Some of the things mentioned in this episode include:
Well, we’ve reached Episode 20. The vaulted platinum anniversary episode. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Kudos to you, lovely listener. Whether you’ve stuck around with me through all these episodes or if you just jumped on board and have a mighty interesting back catalog to get through, if I do say so myself, I’m quite pleased to have had you with me on this journey.
Yeesh, that sounds like this is the final episode or something, doesn’t it? Nah, of course not. It’s just a milestone. A milestone that many podcasts don’t make it to. So, given that I have made it here combined with the convenient timing that commencement here at the University of Arizona is just one month away, I thought I’d celebrate by talking about… that final push over the finish line. Today we’re talking about burnout … and how to avoid it.
When I first started this little adventure of mine, there was a lot to consider: how often would I publish? What would the format be? Would it be just me or would there be interviews and guests? Would I get sponsorship? Could I get sponsorship? Would it be recognized by the university as … well, good? Would I get faster at writing, recording, and publishing the episodes? Would anyone care?
I think I have answers to all these questions now but, here’s the thing: regardless of those answers, I still planned on doing it. It is, as they say, a “labor of love.” But, to be honest, at the end of quote-unquote “season one,” I was starting to feel a bit of burnout. I felt like I’d used up all my good ideas, my creativity was waning, and, well, life got in the way. I put it on hold for a little bit and when I came back to it and viewed it through another lens, that made all the difference. Now, I don’t really feel that looming concern. It was refreshing. And I’m back to enjoying doing it.
The reason I wanted to talk about burnout on this episode in particular is, as I mentioned in the introduction, two fold: first, when I was preparing to start this little audio experiment, I’d read that something like 95% of podcasts don’t make it to episode 20 (I can’t remember the exact statistics and I can’t find that source for the life of me, but it was something along those lines). I hated the idea of falling into that category so when I took the hiatus and called it a between-season-break, I was pretty upset with myself. I felt like a failure, even though it was a completely optional, self-imposed, arbitrary benchmark. So, this episode feels good.
Second, graduation is coming soon and that means final exams, papers to write and/or grade, end-of-the-year administration like paperwork and getting regalia, all sorts of little things that fell through the cracks during the year, coming back to haunt you at the worst possible time. For undergrads it might mean job fairs and putting hours of work into resumes and portfolios. For grads it means defenses and rewrites.
In short: it’s a busy time.
So how do we stop ourselves from getting buried under all that weight? All those responsibilities? How do we prevent burnout?
Well, what is burnout, anyway? We should probably talk about what it is before we talk about how to prevent it, right? Psychology Today puts it like so: “Burnout is not a simple result of long hours. The cynicism, depression, and lethargy of burnout can occur when you’re not in control of how you carry out your job, when you’re working toward goals that don’t resonate with you, and when you lack social support.” Their definition is more geared toward burnout in the workplace (hence “job”) but much can be applied to students, too. For example, maybe it’s the classes you have to take in order to graduate on time. Maybe the topics don’t resonate with you. Maybe you and the instructor don’t get along. Maybe you’re doing groupwork and are the only one putting in the effort. (Again.) Maybe you’re working while going to school and this just happens to be your busiest time at your job or your hours just got changed. Maybe you’ve got kids or other family members to care for and that 12 page theory paper just keeps taking a back seat to, oh, I don’t know, feeding your loved ones and getting enough rest to get up in the morning and do everything required of a single parent.
I don’t know your situation. Maybe it’s none of these. Maybe it’s all of them. I hope it’s not all of them.
Look, I’m not an expert on this stuff. I’m speaking from experience and some basic research and resources available to me. But, what I keep coming back to is this notion that quote-unquote “have a support system” is meaningless. It’s practically insulting and places an undue burden on the person that’s needing the relief. Imagine you, that single parent also going to school and working full-time, being told that the solution to your hardship is to “have a support system.” How is that different from “have family and friends?” Maybe it’s not that easy. It most certainly is not that easy. General platitudes look good on paper but unless they’re applicable to a person they’re just so much fluff. If you’re that busy person and also want to lose weight, for example, the advice “Eat healthier” isn’t all that useful. When getting a toehold, you need specific, actionable examples. Which is more useful: “Cook at home” or “Here’s a casserole recipe you can prep on Saturday, cook on Sunday, and portion out for meals throughout the week.”
Now, I’m skipping over professional services, of course, like the ones available at the University of Arizona. These Wellness suggestions are there to help prevent burnout, not to come back from it. We’ll get to that in a bit. Whatever institution you’re in, there are (very likely) oodles of resources available to you. UA, for example, provides services like actual medical and psychological care, immunization and travel advising, drug-related support, fitness and sporting opportunities, counseling services, a substance abuse organization called Wildcats Anonymous, support specifically for women’s health, even training to learn to be that kind of friendly support for someone you know, something called Friend 2 Friend. Info on all of these services in the show notes, of course. Sure, this might sound like the vague “Get a support system” claptrap I mentioned earlier, but the things I just listed are places you can go (and have the information on how to get to, now) and get specific assistance in a one-on-one basis. Even if you’re not feeling mired quite yet, it’s worth checking out. An ounce of prevention, and all that.
I thought I’d ask some folks I know that are in and around the higher education system specifically what they do to avoid and deal with burnout. I put a call out on Twitter and got some great strategies. (Link to my original tweet and all these tweets in the show notes.)
Connie says, “Regular downtime. I don’t think about work or check my email on Saturday, and for most of the day on Sunday if I can get away with it.”
Hollie says, “Long weekends and actively planning activities outside of normal routine, for fun and to refresh!”
PAN suggests sport. “Something that shifts your focus away from work. For me this is Crossfit two times a week. I also try to go offline one hour before going to sleep, spending the time reading. It also helped me to write down my highlights and lowlights of the day, and ideas for improving.”
Lelanie (I think I’m saying that correctly) suggests, “Follow your intuition & take a break when you need to & do something that makes you happy. Sometimes it might be 5 minutes, other times a couple of hours, days, weeks or even longer. The work will still be there when you get back.”
Laura echoed this, “Some form of daily self-care. Meditation, exercise, music, baths, time for yourself, even 15 or 20 minutes.”
John reflected a bit: “I thought academia would be great, because I love reading and learning. My self care is to actually do reading and learning on things outside of my research and teaching to remind myself why I came in the first place. Read a book for fun every week.”
Marc said, “Yoga and meditation have saved my career. Also, having non-work friends and not checking work email on my phone are great, too.”
Christina echoed the physical solution: “Exercise – for me swimming, yoga, and walking.”
Elvira did the same: “Sports and outside-of-work friends!”
The inimitable Raul, when I asked him for one, replied, “I have a ton. 1) Have a solid network of friends, both at work and OUTSIDE of work. 2) Exercise. 3) Take time off, like, seriously off. 4) Try not to bring too much work along with you when you travel. 5) Remember, there are NO EMERGENCIES in higher education. 6) Meditate.”
Finally, Bryan’s advice was short and sweet: “Remember your WHY.”
I like that. It’s the same advice I got from an advisor long, long ago.
So, what if all the prevention in the world couldn’t stop the burnout? It’s totally possible for any number of reasons. Well, back to Psychology Today’s “High Octane Women” blog, Sherrie Bourg Carter has a few suggestions for clawing your way back onto solid land:
Take an inventory. Basically, make an objective list of all the stressors and problems you encountered and decide, objectively, how to best deal with them. Start working through them one-by-one, slow and steady if need be. As Sherrie says, “It’s not a race; it’s a process.” Say “No.” If you have the option, avoid taking on new responsibilities or committments. Get done what’s already on your plate before overfilling it even more. Delegate. Again, if you can, shove some items off your plate and onto a less full one. Expect that what gets done might not be done your way, but done and acceptable is better than good and unfinished. Take breaks, if you can. Burnout isn’t just being annoyed or quote-unquote “so done” with something. It’s a physical and mental state. Take time to heal. Socialize. This is frequently reflected in the tweets I read. Simply getting out there, with different people in a different context can be terribly useful. If you want to read the rest of the list, head on over to the site. (And yes… link in the show notes.)
In the past, when I’ve felt the burnout coming, I was lucky enough to have a support system. Friends, family, colleagues. If you don’t have that, try some of the resources I’ve mentioned. Or, hey, just talk to me. I firmly believe that we’re all in this together and if one of us fails, we’ve failed them.
I hope this has been useful. If you’d like to learn more about mental health and well-being, there’s a free workshop the afternoon of April 20th at the University of Arizona South campus. I’ve put the flyer in the show notes and I’ll tweet it out, too. Thank you to all the folks that answered my call for burnout avoidance strategies. Now to go do yoga or meditate or something. See ya next time.