Let’s talk burnout

March 24, 2017
Reading Time: 4 minutes

It’s Friday! (#happydance)

Today was the first week back after spring break. Unfortunately, for us academics, just because the kids are out to play doesn’t mean we are too. I did, however, take some time to get a little rest and relaxation. It got me thinking about burnout and how important it is to take time away from work to recover. I’ve had a lot of research (& personal) experience in the area of burnout (see links at the end of the article), and the lesser researched area of recoveryIn this article, I’m going to focus on burnout and then in my next article we’re going to talk about the more uplifting topic of recovery.

But first, what is burnout?

Besides being a sexy term thrown around a lot among academics, occupational psychologists, and a tired high school senior who doesn’t want to study for exams, it actually is a diagnosable mental health condition that is both serious and debilitating. This would be the part where I would normally provide some statistics to show the rates of burnout among academic populations, but there isn’t conclusive evidence on how widespread burnout actually is, beyond knowing that it is, in fact, widespread. Burnout is often characterized as exhaustion, lack of motivation and feelings of inadequacy which often result in reduced productivity and higher turnover in the workplace. It is more widespread among high-stress occupations – nurses, physicians, social workers, customer service workers, and you guessed it, academics. It isn’t limited to these professions and I think its worth saying that there are stressors that are unique to every profession and each of us react and cope differently to stress. All of you reading this have probably experienced symptoms of burnout in the past, even if you didn’t realize that it’s burnout which was interfering with your ability to concentrate, causing decreased sleep quality, and zapping your motivation.

So, what are the symptoms of burnout?

Maslach and colleagues (one of the leaders in the field of burnout) lump the symptoms of burnout into three categories: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced sense of accomplishment.

Emotional exhaustion…I mean, I get emotionally exhausted watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy! So, it’s important to make sure we make a distinction between the exhaustion you feel after McDreamy dies, and burnout. Chronic fatigue, trouble falling asleep (& staying asleep) and forgetfulness or an inability to stay focused are some of the common symptoms. Some more serious symptoms of emotional exhaustion include physical symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, and gastrointestinal issues (e.g., pain, upset stomach). Lastly, you are at a higher risk for illness. Your body’s immune system is not at strong when you are under high stress for extended periods of time. Psychologically, feelings of increased anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and sometimes increase irritability are common symptoms of emotional exhaustion.

Depersonalization often starts with a lessened eagerness to work. I know, you’re probably thinking, “Well, I’m never exactly eager to work”, but this is a little bit different. A lot of times for people experiencing depersonalization, it starts with work and can permeate into other areas of life – hanging out with family and friends. Do you ever get so stressed out that you just want to go hide under the covers? Don’t worry we’ve all been there, but feeling a increased desire for isolation – leaving work early to avoid contact with others, declining lunch invitations, and getting frustrated with others when they try to spend time with you are a little more serious.

“What’s the point?” – boy, if I had a nickel for every time I said that while writing my dissertation. This is a common thought among those who are experiencing a reduced sense of accomplishment. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at my tired, blood-shot eyes in the mirror during my doctorate and thought, “What’s the point? Does my research even matter? Am I actually going to make a difference?” I think of all of the symptoms of burnout, this was the one I experienced the most. This sense of apathy can impact your level of productivity which can lead to a sense of guilt and frustration when you aren’t meeting your goals. I can sometimes find my to-do list paralyzing! The growing to-do list, increased guilt and frustration can also elicit feelings of irritability which sometimes interfere with relationships with others.

I think the key to remember here is that we all get burned out sometimes. We have a big grant due, an important presentation, a career-changing proposal, and we put all of our resources (emotional, physical, mental) into (hopefully) our success, and we neglect ourselves. The problem is, for academics, those major deadlines, presentations, grants, publications – they’re always there. These are constant stressors in our lives. We have to equip ourselves with the knowledge, skills, and good habits of keeping burnout at bay and making space for recovery.

ps. Nathan drew that sketch while I was writing this article – he insisted it be the featured image.


Now, here’s a few cute photos of a puppy –


Feel better? Be sure to check back on Monday, 3/27/2017 for Part 2 on how to recover from burnout (what you’ve really been waiting f0r).

Here are some press releases and other articles about some of my work in burnout and recovery – enjoy!

‘A 30-minute me break can make you a better worker study shows’ (here & here)

‘The real difference between selffishness and self-care: “Me time” doesn’t have to be selfish’ (here)

‘The stress recovery technique that boosts energy and avoids job burnout’ (here)

‘Taking active breaks boosts worker energy’ (here)