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Understanding and Avoiding Faculty Burnout Blog

Understanding and Avoiding Faculty Burnout

Posted on: January 25, 2021

Written by Dr Mike Drayton, author of Anti-burnout: how to create a psychologically safe, high performance organization

Have you ever felt so tired that you couldn’t think? Have you ever felt really exhausted, but at the same time unable to switch off, relax or even sleep? Do you ever feel cynical about your job and wonder what the point of it all is? If you have experienced any of the above, you may be on the road to burnout. If you want to understand burnout better, and do something about it, then this article may help.

Burnout is the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century. It is a visceral physical experience. It’s the exhaustion, the anxiety, the sick feeling in your stomach. Burnout is also in your head. It’s the cynicism, negativity and detachment from work and people. It’s the inability to think clearly, the absence of mental well-being. People on the road to burnout are often clinically anxious and depressed.

More than 70 percent of higher education staff reporting high or very high levels of stress (Linman and Wray, 2013) and more than 25 percent of university faculty report experiencing burnout often or very often (Padilla and Thompson, 2016).

Burnout is a systemic issue

One of the obstacles to addressing burnout is that organisations tend to treat it as an individual or personnel problem rather than a broader organisational challenge. To minimise burnout, it has to be seen as a systemic issue needing board-level action.
The World Health Organisation WHO describes burnout as “a state of vital exhaustion” (World Health Organisation, 2018). I think that’s a terrific (and rather poetic) description. The word ‘vital’ conjures up images of energy and liveliness, and of something that is absolutely essential. ‘Exhaustion’ is a state of extreme physical and mental tiredness, and to exhaust something means to use it up to the point where all reserves are depleted. These two words beautifully sum up the experience of burnout. The person suffering from burnout feels exhausted. They feel that their resources have been completely depleted. At the same time, the person experiences a sense of agitation and energy. They feel that they just can’t switch off or relax. All the people I have met who have been suffering with burnout have experienced this combination of agitation and exhaustion.

ICD-11 goes on to describe burnout as being:
“a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

It is characterised by three dimensions:

1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
2) increased mental distance from one’s job, negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and;
3) reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” (WHO, 2018) This definition focuses squarely on the occupational context of burnout rather than the individual ‘illness’ context. It follows that the best way to avoid burnout and help people suffering with burnout is to focus on fixing the workplace as well as ‘fixing’ (helping and supporting) the individual employee. A systemic and multi-level approach to burnout is important.

Burnout is related to poorly managed stress in the environment, rather than weakness on the part of susceptible employees. Taking an individual approach to managing burnout brings to mind the experiences of shell-shocked soldiers and airmen in both World Wars. According to military psychiatrists at the time, shell shock (or PTSD as it would now be known) was a result of individual weakness rather than the hellish conditions of trench warfare or the terrible casualty rates of World War II bomber crews. Servicemen who developed shell shock would have their military records stamped with the terrible acronym ‘LMF’, which stands for lack of moral fibre. These soldiers were told that the cause of their shellshock wasn’t the appalling environment but a weakness in their personality. That attitude persists in many organisations, where burnout is attributed to the weakness of the employee rather than the toxicity of the organisational culture and environment. This attitude adds to the distress of the individual, who sees themselves as being weak as well as burnt out. It also absolves the organisation of any blame, guilt and need to change.

The long and winding road to burnout

Burnout is the dramatic endpoint of a long, slow, miserable process. It’s not like people are  okay one minute and the next minute burnt out; it takes a long time to get there. This might seem obvious, but in my experience organisations and their support structures respond to burnout as if it is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Responses to burnout are, more often than not, reactive rather than proactive. Organisations respond to the crisis, not the numerous early-warning signs. Most of us are aware when we aren’t coping particularly well, and usually we notice when a colleague isn’t coping. However, it’s common for us to turn a blind eye to these early-warning signs of burnout and do nothing.

Solutions: How to avoid faculty burnout

This is all very interesting, but what can you do to avoid burnout, or if you are on the road to burnout turn around and find the path home? During the course of writing my book, Anti-burnout: How to Create a Psychologically Safe
and High-Performance Organisation
, I reviewed all the academic literature on burnout. By far the strongest and robust finding is that the secret to avoiding burnout is the ability to switch off after work (Sonnentag et al 2013). If you do a difficult, stressful, demanding job and at the end of the day you are able to switch off and focus on what you want to cook for dinner, a hobby, or watching football on TV (you take my point) then you are at low risk of burnout. If however, you do a difficult, stressful, demanding job and take your work home with you at the end of the day – either literally by working at home or psychologically by being preoccupied with work and worrying about work, then you are at a much higher risk of burnout. In short, put down clear boundaries between your work and personal life.

Burnout as low energy

Think of burnout as a depletion of energy – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. The experience of burnout is an experience of very low energy levels. Just like physical strength, psychological and emotional strength is built in the rest and recovery periods between intense activity. There are at least five factors that go to make up our energy: physical, emotional, cognitive and meaning. Here are some things you can do in each of these areas to recharge your academic batteries.

Physical energy: Set clear boundaries around work hours – frown on coming in too early and leaving too late; prioritise your life outside of work. Take regular breaks. Ideally, these breaks will incorporate some exercise and decent nutrition.

Emotional energy: Emotional energy is largely a function of the quality of your relationships. Spend some time really talking and listening to other people. Rekindle old friendships.  Reset your perspective by paying attention to the positive aspects of your life. Do the ‘what went well,’ exercise (Seligman, 2011) every Friday afternoon. Write down three things that have gone well that week and why.

Mental energy: Organise your day into blocks of time devoted to focused work with minimal distractions. After every block of work, take a 15 minute recharge break. 

Meaning: Reconnecting with the meaning of your work is key to well-being. Think about why you do what you do. What attracted you to your job in the first place?