Remedies for Academic Burnout: Maybe you don’t need to leave your job to overcome overwhelm...

I’ve felt burned out on and off in my job since I returned to work after having kids… There just seem to be moments where I can’t get on top of things, don’t get excited about projects any more, and dream of quitting to do something simpler- being a barista has always been my go-to! During those times, I dreamed of standing up from my computer and yelling "I Quit" in a highly dramatic way- storming out of my office. Except, at the moment, I'm working from home- and my cat and dog are unlikely to appreciate the enormity of this moment.

Burnout syndrome was characterised back in the 1980's by Maslach and Jackson, who identified three components: high levels of emotional exhaustion (a lack of energy and emotional resources to cope with work obligations), depersonalisation (a lack of empathy with people), coupled with low personal accomplishment (the ability to face new challenges, and to feel fulfilled leading to negative attitudes towards job capabilities and potential).

Research on burnout has generally estimated prevalence based on specific populations in specific countries, with medical students and physicians the most commonly studied groups. A systematic review of burnout in physicians found rates to vary from 0% to 80%! Teachers are also highly ranked in the burnout stakes with a systematic review and meta-analysis estimating the prevalence of burnout syndrome in secondary school teachers at 70%. Ironically, researchers don't seem to have studied burnout among their fellow academics - I could only find one study of female academics in the UK published in 1998 - surely someone has to be able to conduct a prevalence study of academics!

I had a few 'aha' burnout moments while listening to the Work Life Podcast by Adam Grant. In the podcast, Adam (an Organisational Psychologist) presents a way out of burnout by reconnecting to why you started that job in the first place, ie., “it can make a difference to remember how your work makes a difference”. Adam describes seeking meaning and helping others that allows you to see small daily progress, and “small wins” in helping to increase job satisfaction without having to quit the job that you feel burned out in.

This could be really useful for academics who feel that they are overwhelmed by the research expectations that are placed on them, or by the teaching (and more importantly grading!) load that they face, but who still want to stay in their job. Academics have multiple ways that they can reconnect with purpose, and because we have a relatively high level of autonomy compared to other professions, there might be things you can do to make you feel better and keep your job in the process. The need for daily 'small wins' in feeling productive and fulfilled in your career makes so much sense- but for the most part, the 'wins' for academics are pretty big, and pretty infrequent. Winning grants, publishing papers, and recieving teaching feedback scores happen once every few months if we're lucky (and exceptionally talented!) and there aren’t daily ‘small win’ moments to keep us going.

In the podcast, the Demand-Control-Support model is outlined as a structural model for resolving burnout. The model was originally described by Karasek in 1979 and updated to include the support element more recently. This model describes how, at the organisational level, companies can help to reduce burnout in their staff by changing the structure of the job, or the culture of the organisation in order to 1) Reduce demand on the staff, 2) Enable staff to have greater control over their work and those demands, and 3) Embed formal and informal support structures. However, I think that this model applies equally to individuals wanting resolution to their overwhelm. Are there ways that you can decrease the demands on you that feel overwhelming? How can you regain some control over the overwhelming aspects of your job? Do you have support structures in place? Let's see if you could implement any of the following:

Reduce Demand:

- Implement a system to reduce the impact of inbox overwhelm- Some experts recommend checking in just twice a day, and switching off your notifications.

- If students are demanding around-the-clock attention, try using a scheduling tool that allows them to select a 20-minute time slot, like Calendly or You can Book.Me. This can help to eliminate the 5 emails that it can make to set up a meeting, but also sets up boundaries around their demands on your time, and their expectations of a response.

- If you have too many research projects on the go, you could play around with using Asana, Trello or other workflow tools to ensure more efficient team collaboration.

- Can you give up any committee or leadership roles and mentor someone more junior to take their place? This could be good for you and them.

- Can you take anything off your plate research-wise? Say no to collaborating on a project, ask someone to take over lead authorship on a paper or grant?

Enable Control:

- Are you able to implement system changes to divert student enquiries to administrators?

- Can you change the marking criteria and feedback expectations on graded work?

- Could you implement peer assessment for formative or summative grading of work for a portion of the assessment in one of your subjects or courses?

- Use Research Professional to map out the grants that you might want to apply for well in advance, and develop a system to alert you to start preparing applications early.

- Outsource anything that you can- much of academic work has a high administrative element- can you outsource this to administrators at your organisation, or a virtual assistant?

- Reach out to new connections that might lead to collaborations on projects that might help you to feel reinvigorated about research- maybe teams utilising different methods, or researching something that you have always been interested in.

- Can you pursue impact with your research? Getting out there into the real world and helping to translate your research into practice can be extremely rewarding, and also help you progress towards being featured as an NHMRC impact case study. A good place to start is to connect with a community organisation that relates to your work, and just ask someone that works there to have a virtual coffee with you.

Embed Support

- Most universities have a confidential Employee Assistance Program- have you utilised this? It’s free, and so confidential, as the majority are run completely by external organisations.

- Do you have people that you mentor and are mentored by? Finding a nice mentoring balance can help you feel supported, and mentoring can help you feel like you are supporting others and remind you why you are in this job- It’s win-win. For authoritative advice on mentoring, see Mentorloop.

- Support yourself by using Self Compassion. Professor Kristen Neff’s evidence-based approach is a game changer for high achievers and perfectionists, and the free recordings are very powerful. There's a lot of research to show that they improve self esteem, psychological functioning, and predicted lower burnout in a study of nurses in New Zealand.

- It goes without saying, but it’s important to remember to prioritise your physical and mental health even, and especially when you are super-busy and feeling overwhelmed. Industry research shows that taking a 17-minute break after working for 52 minutes makes you more productive over the course of the day than working through… Use that time to move, call someone, enjoy a cup of tea in the sun, read a new paper 'just for fun', whatever will refresh and refill your cup.

Both Adam, and Bill Burnett and Dave Adams on another podcast (Hello Monday- it was amazing, highly recommend) reiterate that the key to resolving burnout isn’t necessarily with less work – it’s with more meaning, and making small changes to your job, your day, and your career that can help you to feel more effective, get on top of things, and feel satisfied and passionate about your work again.

Personally, I seem to be responding to burnout by taking on two side projects that have greatly increased my workload, but also improved my job satisfaction- one of them is this blog. Writing about my situation, talking to others, and feeling like I am helping others through these pieces has made me feel like I’m having daily wins.

So- it’s helping me, but I’d love to know if it helps you too. Please comment on the LinkedIn post for this blog piece, or if you’d like your comments to stay private, join the Closed Well Researched Facebook Group.

Dr Zali Yager is an Associate Professor in Health and Physical Education, and runs two side projects: this blog (Well Researched), and a not-for profit research translation organisation: the Body Confident Collective.

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