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Hi writers! Most of you have finally made it to the end of the spring semester, at least if you’re in North America.

And if you’re anything like my clients, you are feeling completely exhausted.

People are getting on calls with me looking frazzled and overwhelmed.

There are bags under their eyes. They are meeting with me while suffering from migraines.

Faculty are exhausted. Staff are exhausted. Students are exhausted. And literally everyone is sick.

You might be in the thick of planning your last few lectures and final exams.

Graduation is coming, along with all the various events and social occasions that require your attention and energy.

And even if you usually look forward to this time of year, everyone is still reeling from the emotional and psychological toll of the pandemic.

I just did a writing workshop with faculty at a community college in NYC, and pretty much everyone said they feel busier and more overwhelmed than during “normal” times.

It’s clear that there is no going back to “normal”, and that the pandemic has changed each of us in deep and fundamental ways that we’re just beginning to understand.

Clients are telling me that if we didn’t have a coaching session on the books, they would have made zero progress on their writing for at least a month.

And if you’ve put your own writing to the side during this time, I’m here to tell you that it’s 100% okay.

Your focus should be on preserving your well-being, and that means not forcing yourself to work when you should really be resting.

Plus, when you’re completely maxed out mentally and physically, it’s nearly impossible to be a focused and creative thinker.

So this brings us to the topic I’m going to talk about today AND in the next episode: burnout!

Although this term seems like it’s everywhere and we all say we’re burnt out, in this episode I define what it is and how to know if you actually are.

The next episode will give you lots of useful strategies for how to deal with burn out and to move past it.

What is Burnout?

So let’s start by talking about what burnout is and what it isn’t.

It’s hard to think of a time when this concept didn’t exist, but it’s actually relatively recent.

And the sociologist in me—who understands pretty much everything to be a social construct—was fascinated to do a deep dive into the origins of this term.

Burnout was only coined in the 1970s by an American psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger, who studied the mental well-being of caregivers who were overworked and overcommitted.

He was quoted as saying:

“As a practicing psychoanalyst, I have come to realize that people, as well as buildings, sometimes burn out. Under the strain of living in our complex world, their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside, although their outer shells may be more or less unchanged… Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.”

So at the same time that Freudenberger was developing this concept, so was Dr. Christine Maslach, who was a social psychologist at UC Berkeley for many years.

And as a totally unrelated, nerdy side note, her husband is Philip Zimbardo of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which I taught every year as part of Sociology 101!

But anyway, Maslach was a pioneer in defining, predicting, and measuring professional burnout.

She’s written about it as both an individual-level issue AND an organizational problem. These two can’t exist without the other.

So, let me address both of these layers.

Burnout in Individuals

Let’s start with the individual-level.

The thing to know is that burnout is not as simple as feeling incredibly tired and needing to catch up on your rest.

It’s an actual syndrome with three distinct dimensions related to how you feel about and approach your work.

The first is emotional exhaustion, the second is depersonalization, and the third is reduced personal accomplishment.

I’m going to spend a minute on each of these.

First, emotional exhaustion is characterized by feeling drained and exhausted from your work.

People feel overwhelmed and like they’ve spent all of their emotional resources, leaving them depleted.

I’m sure you’re all feeling this way right now and at the end of every semester!

Certain groups, especially women and faculty of color, also tend to be burdened with more emotional labor and mentoring of students, which drains them even further.

The second main aspect of burnout is depersonalization, which refers to a negative, cynical, or detached attitude towards work and those you’re working with.

Academics going through this may find themselves becoming detached or distancing themselves from their students or colleagues—something they would never do if they weren’t feeling burnt out.

I definitely felt this way when I was in my old professor job.

There was high turnover of junior faculty members and my closest friends and allies had left due to the toxicity.

I felt that I needed to protect myself by creating distance from the department, both mentally and physically.

I stopped attending campus events.

I stopped scheduling coffee meetings with colleagues.

I limited my office hours and availability to students.

And I was incredibly disappointed in myself for checking out, which I told myself I would never do.

Yet, I felt was the only way I could continue on in my position without suffering a major breakdown.

The longer this feeling went on, the more I realized I couldn’t stay there and feel any sense of integrity, which is a big part of why I’m now a full-time writing coach!

Finally, the third component of burnout is a reduced feeling of personal accomplishment.

This is when you experience a decreased sense of achievement or competence.

You might feel like work has lost its meaning or that you’re not actually making a difference.

Or you might feel like you’re no longer meeting your own standards.

You can see how all three of these feed into one another, and how it’s definitely several steps beyond regular overwork and exhaustion.

And, if you are experiencing all of these things at once, you are officially burnt out!

Christine Maslach came up with an official burnout inventory that you can buy, or you can do free self-assessments online.

I found one from that gives 15 statements for you to rank on a scale from “not at all” to “very often.”

I’m just going to give the statements here and then you can check the transcript of this episode if you want the link:

Burnout Self-Test

1. I feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy.

2. I have negative thoughts about my job.

3. I am harder and less sympathetic with people than perhaps they deserve.

4. I am easily irritated by small problems, or by my co-workers and team.

5. I feel misunderstood or unappreciated by my co-workers.

6. I feel that I have no one to talk to.

7. I feel that I am achieving less than I should.

8. I feel under an unpleasant level of pressure to succeed.

9. I feel that I am not getting what I want out of my job.

10. I feel that I am in the wrong organization or the wrong profession.

11. I am frustrated with parts of my job.

12. I feel that organizational politics or bureaucracy frustrate my ability to do a good job.

13. I feel that there is more work to do than I practically have the ability to do.

14. I feel that I do not have time to do many of the things that are important to doing a good quality job.

15. I find that I do not have time to plan as much as I would like to.

Looking at these questions, I realize that I was burnt out for most of the 9 years I was in my faculty position.

The key word that described how I felt was: dread.

And I say this knowing I was one of the lucky ones able to secure a tenure-track position in a desirable city!

The High Burnout Organization

So now let’s talk about how burnout is also an organizational problem.

Studies show that workers in helping professions like teaching and medicine are more prone to burn out because of the emotional labor required.

It doesn’t help that academics are not encouraged to place any boundaries on their work.

But it’s important to know that not all workplaces are the same.

There are certain workplace cultures that actually promote burnout in their employees.

I want to cite some findings from a researcher I found on LinkedIn named Nick Petrie, who has been doing interviews with high achievers about burnout.

His team found that are 7 characteristics of what he calls “the high burnout organization.”

So listen to these seven qualities and see whether some of them match what’s going on at your institution:

1) The first is high workload, insufficient resources.

In academia, there is always too much to do and there’s an implicit expectation of doing large amounts of unpaid labor.

When you add on budget cuts, turnover, and not hiring new people so that everyone who’s left has to pick up the slack, then the workload becomes untenable.

And that’s the experience of many—if not most—academics these days.

2) The second characteristic is a culture of fear, threat, or emergency, where employees don’t feel emotionally safe.

This feels like everything being treated like a crisis and you are a crisis manager.

It could come from having way too many things on your plate to do well.

It could come from having a supervisor or administration that is not supportive.

But ultimately, people feel like they have to put on armor to go to work.

One of my previous coaching clients is a senior woman in a completely male-dominated STEM field.

And even though she was a full professor and a leader across her discipline, most of our coaching sessions revolved around how unsafe she felt as a graduate student as the only woman in a group of hostile men, including her advisor.

Because she hadn’t dealt with this trauma earlier in her career, many of the things happening in her current workplace were triggering her in negative ways.

But one of the main things we worked on was for her to recognize that the psychological armor she had put on to protect herself from harm was no longer helpful.

And that opened up some paths for growth that helped her move forward.

3) The third characteristic of a high burnout organization is that people are treated like expendable resources.

This needs very little explanation in the context of academia.

There’s such a lack of positions and resources combined with an annual surplus of hopeful PhDs who are looking for a foothold in the profession.

Many of you are aware of this, but the vast majority of academic jobs are now non-tenurable contract positions that are contingent on budgets and enrollment at a time when budgets are getting tighter and enrollment is going way down.

I know many lecturers whose courses are cut a week or two before the term begins and who are not being paid a living wage.

Considering that adjuncts teach the majority of courses in the U.S., this is an incredible travesty.

4) The fourth characteristic is that it’s a system designed for insecurity.

Again, as a system, academia is structured for people to not feel safe or secure, at least until they have tenure.

Those who do get a tenure-track position are also typically in a state of utter panic for 6 or 7 years until their tenure cases are decided.

Furthermore, in my experience, many folks who HAVE tenure don’t feel emotionally safe either.

So many people have been forced to defend themselves against critique or attack for many years from their departments, institutions, or the academy at large.

These feelings of hypervigilance don’t just go away by being granted tenure.

5) The fifth quality is that workers lack support from above.

This goes hand-in-hand with not feeling psychologically safe in your workplace.

I’ve noticed that one of the major differences between departments that are toxic and ones that appear to function well is the quality of the leadership.

Because the work might not be any different, but the feeling that you’re supported by your supervisor and that they have your back helps people go the extra mile when you’re already stretched thin.

6) The sixth quality is that the organizational mission doesn’t match the culture. Or in other words, “the talk doesn’t match the walk.”

Most academic institutions and companies have an organizational mission that’s listed front and center on their website.

I became very disenchanted with my former institution when I realized that the administration’s actions often stood in complete conflict with its student-centered mission.

Think about your institution. Does its mission match what happens on a day-to-day basis?

7) And the seventh and final quality of the high burnout organization is that no one talks openly about burnout.

Now I see a lot more discussion on college campuses about boundaries and work-life balance, but actual working conditions seem to be worsening for many people.

Or institutions might host wellness workshops for their faculty and staff rather than trying to improve their overall working conditions.

Ultimately, these 7 characteristics add up to a toxic work culture that many of you might be experiencing right now.

Toxic Work Cultures

And how do you know when you’re in a truly toxic work environment?

In my experience, one clear way is that you and your colleagues are constantly falling ill with stress-based sicknesses.

When I was a faculty member, there was zero discussion or encouragement of boundaries with work.

My first year, I asked my department chair what the division of research, teaching and service should be.

His answer: “You need to perform 100% in all areas.”

As an impressionable young scholar, I pushed myself hard to try to meet these impossible standards.

Over the years, many of my colleagues developed illnesses requiring extensive medical leaves.

Then they would return to a place where overwork was normalized.

We need to be shouting from the rooftops that work should *never* come at the expense of your well-being!

This is why Nick Petrie encourages people to beware of getting your dream job.

In his interviews, he found that some people who had burned out initially thrived, but then became miserable over time.

The people he talked to had several things in common: they were very capable at their job, they loved doing it, and there was an endless demand for what they could offer.

When you combine this with an organizational culture that prizes productivity, normalizes relentless workloads, and doesn’t create psychologically safety, people can suffer tremendously in what they thought was their dream job.

In academia, there’s so much talk about dream jobs, isn’t there?

It’s part of what keeps people in it—the idea that there’s a job that fits every aspect of who you are, what you value, and what you want to do.

I also believe that the concept of dream job needs to be challenged and reframed.

I’m fortunate enough to have created my own version of a dream job that utilizes my skills and interests while also giving me immense flexibility.

At the same time, I don’t call this my “dream job” because I no longer want to have a job that encapsulates my personal identity.

Instead, I think of it as my “dream for now job,” which leaves open other possibilities if I want to pursue them, which I currently don’t because I’m very happy with what I’m doing.

But I’ve come to believe that viewing your job as both temporary and as a proactive choice you’re making every day gives you the greatest chance to enjoy it.

This goes for relationships as well, and it should, because if you’re an academic then you have a very intimate and personal relationship with work.

So let’s try to make sure this relationship is as healthy as it can be!

Summing It All Up

I’ve defined the main qualities of burnout and listed the 7 characteristics of a high burnout organization.

Burnout is too often understood as an individual problem rather than a structural one. When really, it’s both.

If you’re feeling burnt out, you are definitely not alone and it’s not your fault.

And even though there might be limits on how much you can change your workplace, there are still a variety of things individuals can do to manage and overcome severe burnout.

Next time I’ll offer you some of these strategies.

Until then, celebrate and acknowledge all you’ve done this semester and schedule a really good vacation!