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First Nations Burnout with Caroline Kell

Interview of Caroline Kell by Freya Bennett

Hi Caroline, how are you?

It’s been a heavy and turbulent start to the year for myself and many of my community and clients. So all things considered, I’m doing well. Despite having some tough days, I’m continuing to show up for myself and my mob, to find ways to support my own and others, social, emotional and spiritual well-being.

You recently did a TedX talk on First Nations Burnout, how did it go?

It was probably the most scary, exciting and humbling experience of my entire life. An incredible honour to shine a light on a topic that many of us women/gender diverse, and First Nations women know too well. It was also an incredible privilege to speak about my Mum (who we lost last year) and my Nan’s personal story. I’m reminded how silenced they were, and how much labour and stress they carried. And how privileged I am to take up spaces that are not designed for and by, people like me.

This is such an important topic and one I don’t think gets talked about enough, what led you to tackle this issue?

A culmination of things ultimately. I experienced a really toxic workplace culture, compounded with high responsibility, long hours and a lack of support as a First Nations woman. All, while simultaneously supporting my own family and community. That, and a combination of my counselling background, is what led me to birth my company, Blak Wattle Coaching and Consulting into the world. It was shocking, but not surprising, that many of my clients (who I now have the pleasure to coach) have/or were experiencing the same.

What can ally’s do to help curb First Nations burnout?

Its complex and enduring issue, but understanding burnout as a systemic issue and the ongoing labour we have endured in this colony, is a useful place to start. Many of our old people have been working as unpaid domestics, providing free grassroots activism/education, helping to build roads and towns, as an example, as a direct result of the ongoing colonial project.

When we look at burnout as a deeply systemic issue, it means we all have a responsibility to do more to care for each other and see each other as intersectional beings and not just ‘outputs’ and ‘bottom lines’. We can no longer simply place the burden on individuals for ‘not looking after themselves’ or ‘saying no’. It’s much more insidious than that.

I think it’s also important for workplaces to genuinely understand the cultural and collective load or obligations many First Nations people experience, oscillating between two very competing worlds. And to get serious about the prioritisation of well-being and safety at work. Which will look different for different people and communities.

For First Nations people, it’s things like, providing cultural leave, enhancing First Nations leadership at all levels, providing access to First Nation coaches and mentors, establishing peer support groups, and of course, the acknowledgement that burnout exists. Just to name a few…

For many First Nations people, the strength and survival of who we are, is rooted in the strength and survival of our community. Being a part of a collective and large kinship structures are our greatest asset at times and can be a protective factor towards ill health. But like some achilles heel, we aren’t passive bystanders in our community. We are often caring for more people, more often.

Then of course, we are often expected to provide a range of paid and unpaid labour and education, in tackling racism in workplaces and in our societies generally, we are seeing this en masse now with conversations pertaining to the referendum for instance. This can bear an immense toll on our social, emotional and spiritual well-being. And all of this work, for the greater good, is usually on top of our 9-5 work and family commitments.

If you’re asking First Nations people for their time, labour and stories, remunerate them for the indispensable knowledge, and establish safe, two way governance and partnership approaches.

Can you tell us a bit about what you do at Blak Wattle?

Blak Wattle is a 100 percent Aboriginal owned and led, purpose driven coaching and consulting organisation. A versatile and dynamic team of deep listeners , we have proven experience increasing wellbeing, safety and performance in teams to drive wellbeing outcomes. And we don’t take a one size fits all approach.

Since launching in November 2020, we have worked with many varied clients from Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, grassroots Aboriginal organisations, governments, and non-government organisations helping to deliver Aboriginal led consulting solutions, to advance outcomes in health and mental health.

We also provide a range of tailored workshops, coaching/mentoring, keynotes and addresses on topics such as Aboriginal science/storytelling and First Nations burnout. We utilise the power of data, evidence, and Aboriginal knowledge systems such as, yarning circles, deep listening, two-way learning, reciprocity to help transform organisations through strategic planning, understanding leadership styles, and by helping staff feel more connected to shared values and purpose, to help reduce burnout.

Can you tell us a bit about the surveys you are conducting to learn more about first nations burnout? What have you found so far?

We were lucky enough to have some mob partake in an initial survey to begin to understand how widespread the issue is, and the results were staggering.

Of the 262 respondents, 85% of who identified as female and 40% of whom had 1-2 dependents, approximately 91% took on an additional five or more hours each week, of paid and unpaid labour, to support their community ON TOP OF their 38 hour working week.

We will build on our foundational learnings by running another round of surveys to validate findings and hypotheses which have emerged from our initial data collective. We are also currently trying our best to source funding to establish a paid community of practice/working group to develop some workplace solutions for First Nations people.

What advice do you have for First Nations peoples who are struggling with burnout?

Ultimately there is no neat answer and we don’t have all the answers yet. One of the most interesting, and scary things about burnout, is that because it shares many characteristics with other mood disorders like depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue, it’s not officially classified as a psychiatric condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – the handbook used by health care professionals to aide with the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.

I always reference Professor Gordon Parker’s work in my practice, which firstly involves identifying the particular workplace or life stresses that are relevant to you and putting in place corrective strategies, and secondly, developing “de-stress” strategies.

This can include things like seeing your GP, a counsellor, connecting with your local Aboriginal Health Organisation, taking medication, taking time off, mindfulness, exercise/movement/ connection to your body, getting out on Country for bush walks, or connecting to a community of like minded people where you feel safe to yarn, and normalise your experiences. All of which can allow you time and space to decompress….

Finding ways to switch off and signal to your body (where stress is stored) you are safe, and not being flooded with stress hormones is helpful to manage stressors (external events). But sometimes, the stressors can be far too great, and the only way to eliminate them is to eliminate the stressors entirely. Which is why many people from care backgrounds simply have no choice but to leave the environment that is causing the stress in the first place.

As I say, a complex issue to address and overcome. And precisely why we as a society, and organisations broadly, must have the maturity to talk about burnout, in its entirety.

Freya Bennett

Freya Bennett is the Co-Founder and Director of Ramona Magazine. She is a writer and editor from Dja Dja Wurrung Country who loves grey days, libraries and dandelion tea. You can follow her on Instagram @freya___bennett

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