Let’s talk about the elephant in the room

Front of the admin building photo

"As faculty you are trained to resist any visible signs of weakness but also because you may not have the language or tools to have these kinds of conversations" (Pope-Ruark, 2022, p. 7). I’m talking about burnout. My sense is that many faculty and others are experiencing burnout after 30 plus months of uncertainty, remote teaching and learning, covid, social and civil unrest, and more. First, it is important to note that burnout is very different from "end of the year" exhaustion.

In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Burnout consists of 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job or feeling of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. It specifically refers to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied or described experience in other areas of life (WHO, 2019).

For many faculty, lives were turned upside down. Our Mother scholars were forced to take care of their children at home at the same time they were expected to keep up with their faculty work. Workloads became fuller and we were automatically put into “counselor and ed-tech” experts. A sense of hopelessness and exhaustion reared their ugly heads. We were pressed to meet the needs of the moment and a sense of urgency surrounded us. Burnout is a reality in higher education even during the best of times. So, what makes this time different? One thing for certain is that faculty across the campus were faced with the same issues. We could not go on “business as usual” and if we pretended it was business as usual, it only depleted our energy, wore us down, and led to mental fatigue. In some cases, the quality of our teaching, research, and service may have suffered.

Where do we go from here? How can you compassionately reconnect to yourselves, your students, without the fear of not meeting your faculty obligations, satisfying your FSI, earning tenure and/or promotion, get that grant, write that manuscript for publication, etc.? According to Pope-Ruark (2022), there are 4 pillars of burnout.

  1. Knowing and following your purpose
  2. Practicing compassion for yourself
  3. Deepening connection with peers near and far
  4. Pursuing realistic life balance

This blog will address the first pillar with follow up blogs will follow addressing the remaining pillars. Personally, I am not sure about using the word balance. I am more attuned to having realistic harmony in my life. Perhaps this is another blog for another day. It is time to not see burnout as a taboo topic, but to address the reality that some of you and others may be experiencing burnout. Viewing life through a compassionate lens require that we refrain from thinking “What’s wrong with Sandy?” but instead to ask, “What happened to Sandy in the last 30 months? Or What is happening to Sandy because of the last 30 months?” I whole heartedly recognize and understand that some may have already been experiencing burn out pre pandemic and the last 30 months may have exacerbated this syndrome.

When we are burnt out it is easy to forget the reason(s) why we do what we do. What is the purpose of your work? As a result of covid, things changed at a rapid pace. For some, being thrown into remote teaching and learning was a challenge. Many of us were on survival mode and some may still be in that mode. With the first pillar of burnout, it is time to reevaluate and focus on your purpose. How do your core values and your purpose align with each other? Pope-Rourk (2022) recommends you consider the following questions:

  • What is your current relationship with your purpose?
  • What is the most meaningful reason that you do what you do?
  • What do you need to be to pursue your purpose?
  • How will you know when you are pursuing your true purpose?
  • If you were pursuing your true purpose; what would the ideal outcome be (p. 82)?
    After deeply reflecting on these questions, you would then reflect on the following?
  • What would it look like to successfully fulfill your purpose?
  • What motivates you most to fulfill your purpose in general and in higher ed?
  • What stories do you tell yourself about (pursuing) your purpose? What stories might you tell instead (p. 84)?

The goal is to help you revisit why you are here in the first place. What are your values and how to they connect to your purpose?

  • If your biggest roadblock to following your purpose were removed, what would you do?
  • At the end of your career, what will you be most proud of? What are steps you can take now to achieve that (p. 90)?

Hopefully, reflecting on these questions is helping you remember why you chose to do what you, do but also help you reset your purpose. After all the world has changed and will continue to do so.

  • What do you love to do more than anything else, in general and in higher ed?
  • What do you regret not doing in your career so far? What’s keeping you from doing it?
  • What would it take for you to pursue your purpose (p. 103)?

By the time you finish reflecting on these questions (I hope you really do take time to reflect), you will have revisited your purpose and your mission, and it will be time for you to create a few purpose statements that speak to what you care about now, on a professional and individual level, not at an institutional level. Once you create your purpose statements, consider the following questions:

  • Are the statements you wrote aligned with your own values or higher ed’s (both)?
  • What are you doing that is most aligned with your purpose?
  • Which of your values is most important to your purpose?
  • What can you do to be more aligned with your values and purpose (p. 104)?

Now that I have shared information about burnout and the first pillar according to Pope-Ruark (2022), I hope you take the time needed to reflect on this pillar. This is something to really consider and deeply reflect as you move forward with your work. My question to you is what can we do as an institution to help alleviate the burnout? How can the university help pull you out of the difficult and challenging time? How do we pinpoint your needs and how to meet them? How can we reframe our thinking about teaching and learning in higher ed?

Stay tuned for more information on the next Pillar of burnout and more information about getting your feedback on this topic. Remember, it should not be taboo to talk about burnout. In fact, the more we talk about it, the more we can remove the shame associated with it, and the better we can hope to do something about it. In the meantime, please take care of yourself and remember to breathe and pause daily and carve out time for a walk, some quiet time, or a good book or movie. Additionally, consider dropping by the Center for Teaching and Learning to take a break, grab a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, eat a snack, and just to say hello. We would love to see you.

Listen to The Agile Academic Podcast to hear more on this topic.

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Pope-Ruark, R. (2022. Unraveling faculty burnout: Pathways to reckoning and renewal. Johns Hopkins Press.

World Health Organization (2019, May 28). Burnout an “occupational phenomenon”: International classification of disease. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases