Burnout and Recovery

This week is the last week of classes and graduation. Congratulations to all who made it through! Be proud of your accomplishments.

Many of us who are faculty might not feel like “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” In fact, my bet is that there are lots of people who are wondering why they can’t get a good night’s rest, hurt all over, and are just generally foggy. The last one might even mean change of grade forms, the bane of students and instructors alike.

It’s not in your head, and you aren’t unfit for the job. You’re burnt out.

A lot of us think burnout is all in our heads, a mind over matter thing. Except the mind is matter, and in this case, our body is shouting that something needs to change. If you didn’t hear the whisper, then I’ll just break down, thank you very much.

There are many definitions of burnout, but to be behavior analytic – it’s when the schedule of reinforcement is too thin, which makes formerly reinforcing contingencies aversive. In lay terms, too much work and not enough payoff. Lacritz (2003ish – an uncorrected proof was the only one available) suggested that University faculty are at greater risk of burnout than other populations. More specifically, we tend to be more exhausted and irritable. Women especially were at a higher risk of burnout. The number of students that faculty were responsible for was also closely related to symptoms of burnout. This seems to support the reasons why end of the semester is a particularly vulnerable time for all of us.

And so what? Burnout has very specific cognitive and physical effects, as seen in the graphic here:

Physical and Mental Effects of Burnout

If we know that burnout is such as problem, how do we fix it? I’ve looked through the Internet and read many blogs and workplace development sites. The authors of these sites give several suggestions, but they are not necessarily peer reviewed. I’ll include my favorites anyway in case some of them help you.

Acknowledge your burnout. Sometimes we try to work through burnout or think something is wrong with our work ethic. Say the word burnout to yourself, and, if you feel safe, your supervisor. Make a commitment to recovery.

Revisit your “why.” Last post, I talked about how important values clarification is to fitness and wellness. It is also important in your work. If you didn’t read my last post, check it out here.

Figure out the exact causes of your burnout. If you can articulate what specifically is causing you to burn out, you might be able to find easy fixes. For example, are you overscheduled? Did you say yes to a project you really aren’t that enthused about? Pinpointing the causes of burnout will make it easier to both ask for advice and ask for what you need.

Set up an “Anti-Meeting.” It can be helpful to socialize and de-stress with friends and co-workers. Meet up for lunch, but specifically leave work off the agenda. Make this meeting as set in stone as you would a faculty meeting or a committee meeting. If you have to, make it a standing committee of some sort.

Do something to acknowledge most stuff isn’t really that important. Of course we take our commitments to teaching, research, and service seriously, but does it have to be all dour? For example, a group of friends and I went to Five Below and purchased stuffed animals we take to meetings for “emotional support.” It gets people talking and laughing, and meetings are often more cordial as a result.

Set a meeting each day to exercise. Call it something that sounds like work if you have to – like cognitive recharging or something else. Just make sure you get that 150 minutes a week. If you feel like you have to be available 24/7 – this is for my online teachers – see the bullet point just before this one.

Don’t live on takeout, unless you’re going to the salad bar or making sure it’s healthy. Don’t forego healthy eating because grades are due or that grant is almost there. Who’s going to actually do the grant if you fall over? Step away from the vending machine – I don’t care if it is the fancy one that spits out bacon. Buy yourself the nicest water bottle you can find, and fill it with water. Add lemon if it helps.

Put pockets into your day, week, month. I thought I was being super productive when I scheduled every single minute with work and play. Then I would beat myself up for not sticking with the schedule. Now I realize we need time in our day to transition from activity to activity – and from role to role. If you can, find as much room as possible in your schedule that isn’t scheduled. Use that time to do whatever you find pleasurable – decluttering (my go-to), reading for pleasure, taking a quick walk, or maybe just staring out the window. Just don’t schedule it – do whatever you want to do at that moment.

Take a sabbath. Nope, I’m not suggesting you have to be religious in any way. I promised you all that from the beginning. The word sabbath (and sabbatical) comes from the Hebrew Shabbos – which means rest. The best thing to do would be to take a full day of rest, but even if you can’t do that, plan a few hours where you consciously unplug and do something that is purely relaxing.

From all that I have read, the best way to recover from burnout is to be crystal clear about your “why,” take baby steps, continue your healthy practices, and take time to rest and recover. Let me know if you have other tips and if these tips worked for you!

What is your “why?”

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you are at least kind of considering some healthy changes in your life. You might not be 100% all in, and that’s ok – you’re still very much welcome here! Or maybe you’re not as interested in change, but…

  • You’re exhausted.
  • The sunlight makes you scream, because you are spending too much time in a windowless office.
  • Your doctor has told you to get with it.
  • It’s been months since you wore pants with a zipper and no elastic.

There is no one, good way to motivate yourself to get into shape. Everyone has their own “why.” In some people, it is screaming loud and clear. For others, it’s a whisper. For still others, it’s your BFF. But what if you don’t even have a clue as to what your “why” is?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) calls this process values clarification. Values tend to be relatively stable and don’t really change. Some questions you might want to ask yourself as you identify your values are (links to original documents provided where I can):

These are things you can talk out with a trusted friend/counselor. Many people find value (no pun intended) in journaling about these questions and putting the answers in writing. I have my work core values both on my wall at work as well as in the notebook I use for jotting ideas and such.

If you like something a little more structured, you can Google “ACT Values Clarification.” An example of a worksheet is the Valued Living Questionnaire, which I have used successfully in helping my clients with problem behavior identify where they want to improve. There are many others out there, but whatever you choose, figuring out where you are and where you want to be is an ideal first step in getting healthy.

I think some of the results might surprise you.


BONUS:  Here is a blog by Erin Lusby-Donovan about healthy holiday living, ABA style!

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrated it yesterday.  I was able to get caught up enough Wednesday night to have a guilt-free, pajama-clad morning.  My original plan was a Turkey Trot, but registration was full by the time I got around to it.

There has been a lot of talk about gratitude in the popular press.  Authors such as Rick Hansen and Tara Brach say that gratitude is one of the gateways to happiness.  So, I thought I would do some research in what behavior analysis says about that.

I think the best way to start is looking at Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT (said as the word, not the acronym) posits that much of human suffering comes from rigid, rule-bound behavior. For those of you who are struggling to see the connection to behavior analysis, let me try to break it down for you.

So, there are basically two ways to get a new behavior into your repertoire – either by learning a rule about it or by experiencing reinforcement.  A rule can come in many forms – signs, instructions, songs, even past comments.  If someone told me,  “teal is your color,” I might wear more teal.  However, if I learned the rule that bikinis make me look fat, I might not wear them.

Think of all the things you probably learned through rules:

  • Dress codes
  • What you eat for breakfast versus what you eat for dinner (Lentil soup for breakfast is gross in the U.S. but standard in other cultures)
  • Traffic and other laws

Let me give you some proof – “Ma Na Ma Na.”  You’re welcome for what comes next. What are the things that come to mind?

For those of you saying “huh?” I will teach you.  Watch this video and come back to this post either tomorrow or later today.

Here is the strange thing about rule-governed behavior – even when the environmental events change, that behavior doesn’t.  At least not easily.  Let’s say someone has a history of abuse.  The rule might have been, “don’t speak up or make waves, or trouble will start.”  Later in their life, they have trouble asking for what they need or want because the rule is you don’t do that. 

Much like riding a bike, you never forget your rules, because they become part of a network called a relational frame.  Train a few rules up in the right way and a whole new set of networks emerge without much training. Sometimes this is good, like in cases where you use your filter before speaking or stop at red lights.  Sometimes they can get sticky and rigid and sometimes irrational.

Here are some awesome videos that describe the phenomenon of relational networks and how they affect mental health, by the Great Steve Hayes:

So my long-winded post – what does ACT have to do with Gratitude?

I can’t seem to find anything published, but my guess is that if we expose ourselves to grateful experiences on a regular basis (also called multiple exemplar training), we’ll form a network of them.  That way, when we see similar situations, we’re more likely to think, “ahh, this is something that fits into the gratitude network.”

Anyway, I’m grateful for all of you readers, as well as my colleagues and clients.  You make all my chains concurrent.  (TLDR; Lots of reinforcement available at the same time for lots of different behavior)