You’ve Burned Out. Now What?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

For most of 2018, my solitaire app was my drug of choice. I could lie on my old, blue couch and play simulated cards for hours. And I had hours to kill because I was avoiding any and all work. I spent my mornings with students in classes, passing time by going through the well-rehearsed motions of teaching and mentoring, pretending I was fine before racing to my car and heading home to the couch. I retreated to solitaire after every trip to campus. It was a way of vaporizing time I “should” have been using for writing, planning classes, going to meetings, and generally being productive. But I just kept playing, win or lose, feeling ashamed of my laziness.

I must have played thousands of hands of solitaire, comforted by the logic of the game, the tedium, and the fact that solitaire wanted nothing from me except to turn the next card. The people on campus wanted things from me, expected a version of me that would shatter in a mental breakdown before Christmas later that year. That expected version of me had played the higher-ed game at a high level for her corner of academe — she published regularly, had a book with a highly respected university press, was a liked if challenging teacher, and actively served her institution (Elon University) and discipline (professional writing and rhetoric). She had a reputation for getting things done.

That was not me anymore. I had burned out, and it shocked my system to the core. It had been building for years: Every department meeting had to be maximally efficient, every class had to be perfect, every opportunity to show leadership had to be fully taken advantage of. The perfectionism and pressure had gradually worn me down. Sometimes after class, I’d stand frozen in an empty stairwell, trying to decide what to eat for lunch, as if it were the biggest decision of my life. I dreaded running into anyone — student or colleague. I had panic attacks over going into my office — even though it’d been my workplace for a decade.

And for all this I felt deep shame. Before my burnout diagnosis I didn’t have a language or rationale for what was happening to me. The brain fog, decision fatigue, panic attacks, inability to do any work that wasn’t publicly performative, the solitaire addiction: What was happening to me? I truly had no idea. The message I initially took away from my diagnosis was that I just wasn’t good enough anymore, and that higher ed would spit me out for falling short of the very productivity goals I’d once prided myself on. The idea that I was “a burnout” was crushing to my personal and professional identity. And I believed that once people found out about my burnout, it would be all over. So I waited, one game of solitaire at a time.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” By calling it a syndrome, WHO avoids defining it as a mental illness per se, instead as a collection of related symptoms, under the umbrellas of (1) exhaustion, (2) cynicism or depersonalization, and (3) feelings of reduced professional efficacy. When experiencing those symptoms, our ability to manage stress is lessened, making it easier for stress to compound and manifest in physical, emotional, and intellectual ways.

My experience aligned with that definition. I was exhausted, physically unwell, emotionally volatile, intellectually blank. I had distanced myself from everyone related to the university. I deeply questioned if anything I did really mattered. When I took the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most widely accepted research instrument to determine levels of burnout, I scored almost off the charts. I had nothing left to give, it turned out, even though my work demanded more and more of me. But it wasn’t all my fault. As Kevin R. McClure put it in these pages, “burnout isn’t just about people struggling to cope with stress; it’s about people struggling in workplaces where stress never subsides.”

The most important words in the WHO definition are “chronic workplace stress.” Burnout is a workplace phenomenon. Burnout is systemic; it’s a product of workplace cultures that value productivity above all else. Burnout is also a product of higher ed, a culture where productivity infuses everything we do, and where the longest CV wins. Wins what, I’m not sure. More work? In this vein, Jonathan Malesic argues that “burnout isn’t a failure of productivity but the continuation of productivity despite lacking the strength it takes to produce.” Burnout occurs when productivity becomes toxic.

Higher ed, as a culture, espouses the values of lifelong learning, discovery, contribution to a better world, and striving for excellence — all wrapped up in a view of the academy as a calling. Professors change the world through research and teaching. I love those values as ideals. In a sense, I gave myself completely over to them, to the cultural imperative that the vaunted halls of academe call only a few and that fewer still can belong in the long term. For me and for many faculty members with whom I’ve spoken, the idea of being “called” caused us to overcommit to our work, which, in turn, set us up for burnout.

When you “do what you love” — when you have a calling instead of just a job in higher ed — it’s easy to slowly give more and more of yourself to work. The heart of academic culture is an orientation toward competitive productivity. This is why we take work-related reading with us on family trips. This is why we check our email incessantly, regardless of where we are and whom we are with. This is why holiday breaks are spent revising and resubmitting. This is why we have colleagues we constantly measure ourselves against. Success is bound up in higher ed’s other core values: productivity, achievement, and the ability to keep up with the expectation escalation and ladder-climbing of the academic career trajectory. The “publish or perish” mentality is alive and well across higher ed, despite what this ideological imperative can do to one’s mental health and well-being. Amid this culture, intellectual joy and community are diminished greatly.

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

PG notes that authors can burn out as well.

Burnout is so common among lawyers that many bar associations provide lots of information in the form of in-person or recorded presentations about symptoms of burnout and where to go if feel you may be edging toward burnout. Burnout task forces, burnout hotlines, etc., are also commonly sponsored by bar associations, often with contributions from legal malpractice insurance companies.

Here’s a link to one lawyer burnout article that PG thinks isn’t behind a paywall. Here’s another. Here’s a link to a lawyer burnout study sponsored by The California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar (District of Columbia, e.g. Washington DC). Here’s a link to an article about Identifying and Managing Attorney Anxiety published by the General Practice/Solo Section of the American Bar Association.

Moving away from attorneys, here’s a link to a World Health Organization report titled, “COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.”

4 thoughts on “You’ve Burned Out. Now What?”

  1. I do hate falling short of my self-imposed goals (retired from tech, now indie-author) since an illness (all recovered now) that coincided with the start of the Covid timeline. I used to be reliable at this sort of thing.

    I love my work, I do. I have no technical or physical barriers standing in my way. And yet… solitaire is my friend, and news feeds, and all sorts of pointless distractions. It’s clearly stress-related (feels like a reward to manage the mini-stress of a solitaire game successfully). Some of it is a paralyzing existential anxiety, but we all have financial and mortality parameters that are suboptimal. Don’t know what to attribute it to exactly, but I am confident that this, too, shall pass, one way or another (and no doubt more quickly if the country’s decline is ameliorated).

    At least I’m still fabulating “story” all the time, and taking notes. Just… gotta… do… the… work. 🙂

    It does give me a more visceral respect for my mother who lived through WWII in Antwerp, until she found an American GI to take her away. If she can do that, I can shake this off, too.

    • These *are* stressful times.
      And getting more so. Not going to get any better any time soon.

      My own approach is detachment.
      I’ve learned to look at the outside world as a bad tv comedy of errors, a slow motion ongoing train wreck. None of it’s my doing, none of it is my worry. Took me years to learn to live and let die. I take care of me and mine, everybody else is on their own.
      (Gotta watch the old blood pressure, after all.) 😉

    • Agreed with K. and F. about stressful times.

      I don’t mean to become a one-answer individual, but I think all the stress around COVID shutdowns and all the related phenomena are still taking a toll that is continuing to grow.

      It’s looking like children in poor families will feel long-term impacts from missing out on in-person classes. I haven’t seen any reliable statistics about COVID shutdown, stresses, etc., on long-term mental health, but would be surprised if there are long-term negative impacts on those as well.

      If I was in college during the COVID shutdown, I would be worrying about how I would handle the financial consequences of not being able to work at my various part-time jobs, including the ones in dormitory cafeterias that provided me with a couple of meals per day, having to borrow more student loans than anticipated, whether I should change my major in order to graduate more quickly, etc.

      If I had graduated shortly before the COVID shutdowns, I’d wonder if my job offers would still be there when my employers opened up again.

      Lawyer stress, especially in solo and small firm practices, has to have been very high.

      Clients have problems paying legal bills, new clients have pretty much disappeared because of shut-down orders. Shutdowns issued by state governors will close the courts to all civil cases and a small number of criminal cases for which Constitutional rights will be clearly violated if the courts don’t provide the means for something to happen. Good luck trying to gather a panel of prospective jurors if an accused demands a jury trial.

      Non-criminal court cases, including those filed with a contingency fee which only pays the lawyer if she/he is successful in obtaining a settlement or a trial verdict with damages. Insurance carriers aren’t interested in paying any money for claims because they’re shut down and, without the threat of taking a case to trial if there’s no settlement, the insurance companies will sit on their money for as long as possible. Or, due to the effects of COVID shutdowns on investments insurance companies have made, the insurance companies may also be under serious financial stress.

      Plus a large number of ex-spouses have stopped paying child support.

      • We’ve been under pandemic long enough for psychological/sociological studies to identify specific perception effects:

        “Welcome to “blursday.” Back when the pandemic started, the term hit the zeitgeist. The word captured that sense of time disintegrating as our worlds and routines turned upside down (SN: 9/14/20). Days melted together, then weeks, then years.

        As people began wondering about why time felt so out of whack, Simon Grondin, a psychologist at Laval University in Quebec City, and colleagues penned a theory paper seeking to explain the phenomenon. Our time is typically punctuated by events, such as dinner dates or daily commutes, Grondin and his team wrote in October 2020 in Frontiers in Psychology. Such events provide temporal landmarks. When those landmarks disappear, days lose their identities. Time loses its definition. ”

        Story fodder if nothing else but it does have the ring of truth. (Sensory deprivation chamber effect?)

        More at the source.


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