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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