What Kiki’s Deliv­ery Ser­vice tells us about burnout

The Studio Ghibli film turns 30 this week, but continues to reverberate with a relevant message of what happens when we overextend ourselves at work.

Released in July 1989, Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film Kiki’s Deliv­ery Ser­vice, based on Japan­ese author Eiko Kadono’s 1985 nov­el of the same name, has long res­onat­ed in the hearts of view­ers as a charm­ing com­ing-of-age tale about a teen witch who sets off to find her foot­ing in the world. But 30 years on, Kiki’s whim­si­cal sto­ry – dur­ing which she los­es her mag­ic and must fig­ure out how to regain it – offers a valu­able les­son about work­place burnout that extends far past the 13-year-old heroine’s relat­able jour­ney towards self-reliance. 

At the begin­ning of Kiki’s Deliv­ery Ser­vice, Kiki is eager to start her year-long career” train­ing as a witch, rush­ing to leave home the first chance she gets (and blow­ing off a fam­i­ly camp­ing trip in the process). Par­al­lel­ing that of so many real-world teenagers and young adults, her overzeal­ous ado­les­cent enthu­si­asm to kick-start her inde­pen­dence with lit­tle regard for con­sci­en­tious pac­ing fore­shad­ows her even­tu­al crash and burn. Even when her father ten­der­ly promis­es that if things don’t work out, you can always come home.” And come back a fail­ure?!” she retorts. When her friends remind her to have fun dur­ing her trav­els, she dis­miss­es them: I’m not going just for a good time. In order to be a good witch, I have to train a year away from home.”

When she and her witch’s famil­iar, a black cat named Jiji whom she alone can com­mu­ni­cate with, final­ly land in a beau­ti­ful yet over­whelm­ing sea­side city, she bare­ly set­tles in before launch­ing a fly­ing deliv­ery busi­ness for her­self at a bak­ery. While her deter­mi­na­tion is impres­sive and does, in many ways, enforce the val­ue of a strong work eth­ic, her eager-to-please atti­tude and always-go-above-and-beyond men­tal­i­ty even­tu­al­ly begin to fray her self-esteem and dri­ve, not to men­tion the hay on her broomstick.

Through­out her pro­fes­sion­al enter­pris­es, Kiki often puts oth­ers’ needs before her own. She takes on dif­fi­cult jobs: fly­ing far out of town to deliv­er a birth­day present, for exam­ple, or agree­ing to deliv­er a heavy pack­age she can bare­ly pick up (“I do this every day,” she assures her client through grit­ted teeth, labo­ri­ous­ly drag­ging the over­sized box towards a scale).

Lat­er, when a pot pie Kiki is set to deliv­er for a kind, old woman remains unbaked when she arrives to pick it up, she agrees not only to help bake the pie in her wood-fired oven but also helps the woman with mis­cel­la­neous house­hold tasks. Los­ing track of time, she rush­es to deliv­er the pie to its des­ti­na­tion amid a tor­ren­tial down­pour, get­ting soaked and ignor­ing Jiji’s pleas to take a safer, dri­er route. We can beat the rain if we just fly a lit­tle faster,” she argues, a sen­ti­ment that echoes the expe­ri­ences of so many who have ignored their own men­tal and phys­i­cal health for the sake of a job. Kiki becomes sick from push­ing her­self to fly through the rain, devel­op­ing a nasty cold that lands her in bed.

Even­tu­al­ly, Kiki begins to resent her work. Today this place is bor­ing,” she laments while mind­ing the bak­ery. In anoth­er scene, she tells her friend Tombo that fly­ing used to be fun until I start­ed doing it for a liv­ing.” Overex­tend­ing her­self caus­es her to suf­fer from increased self-doubt, exhaus­tion and gloom. As a result, she push­es Tombo away and even los­es inter­est in her portable radio – some­thing which used to give her joy. Deject­ed, she face­plants onto her bed, deplet­ed of ener­gy and with­drawn from the world. At the cli­max of this break­down, she los­es her abil­i­ty to fly. 

I’m los­ing my witch’s pow­ers,” she bemoans, over­whelmed and pan­icked as she tries help­less­ly to get her­self air­borne again. Her lit­er­al break­ing point comes when her broom snaps in half – a now-use­less tool for a skill Kiki no longer has the where­with­al to pursue.

Kiki’s mag­ic, if read as a metaphor for one’s ener­gy, spir­it or zest for life, is what allows her the abil­i­ty to fly, which could, in turn, rep­re­sent her career and ambi­tions. It is her loss of mag­ic – her loss of ener­gy and self-pur­pose – that impedes her from both suc­cess­ful­ly doing and enjoy­ing her job. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it is the stress, exhaus­tion and uncer­tain­ty she faces as a work­ing witch that drain her mag­ic in the first place, spin­ning a cycle all too famil­iar with those who have suf­fered from burnout.

In 2019, the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion final­ly rec­og­nized burnout as an offi­cial med­ical con­di­tion, val­i­dat­ing the feel­ings of dread, depres­sion and exhaus­tion shared by so many – par­tic­u­lar­ly young peo­ple – in the work­place. Accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Dis­eases, Burn-out is a syn­drome con­cep­tu­al­ized as result­ing from chron­ic work­place stress that has not been suc­cess­ful­ly man­aged. It is char­ac­ter­ized by three dimen­sions: 1) feel­ings of ener­gy deple­tion or exhaus­tion; 2) increased men­tal dis­tance from one’s job, or feel­ings of neg­a­tivism or cyn­i­cism relat­ed to one’s job; and 3) reduced pro­fes­sion­al efficacy.”

The results of a 2018 Gallup poll found that 23 per­cent of employ­ees report­ed feel­ing burned out at work very often or always, while an addi­tion­al 44 per­cent report­ed feel­ing burned out some­times.” Over­all, rough­ly two-thirds of all full-time work­ers have expe­ri­enced burnout relat­ed to their jobs, a phe­nom­e­non that CNBC reports has been on the rise in recent years.

Accord­ing to men­tal health edu­ca­tion orga­ni­za­tion HelpGuide, symp­toms of burnout include social dis­en­gage­ment; loss of moti­va­tion and ideals; blunt­ed emo­tion­al expres­sion; and a gen­er­al sense of help­less­ness or hope­less­ness. Kiki expe­ri­ences all of these dur­ing her ordeal, even­tu­al­ly becom­ing immo­bi­lized and unable to find any dri­ve for either her­self or her career. It isn’t until she begins tend­ing to her own self-care and needs that she begins to heal and address her mount­ing sense of burnout. 

I’ll bet your pow­ers come back after you’ve had some rest,” Osono, Kiki’s land­lord and bak­ery own­er, tells the young witch when Kiki opens up to her about her issues. More specif­i­cal­ly, how­ev­er, it’s a trip out­side the city to vis­it Kiki’s artist friend Ursula’s wood­land cab­in which helps Kiki find mean­ing­ful per­spec­tive and escape. When Kiki tells Ursu­la that with­out even think­ing about it I used to be able to fly, now I’m try­ing to look inside myself to find out how I did it,” her wise friend likens Kiki’s cri­sis to an artist’s cre­ative block.

Pain­ing and mag­i­cal pow­ers seem very much the same. Some­times I’m unable to paint a thing,” Ursu­la shares, urg­ing Kiki to stop try­ing [to fly]” and instead take long walks, look at the scenery [and] doze off” to recharge her inter­nal bat­tery. It could be you’re work­ing at it too hard. Maybe you should just take a break,” she recommends. 

In the end, Kiki only regains her mag­ic after she stops try­ing so hard to do every­thing all at once and real­izes that she is more than just her work. When she allows her­self the sim­ple neces­si­ty of recu­per­a­tion, of self-reflec­tion, she becomes rebal­anced, and ulti­mate­ly takes flight once more, both lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. Along the way, she learns that her val­ue and sense of self – aka her mag­ic – should not be hinged sole­ly on her career and the out­put of her work.

Three decades after first releas­ing into the­atres, Kiki’s high-fly­ing jour­ney is a poignant reminder that we can only work as hard as we allow our­selves to rest and enjoy our lives. The real mag­ic, it seems, comes with address­ing our needs and find­ing a healthy work-life balance.

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