Georgina Dent: career advice to avoid the work burnout
We all have setbacks. I suspect it’s life’s way of nudging us in the right direction. And sometimes this new path might transform your life. Just ask Georgina Dent. Fresh out of university and sixteen months into her role as a junior lawyer she suffered a crippling nervous breakdown. Today, Dent is a regular TV commentator, columnist, Contributing Editor for Women’s Agenda, a working mother and the picture of health.
So how did this intelligent, inspiring woman go from a promising graduate in a prestigious law firm to suffering a complete body shutdown?
The lawyering life
As with many graduates Dent “paid her dues” working long hours at the office in a perpetual state of stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation. One day she suffered a vertigo attack at work and was in and out of hospital for the next three months. She weighed around 49kg, suffering migraines, nausea, Chrone’s Disease and vertigo and had no idea why. “I saw every health professional known to man. I was convinced I would never feel well again and my life would be confined to my parents’ living room. I was distraught; I had worked so hard and my career was just starting out.” she explained.
I can’t emphasise how horrendous it was not knowing what was wrong with me.
Dent almost gave up, “I pushed my boyfriend away telling him he shouldn’t be wasting his time on me. Fortunately, he didn’t listen and he’s now my husband! I can’t emphasise how horrendous it was not knowing what was wrong with me.” As a last resort, she checked into rehab.
Anxiety and stress
After countless therapy sessions, appointments, group discussions, and self reflection the cause became clear: anxiety and stress. “I was able to un-pack a lot of stuff. I had space to think and I went to every session I could – I even went to the AA sessions because it was so interesting.”
I realised that I was free to do whatever I wanted.
Understanding that the vertigo was a physical manifestation of the stress and not just something in her head a few things started to crystalise and her health improved, “I realised that I was free to do whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to do the ‘right thing’, no one was going to give me an ‘A’ for the choices I made, whether it be to work in the law or…not”, she says.
Quit your job and start living
I was on an enormous high because I was finally living again.
So, Dent quit her job at the firm, moved back to Sydney with her boyfriend and started living again. Life had never been better. “I was on an enormous high because I was finally living again. Suddenly, I had an appreciation for the amazing things that I could do; the simple act of getting up and going for a swim was a huge thrill.”
The wake-up call few of us have, but many of us need
Starting over wasn’t easy but Dent soon discovered her gift for writing and her passion for speaking out against inequality, amongst other gender-related issues. The enduring legacy of Dent’s travails is not only her health but a rewarding career. She was gifted a wake-up call few of us have, but many of us need. “I was very lucky to figure out early on what I was passionate about and what I wanted to do. I feel very grateful for this because if I hadn’t been sick I might still be there”, she explains.
On a hot afternoon in Sydney, when we probably should have been at the beach, Dent shared with me a few choc-chip cookies and some stellar advice. Her theory about gender parity stopped me in my tracks – it makes people uncomfortable (me included) – but I think she’s on to something.
Knowing what you do now, what advice would you give that wide-eyed, highly motivated, type A personality fresh out of university?
Worry less. I was consumed with worry and fear that was unfounded. I was a perfectionist and in the habit of mentally punishing myself. I worked long hours in a highly stressful environment and put a lot of pressure on myself. There is a line between striving to do your best and striving because you feel like you have to. You don’t have to be a certain thing or achieve a particular way – it is very liberating to remember that this is your life, your path. At university I knew that law wasn’t ever going to be my “forever thing” but I did it anyway because I thought I should. Remember, you call the shots – I don’t think I really gave myself permission to do that until I was older.
Pursuing your passion is easier said than done! What advice would you give people who are hesitant to take the plunge?
For professional women, this can be quite tricky. Particularly when you’re in an environment which is geared around risk, like the law. It can be scary to branch out and do something different. If you feel there is part of you which is a bit dull then indulge your hobby. Figure out what you get a kick out of. If you love clothes take photos and get onto Instagram. But approach it as a hobby and have fun. To unshackle yourself from the rigid nature of corporate work in your passion is a very powerful thing.
Aside from your three gorgeous kiddies, what is your greatest achievement?
My marriage and the career that I have now. I focus on inequality but I write and commentate about anything from parenting to politics. The subject matter of my work is 100% in line with my passion and purpose. And I get to do this satisfying work that I love in a way that works with my family.
Who do you most look up to and why?
Oh, that’s a good question. Donald Trump. Ha!
In the course of my work I have had the privilege to interview many women doing amazing but really tough stuff. I admire people who speak up when it isn’t easy to. I admire Anne Aly, the first female Muslim elected to Parliament, who does this for a living. Last year she called out racially inappropriate statements made by Australia’s Immigration Minister about Lebanese Muslims. I admire Yassmin Abdel-Magied for the same reason.
Gender parity in the workplace, you’ve got the solution, right?
Yep! It’s time to tally up how many school runs you’ve done this week. I truly believe that creating an even playing field starts with a 50/50 split of domestic chores. If the children and the home are predominantly the mother’s responsibility their careers are limited before they even step out the door.
Typically, the mother takes extended parental leave and the father has around two weeks. These first weeks are a blur and often there’s no clear division of domestic responsibility. This sets the mother on the primary care giver path. Recreated en masse, this is the single biggest dynamic limiting women’s careers in Australia.
Research indicates that the division of labour in the first year of the child’s life mirrors the rest of their life. So, the more you get fathers involved early on the more it’s likely to continue.
At the moment, the majority of leadership positions in the workplace are held by men and the vast majority of these men don’t have primary care giver responsibilities: their careers are unencumbered. When a child is sick or something goes wrong at home, it’s usually mum who excuses herself from the boardroom.
You know that familiar quip, “but my wife loves her kids too much to go back to work.” Hello, social construct! Research shows that just because you create the milk it doesn’t mean you’re better or magically equipped to raise the kid. The only way to learn how to look after a baby is by looking after a baby.
I think you embody that glamorous, yet relaxed Australian beach look with all your fun prints and beautiful fabrics. How would you describe your personal style?
Hmmm, I’ve never really thought about it. I like clothes…a lot. I’d probably describe my style as non-existent. Ha!
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I am a hard-core devoted baker. Making cakes and biscuits brings me so much joy it’s ridiculous. I am also a devoted consumer of baked goods.
Have you ever experienced a wake-up call like Georgina has? Are you feeling like a change in your career is due? Perhaps you’re doing what you love just like Georgina? Tell us in the comments below, we would love to hear form you!
Iris Lillian – Georgina Dent: career advice to avoid the work burnout