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!

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