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What Has Mark McGowan’s Resignation Reminded Us About Work-Life Balance?

When Mark McGowan resigned as WA Premier early last week, citing the reason, “I’m tired”, I could – on a much, much smaller scale – relate to his feelings of mental and physical exhaustion. His honest admission left me feeling in awe of him, because it wasn’t too long ago that I thought it didn’t matter how stressed, anxious, or tired, I felt in any job – that I had to simply continue because there were bills that needed to be paid.
It was 2018. I had been a stay at home mother for 8.5 years and knew my employment history looked quite bare on paper. Yes, I had completed plenty of freelance writing work, completed a Youth Work Diploma, writing course, and some work experience – but when looking for a 9-5 job, this meant almost nothing.

So, I found myself working in a call-centre as my first full-time job. I knew that everyone has to start somewhere and I reminded myself that I needed to do whatever it took to help my then-husband at the time and help to feed our children and pay our rent.

I learnt to adjust to the high-pressured key performance indicators (KPIs) environment, to watch the clock more carefully, to communicate more succinctly, to rush quickly back to my desk after my lunch break because we were told – “every second, we were losing the company money”.

There were certainly moments of pride in my first full-time job – I felt proud that my husband wasn’t doing it alone anymore, that I was contributing financially, that he didn’t have to bear the brunt of the financial stress alone. I felt pride that I was helping customers who were experiencing severe hardship in their lives, I felt pride that I was doing my small part to help the community.

But over time, the person I thought I was began to transform into someone I no longer could recognise. I had studied Youth Work because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, I wanted to help the at-risk turn their lives around. I’d had my own personal experiences that had led me down this path.

But now, I was being told that I was spending too long on the phone – the average handling time (AHT) was something like 10 minutes. The simple act of asking customers “how are you?” or showing genuine empathy were now the reasons why my performance was getting reviewed.

I tried really, really hard not to let the abuse from customers get to me or to let my performance define who I was as a person. I used my Community Services experience to rationalise their abuse in my head – “some of them are struggling mentally”, “some of them have drug challenges”, “some have intellectual challenges” – “don’t let the shouting get to you, it’s not personal.”

But the abuse became so difficult to manage that when I came home to my family, I struggled to eat, to smile, to laugh. I had become a shell of a person and all because I had gotten it into my head – I had no choice, that there was no other way.

When the opportunity came to change companies but remain in a similar role, I took the plunge. My then-husband saw what this type of job was doing to me, but he thought, at least the new location was closer and might be the foot in the door I needed for Community Services.

This new role, despite its closer location and where I met colleagues who became my closest friends – was even more stringent on KPIs and I found myself crying in the toilet regularly because I honestly wanted to die than continue. I was drinking alcohol almost every day to forget how stressed out the job was making me feel. I now had committed to a mortgage to make my family happy, never really asking myself whether any of this stress was worth my mental and physical health.

You see, for most people, call-centre work is already considered demanding. To me, it was far beyond that. Getting verbally abused, – day in, day out  – for several years, only served to reinforce the sexual abuse I’d been subjected to as a child. Engaging in work that demoralised me was starting to unravel the years of healing I had already successfully done.

In those two office environments, I was telling myself, “I don’t matter.” “My mental health doesn’t matter.” “Paying bills and working is more important than anything. Even your health.”

As I began to self-destruct, my seemingly happy marriage of 12 years broke down. Coupled with years of other problems, the 14 year relationship with 3 children, dissipated. I could no longer live a life that made me mentally and physically exhausted and just accept that “this is life.” I refused to accept and agree that money and work was everything – it wasn’t, it isn’t.

In the years that followed, I went on a massive journey of self-discovery where I told myself that I would never subject myself to continual abuse for the sake of money, force myself to remain in toxic work environments just to support my children. I would never let another employer, another partner, another friend – anyone or anything – make me feel that I don’t have a choice. I always have a choice.

No job is a walk in the park, every job has its ups and downs, but when any job starts affecting how I see myself, how I behave in relationships, distorts my strongly held belief that family always comes first – that is when I must re-evaluate if I am able to adjust my attitude or I need to adjust my decision to continue with the job.  

Whilst Mark McGowan cited “tiredness” and “exhaustion” as his reasons, I am sure these reasons are multi-faceted. I am sure, just like me, he’s looking forward to having more time with his family, to not always saying “no” to special occasions because he is too busy, that he can go to sleep at a suitable time and go to bed with a clear head.

I am now engaged to a man who reminds me constantly that family will always come first – who calls me every day after work even when he’s had a busy day, who supports me making career decisions that are conductive to my mental health. I remind my 3 children constantly that nothing is ever worth sacrificing your mental health for – and I see the positive results of this every day.

If working in call centres have taught me anything, it’s this – there is always a solution to every problem, don’t ever think otherwise.

Thuy Le (formerly known as Thuy Yau) is a freelance writer and Youth Work graduate living in Perth, Australia. She loves to share her own personal experiences about overcoming adversity, as she believes that human beings are more capable than they realise. She writes to make a positive difference in the world and to inspire others to learn from themselves and their own experiences. Her writing has been discussed on radio, won writing contests, appeared on The Huffington Post UK and major Australian sites such as, SMH, Kidspot and Essential Kids. She has just completed her first book – a memoir - and is on the search for a publisher.

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