinisation’; also known as ‘desensitisation’ (Harris & White, 2018). In very stressful environments, desensitisation can be beneficial in enabling people to cope easier, however it can be dangerous in that it becomes easier to miss the identification of important information about the individual clients and yourself (Harris & White, 2018). Where one practitioner might perceive a crisis situation in need of an immediate response, a desensitised person may think it’s mundane and normal.

Photo Credit: Aaron Blanco Tejedor

Reaching burnout levels usually means it is going to take significant action to remedy the stress levels (Beyond Blue, 2019). An important ‘DON’T’ when experiencing burnout, is to make any major life choices before gaining some space and support (Beyond Blue, 2019). Remedies are found in a combination of organizational change and interventions with individuals, but the overwhelming emphasis in the literature is on the latter; for example in the three ‘r’s approach (Harris & White, 2018).

Recognize Watch for the warning signs of burnout.
Reverse Undo the damage by managing stress and seeking support.
Resilience Build resilience to stress by taking care of physical and emotional health.
(Harris & White, 2018).

Peer support is also proven to be a critical aspect of having adequate coping resources (Gibbons, 2010). Invite a friend to join the Central Axis today, or direct them to Beyond Blue’s ‘Online Burnout Forum’.

Other healthy balms might be to resolve personal conflicts, do the things you enjoy, manage your work/life balance, exercise regularly, get support, try relaxation methods (Beyond Blue, 2019).

It’s never anyone’s ‘fault’ for experiencing burnout, as it is a combination of both work-based and individual factors that causes it; particularly in very challenging remote areas (Salminen, Andreou, Holma, Pekkonen, & Makikangas, 2017). Remember the most beneficial path is not only being self-aware of the risk, but in supportive job environments (Salminen, Andreou, Holma, Pekkonen, & Makikangas, 2017).

Be part of the solution!

Written by S. Madden. 2019



Beyond Blue. (2019). Mind Quiz. Retreived from https://www.beyondblue.org.au/who-does-it-affect/men/mind-quiz

Beyond Blue. (2019).Online Forums on Burnout

Billett, S., Fenwick, T. & Somerville, M. (Eds.). (2006). Technical and Voctional Education and Training Series: Issues, Concerns and Prospects (Vol 6): Work Subjectivity and Learning: Understanding Learning through Working Life. Springer; Netherlands.

Daily Nurse. (2017). Six Tips for Beating Burnout. Retreived from https://dailynurse.com/6-tips-beating-burnout/

Franklin, C. (2017). The Extra Mile: The Essential Guide for Health Professionals Going Bush. Christine Franklin: Australia.

Gibbons, C. (2010). Stress, Coping and Burn-out in Nursing Students. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 47 (10), 1299-1309. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2010.02.015

Harris, J. & White, V. (2018). A Dictionary of Social Work and Social Care (2nded.). Oxford University Press. Retreived http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref//9780198796688.001.0001/acref-9780198796688-e-189

MindTools. (2019).Self-Test Burnout Quiz

MindTools (Adaptation). (2019). Retrieved from

Putterman, I (2005). The Relationship Between Posttraumatic Growth and Professional Quality of Life (Compassion Fatigue/Secondary Trauma, Compassion Satisfaction, and Burnout) Among Social Workers in Texas. Retreived from https://resources.lib.monash.edu/eresources/theses/putterman.pdf

Salminen, S., Andreou, E., Holma, J., Pekkonen, M. & Makikangas, A. (2017). Narratives of Burnout and Recovery from an Agency Perspective: A Two-Year Longitudinal Study. Burnout Research (7), pp. 1-9). Retreived from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.burn.2017.08.001

Standford Medicine. (2019). Anonymous Online Self Tests. Retrieved from

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