Avoiding Burnout

Congratulations to those of you who’ve just finished teaching in Summer B, and also to those who’ve reached the middle of Summer A. If you’d like to check in with your students at mid-semester, this tip has advice for helping them to self-assess and for soliciting their feedback on the course so far. Best wishes to those starting Summer C on Monday; this tip has advice about teaching in a compressed semester.

If you’ve been teaching this summer, you may not have had a real break since January. Even if you weren’t teaching, research, service, parenting, or stress may be occupying your time in a way that makes it difficult to rest. The social, emotional, political, and physical conditions under which we’ve all been working are ripe for burnout. Herbert Freudenberger first used the term “burn-out” in 1974, to describe the emotional exhaustion that could overcome professionals in the “caring” fields, like social work, healthcare, and mental health. Ironically, it seemed to strike those who were most selfless and engaged, those who gave of themselves tirelessly—until they couldn’t. Tapped out, they would shut down and withdraw, losing their value for the things they had cared so much about.

Academic culture encourages workaholism, and flexible schedules often just mean that there are no boundaries on our work, so it can encroach into every part of our lives. This blurring is further exaggerated when we’re working from home. Burnout is distinct from stress or depression, though it may share symptoms with each; and it’s significantly associated with imposter syndrome (Villwock et al., 2016). It’s characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, self-doubt, and de-personalization (or withdrawal from relationships, reduction of empathy, and difficulty “caring”—in a teaching context, de-personalization can show up in negative attitudes toward students).

The work of teaching demands a great deal of emotional labor, and university faculty are susceptible to burnout, especially in the current stressful circumstances. Burnout isn’t just about overwork. Isolation, feeling underappreciated, and work that doesn’t seem to align with one’s values are all significant factors (Maslach et al., 1996, 2001). Faculty of color tend to face particularly taxing conditions, especially if they’re the only, or almost-onlyunderrepresented faculty in a program, since on top of their ordinary responsibilities, they’re called upon to perform extra service, to represent their entire social or racial category, and to support students of color. The burden of emotional labor can be as weighty as the additional demands upon time.

To do a self-assessment, you can take a shortened version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory toward the end of this article. If you’re feeling burned out, you might consider contacting FSU’s Employee Assistance Program for support. Experts tell us that there are a few obvious (but sometimes difficult) things we can do to stave off burnout. The same advice we’d give our students applies to us, too: regular exercise and adequate sleep may seem like luxuries, and are too often the first sacrifices in an over-packed schedule, but they give you the strength to do the important work you’ve dedicated your life to doing. Even a little bit of exercise or a little bit more sleep is better than none.

Developing and maintaining strong relationships is a key defense against burnout, as is a strong sense of purpose. In other words, it’s important that we connect with our families, friends, and colleagues, even if it’s only on the phone or over Zoom. The community that you create in your department or program sustains you even as it nurtures your fellows. We can let our colleagues know that we admire and value their work. We’re lucky to be surrounded by brilliant, dedicated people. It also helps to remind yourself of the meaning in your own work: when you get bogged down in grading, or frustrated with your students’ performance, it may be hard to remember that you’re working with the future—but every day you are opening doorways of opportunity for your students. You’re giving them the tools they need for success; you’re helping them develop into curious, humane, and responsible adults. As Stephen Brookfield reminds us, “we teach to change the world.”

Thank you for all you do. We are grateful to belong to this community of dedicated educators.