Hi writers! I hope that things are calming down for you a bit.
A lot of you will be done with your teaching by now and finishing up your grading—always my least favorite part of the job!
Summer is around the corner and you know you need to do something major to reclaim the parts of yourself you have lost this past academic year.
Many of you will be planning trips to see friends and family or to explore new places.
At the same time, you are probably trying to balance this out with the pressure to work.
You want to take advantage of this time out of the classroom to push your projects forward so that you can start the fall semester in a calm and confident place.
The problem with all of this planning is that many of you are likely burnt out.
You’ve been completely overloaded with responsibilities, stretched too thin, and saturated with other peoples’ demands at work and probably in your personal life as well.
In the last episode, I talked in detail about what burnout is and how you know whether you actually are burnt out.
As I mentioned, it goes a few steps beyond feeling super exhausted and like you need to sleep for a week.
It involves your perspective and approach to work.
Burnt out folks experience deep cynicism or negativity about their jobs, colleagues, or students.
They often doubt their own competence, which can reinforce the sense that they’re failing and not meeting basic standards of proficiency.
Plus, in the last episode I talked about the characteristics of workplaces that tend to promote burnout in their workers.
These include being forced to do more work with fewer resources, with workers not feeling psychologically safe or supported by higher-ups, and being part of a system that’s designed around insecurity—all of which accurately describe many academic institutions.
Plus, these qualities may have defined your workplace culture even BEFORE the pandemic.
Now that we’re over three years in, the numbers of folks suffering from severe burnout are much higher.
The question is, if you’re burnt out as a result of a job and a workplace that probably won’t change very much, what can you actually do about it as an individual?
That’s what I’m going to cover in today’s episode.
I’ll give you 3 steps for dealing with and, hopefully, overcoming burnout.
Here’s a quick preview—it’s about putting your own needs and your well-being first!
3 Steps to Overcome Burnout
So let’s get into these three steps!
#1: Rest and Self-Care
The most basic, foundational change that burnt out folks need to make to their lives is, obviously to rest, recuperate, and prioritize self-care.
The final month or so of the semester is an absolute whirlwind of activity and excessive demands on your time and energy, especially when it’s combined with graduation.
I remember white-knuckling my way through those weeks feeling like I could barely breathe.
What gets you through is knowing that summer is coming and all the craziness—or at least, the campus-related stuff—will come to a grinding halt.
Unless, of course, you’re teaching summer school!
Afterwards, most people take a week or two off from work max.
It’s so tempting to try to make up for lost time, both personally and work-wise, now that the world has reopened.
It’s possible to travel and see people and reengage with hobbies and activities that bring you joy.
But you also need to rest deeply.
I’ve been reading a book called Rest is Resistance by Tricia Hersey.
She’s a black woman and religious scholar who founded an organization called the Nap Ministry, which encourages people to treat rest as a divine human right.
She argues that intentional rest and naps can liberate us from the oppressive grip of so-called “Grind Culture” that has resulted from the combination of capitalism and white supremacy.
The idea for the Nap Ministry came to Hersey when she was suffering from exhaustion in a graduate school program.
She calls academia “the headquarters for grind culture,” and I’d have to agree!
But in general, she believes that our culture perpetuates a rigid binary when it comes to rest.
Either we must exhaust ourselves with work in order to make ends meet OR we can make space for rest and to connect with our highest selves.
But what if it wasn’t one or the other?
As part of her call to action, Hersey writes, and I quote:
“We can rest, build, and usher in a new way.
We can center rest and care no matter what the systems say.
Rest is a portal.
Silence is our pillow…
Release the shame you feel when resting.
It does not belong to you.”
Don’t you love that?
Now that I’m out of the academy, I can see much more clearly how capitalist logics have infiltrated the world of higher ed.
Think about publish or perish culture.
Or feeling like you’re never doing enough or have never achieved enough.
I know quite a few tenured professors who have received the top awards in their fields, earn high salaries at very prestigious institutions, and are considered world-leading experts—and it’s never enough for them to feel satisfied.
Part of this is internally driven, no doubt, but a lot of it is reinforced by academic work culture.
It’s always about reaching externally-defined standards of productivity, things you might not even care about if it was truly up to you.
One person told me her faculty mentor advised her to always keep a couple of journal articles in her purse so she could read them when she was in line at the grocery store.
And it’s funny because the general public tends to view academics as some kind of leisure class where all you need to do is teach a couple of hours a week and publish a few things to have a cushy life.
You know this isn’t the case!
No matter where you are in the academic hierarchy, there is constant pressure to work, to be thinking about work, and to feel guilty when you’re not working.
When you combine this with the fact that there is literally SO much work to be done with not enough resources, it’s a recipe for burnout.
So yes, this is a very long-winded way of saying that we absolutely MUST rest and rest in ways that feel extremely indulgent.
If you do so, your energy will return and your well-being will improve.
However, you will probably have to return to a workplace that suffers from the same issues as before.
The stress and anxiety of your job will inevitably return if nothing else has changed.
This means that resting is the STARTING point to manage burnout, but it’s not enough to get past it entirely.
But until you are actually rested again, you won’t be able to move forward with these next two steps.
So start by committing to rest.
Take a week completely away from work and check in with yourself about how you feel.
If it’s not enough, then take another week. And then perhaps another.
Once you are feeling calmer and your energy is starting to return, you can move on to the next step of burnout recovery.
#2: Reassess Your Life and Priorities
So the second step is a big one, and it is to do a holistic reassessment of your life and priorities.
This is where I am going to put on my life coaching hat.
You need to figure out what EXACTLY has caused your burnout and how you can, ideally, prevent it moving forward.
You can go through this process with the help of a trusted counselor, therapist, career coach or even a good friend.
It’s super important, though, to get external support and guidance while you face some tough things about how you’ve been working that absolutely NEED to change.
As much as you may want to change, part of you will still cling to your old approach out of habit.
So it’s about being gentle as you go and recognizing that change is uncomfortable, even when it’s welcome.
1) The first part of reassessing your life and priorities is to get back in touch with your core values.
What do I mean by core values? These are guiding principles that tend to be fairly consistent across various parts of our lives.
When we honor them, we feel aligned and purposeful.
When they are not present enough in our lives and our work, you probably experience some internal conflict or feelings of resistance, dread, or energy drain.
Therefore, the goal is to identify your core values and figure out ways to make them more present in your work life.
This is one of the primary things I do with my clients.
And if you’ve never done this before, I have a FREE core values worksheet that gives 90 examples of common core values that you can download from this episode’s page on my website.
One thing I want to point out is that there’s a difference between core values and qualities that are more aspirational.
For example, one of my clients thought of herself as disorganized and so she chose “orderliness” as a core value.
The problem here is that it’s not actually one of her own unique qualities, so it turns into a judgment rather than a core value that inspires and motivates her.
And here’s another way that you can figure out your values are:
Think about the qualities or behaviors that drive you crazy—as in, total annoyance—when you see it in other people. This points to values that you have that they don’t share.
For example, some of us absolutely hate it when friends show up late to everything. This shows you that you value timeliness.
On the other hand, you might hate the pressure to be punctual to everything. This could represent a core value of freedom and flexibility.
And so on.
2) After you’ve identified your values, use them as a guide to figure out what exactly has caused your burnout.
Here’s where things get messy. You need to evaluate your entire workload and take stock of everything you’re juggling in your job.
(And here I need to mention that I know a lot of people are also burnt out from what’s going on in their personal lives, but I’m going to focus on the work realm here.)
One way you can do this is to create an Excel spreadsheet where you write down every major responsibility and project you’re involved with.
You might want to have separate pages for teaching, research, and service.
Under each one, you break it all down into each smaller component or task. What meetings are required, and how often?
Make a note of how long each of these separate responsibilities takes.
Even just getting it all down as a list might shock you or help reveal some clear issues.
For example, one of my clients was frustrated that their book was not moving along faster.
We looked at their spreadsheet and they were literally putting 90-95% of their time towards service and teaching.
So then the work for this client became about bringing their core values more into their writing so that it feels as fulfilling as the other work they do.
Once you have your whole list, rank order each task on a scale from 1-10 (with 10 being the most sense of satisfaction you receive when you do it based on your values).
Pay special attention to the tasks that are 5 or less, because those are the key to your burnout.
And then it becomes about finding ways to stop doing these things, reduce the amount of time you spend doing these things, or delegate these things to someone else.
This might require some difficult conversations with your chair about getting off of certain high-stress committees or pulling out of certain writing commitments because they will take away from your ability to write your book.
Again, remind yourself that change is uncomfortable but your goal is to lighten your load and streamline it to be most reflective of what you truly value.
3) Commit to Doing Things Differently
So now that you have a sense of what has contributed to your burnout, you’ve reached the third step, which is to commit to doing things differently.
To create a sustainable life, you can either change HOW you work or change WHERE you work (or, even better, both!)
For now, I’m going to assume that you will be going back to the same job as before, so that leaves the former.
So for this step, I’m actually going to recommend doing two different things.
The first is to create a vision of the life you actually DO want to lead, and the second is to invest more in your life outside of work.
Changing how you work depends upon you getting back in touch with your core values, which you did in the previous step, and using this information to place strict boundaries around work.
This is where it’s imperative to have a really specific idea about the life you want to have moving forward.
You need to reflect upon why leading a certain kind of life is important to you as well as why you HAVEN’T been prioritizing these things up until now.
So here’s a question: if you really put your own needs and values first, what would you change about how you live your life and do your work?
What things in your schedule would you need to alter or let go of in order to make those changes?
I say this a lot, but it bears repeating that every time you say “yes” to something, you’re saying “no” to spending time and energy on something else.
And typically, this time and energy will be taken from your personal life and relationships.
So, one way to prevent additional burnout is knowing what exactly you are going to say “no” to moving forward because it is not in your best interests.
And, the second part of changing how you work is to invest more in your life outside of work.
I think that as we become adults, especially if you’ve chosen the academic path, our lives start getting narrower and narrower.
You might move a bunch of times for jobs and are never really able to make good friends and create a strong sense of community.
Plus, there’s the aforementioned constant pressure to work and be productive, so academics often stop investing in themselves and the things they used to like to do.
So you need to start reinvesting in yourself as a whole person.
What did you used to enjoy doing before you became an academic, and can you start doing more of that now?
Or, you could take on a new hobby or activity.
The important thing is that’s totally DIFFERENT from what you normally do.
Academics are usually in their heads most of the day, which is why it’s so important to get back in touch with your body through movement, dance, or exercise.
It’s important, though, that if you want to exercise twice per week and you haven’t done this for a long time or ever, it’s not just something you’re adding it to your long to-do list.
Instead, commit to this as time you are NOT going to spend working.
And rather than worrying that your overall productivity will go down, consider how doing something that gets you out of your head can help you rest your brain and regenerate energy and excitement for your work.
Summing It All Up
So let’s sum it all up.
I’ve given three steps to manage, and ideally, overcome and prevent burnout.
These are just my own ideas as a coach and someone who works with a lot of burnt out folks, so while there are obviously many more things you could and should do, I think this combination of actions is an effective start.
Again, here are the three steps:
1) Rest, recuperate and prioritize self-care.
2) Reassess your life and priorities by getting back in touch with your core values, taking stock of your responsibilities, and streamlining them so that more of what you HAVE to do is in line with what you actually WANT to do.
3) And finally, commit to doing things differently by creating a vision of the life you do want to lead and investing more in your life outside of work.
Burnout is truly a call to action.
When you’re burnt out, you’re stuck.
And when you’re stuck in a depleting, depressing cycle of workaholism where the work itself does not feel rewarding or meaningful, you need to do something radically different to break the cycle.
And as you move forward, be gentle and compassionate with yourself.
I wish you all the best in your healing. Reach out to me if you want support.
I’ll talk to you next time.