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‘I hardly left my bedroom for three months' - Top business executive Theresa Gattung on burnout

She's one of New Zealand's most recognisable business leaders. But by her own admission, Theresa Gattung is not invincible.

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For many New Zealanders, busyness is a way of life, but it's taking a toll on our physical and mental health. Source: Sunday

"I’ve always had so much energy, but I didn’t really realise I was burning out – until I was burnt out."

Gattung spent seven years as the CEO of Telecom, before co-founding My Food Bag and bringing SheEO, a venture capital fund for women-led businesses, to New Zealand. 

In 2017, at an event in Auckland, she began to feel "extremely unwell". Gattung was due at a board meeting that afternoon, and knew the company's chair really needed her there.

"I got in my car and drove around the block a couple of times saying, 'Should I go home and lay down? I don't feel well. Or should I go to this meeting?' And I chose to go to the meeting.

"As soon as I walked in, I basically collapsed. They called the ambulance, and that was the start of a year of recovery. I hardly left my bedroom for three months."

Gattung speaks candidly in a TVNZ Sunday story on burnout. She wants Kiwis to know that overwork is affecting our physical and mental health.

“We’re all guilty of being part of a culture of busyness. Before this day is out, you will have been asked by someone: ‘Are you busy?’ To which the right answer is, ‘Yes, I’m really busy!’ But why is that the right answer?”

New Zealand has longer working hours than the majority of OECD countries. Burnout is commonly reported in key industries like teaching and nursing.

Suzi McAlpine, a Nelson-based leadership coach, says burnout has three warning signs.

“The first is chronic exhaustion. The second is getting more cynical, frustrated or irritable than you normally are. The third is a sense of not being able to do the work you can normally do, without Herculean effort.”

McAlpine says workers are often expected to recognise they are burning out – and ask for help. Instead, she wants employers to identify and stamp out the conditions that cause burnout in the first place.

“If you’re overloading your people and not giving them the resources to do the job, you’re going to get burnout. And it doesn’t matter how many resilience classes you give them. That’s not going to solve it.”

Gattung says flexible working has become the “default position” after Covid. She challenges business leaders to empower their staff to create boundaries around their time and prioritise their wellbeing.

But she has a blunt message to anyone who feels trapped in a state of constant busyness.

“If it’s is deeply embedded in your industry or company, leave. Because one person usually can’t change [the culture], and it ends up really impacting on your health and self-esteem.”