Let’s Talk about Burnout

16 April 2022

How do your professors deal with issues surrounding burnout in their careers and personal lives? 

In our next blog post, Juliane Schicker will discuss how burnout intersects with issues of equity and diversity, particularly when it comes to the lives of students. Before then, and as the Carleton term starts to ramp up, we want to update our blog with some general thoughts on how we find balance outside of work and ward off burnout.

What do you do to de-stress before or after work (each day or on the days you have off work)? 

  • Seth: Each morning, we brew a pot of coffee at home that I split with my wife. I have one cup in the morning, over breakfast or a conversation, or sometimes while catching up on a bit of work, and a second cup comes with me to the office in a thermos. The coffee signifies that it’s still my time—I’m “relaxing with a cup of coffee,” even if I happen to have my laptop open. Similarly in the evening: on my way home, I travel by bike or on foot; over dinner, I reconnect with my wife and kids every night; while washing the dishes, I listen to a favorite radio program or piece of music. These routines and necessary tasks provide a moment to recharge. Then, on the weekend, I prioritize having one full day away from work. On that day, I spend time with family, go on a hike, clean the house, catch up on sleep, do taxes—even if it’s not a “fun” activity, it helps in de-stressing because it provides a clear reminder that there are many other facets of life than just my work at Carleton.
  • Juliane: One of the things that I need to do every day—no matter how cold, warm, wet, or icky it is outside—is to go into nature, preferably before I start my work day. I get my daughter and dog ready and we embark on a brief or long, depending on how much time we have, morning walk into our neighborhood or nearby park. The sunrise in the morning, the brisk air in the winter, the spring smell in April, the drizzling rain and fog in November, and the humidity in July are ways for me to de-stress and tank up for the day! On days when I cannot go outside (those days when it is so cold that our lungs feel like they are freezing up with every breath or when we would get soaked in two seconds despite all the rain gear), I have a hard time concentrating and enjoying the day. On those occasions, I make a point of at least standing outside for a few minutes and looking into the blue sky or listening to the pounding rain on my umbrella.
  • Kiley: Setting boundaries is really important for me. I try not to work late in the evenings and I don’t have my work email on my phone. When I get home from campus, I enjoy cooking tasty vegetarian food while listening to podcasts, going on walks around the Minneapolis lakes, and spending time with my wonderful husband and friends. In the past few years, I’ve surprised myself by getting really into running! Like large-scale academic projects, running allows me to set goals and chip away at achieving those goals day by day. 

What works best when something really emotionally exhausting happens in the workplace? 

  • Kiley: First, having firm boundaries means that I try not to think about work when I’m not on the clock. It’s a difficult practice to be mindful about what occupies my time and when. I’m grateful to have wonderful colleagues (the co-authors of this post) who can advise me if an issue pops up. Academic life is full of deadlines, revisions, and rejections, and you have to expect that some things will go wrong or be difficult. Realistic expectations help me to not get overwhelmed when I face a problem.
  • Seth: Like Kiley, I am very grateful to have excellent and supportive colleagues. They provide input and answers. In grad school, a mentor gave me the advice to “surround yourself with resources”—I still think that’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received, and I frequently pass it along to students. Further, one of the great services my colleagues have offered is to point out when I can’t solve a problem—some things are simply beyond my knowledge or skill level, and the best thing I can do is help the student move on to somebody with the necessary skills. It’s hard not to see a problem resolved, but it’s hugely important to be able to let go.  
  • Juliane: If I am on campus, I first knock on one of my colleague’s offices and share with them what just happened. I work through emotions the best when I can hear someone else’s take on it, so I appreciate how open and welcoming my two colleagues are. When I am home, a warm, tight hug from my family members (dog included) is what gets me into a place again where I can look at the problem from an objective angle and try to tackle it head-on! 

When you look around you and observe friends, family, co-workers, and students, what do they do to relax? Do they seem exhausted or energized, both, neither?

  • Seth: The ability to let go seems to be one of the key factors affecting a person’s place on the spectrum between being energized and exhausted. My friends, relatives, and colleagues face all sorts of challenges that can’t be overcome in a single day (or possibly in a week, or a year. . .). Sometimes, it’s about working with students or clients to overcome a learning challenge or a social or legal situation. For academics, the problems are often about research questions that never quite get answered, or writing projects that never feel like they’re good enough. For these thorny and seemingly endless tasks, the ability to let go (at least until the next morning) is a crucial skill, and for my friends and colleagues (as for myself), the ability to let go seems closely tied to the ability to relax, and to be energized when picking up the task again the next day. That being said, there is a thrill in finishing a major project—and sometimes a period of exhaustion is unavoidable in order to get there.

Where do you get the most or the best work done and why do you think that is?

  • Kiley: I have long been a coffee shop worker! Since many aspects of an academic job can be done from anywhere, it is always helpful to me to have a clear indication that work has started. Walking or biking to a coffee shop can feel like a little commute. When the pandemic made it unsafe to visit coffee shops, I had to find new ways to mark the start of work time (we also bought a manual espresso maker, which deserves its own blog post). Now, I really like working in my office, so you can usually find me there. If I’m having trouble getting started on a big task or a long to-do list, I use the pomodoro technique and this timer to stay focused. 
  • Juliane: Besides being in the classroom, where I definitely get the best teaching and collaborative-thinking work done together with my students, I am a sunny-backyard or comfy-couch worker because I need visual appeal and a solo-work environment when I think and prepare. I once worked a job where I had to stay in the same indoor space with one other (not unpleasant) co-worker for the whole work day, and that stifled my creativity and intrinsic motivation. That’s why I love being a professor: my environment changes a lot and I get visual stimulation from various angles. I can also tank up alone-time in various environments when I need to work on projects by myself that require all my concentration and deep thinking.

What does work and free time mean for your loved ones? With what beliefs in this context were you brought up? What do these two concepts mean for you?

  • Seth: My dad always came home for dinner with his family, even when he would go back to work afterward. I think I get some of my work habits from him—for better or (and?) for worse. I now view the idea of “free time” with a bit of ironic suspicion. The German philosopher T. W. Adorno writes that the notion of “free” time is tethered to a fundamental unfreedom that results from economic pressures; it is only possible for one or two days of the weekend to be considered free if I consider the rest of the week to be unfree, trapped, imprisoned. At its best, I want my work to be invigorating, and I want my time away from work to be equally invigorating. But I also am aware of the critique that educators have a tendency to glorify excessive labor expectations (or at least accept them) based on the notion that the work is inherently rewarding and simply can’t be completed within normal work hours. In the end, my goal is to have work be one of many parts of my life, all of which are more enjoyable than oppressive, and none of which dominate over the others.
  • Juliane: I grew up in a household where the profession of my parents seemed like a calling, an opportunity to fulfill one’s dreams. Both of my parents are educators in a K-16 environment and also own a music school. Naturally, working long hours, also on the weekend, was normalized and, at the same time, negative stress was rarely an issue. In addition, my brother and I were always involved in one way or another in my parent’s work, so, it was not always clear to us whether my parents were working or relaxing, since many activities of their work were also part of their hobbies: my brother, mom, and I were members in the big band that my father led in his music school and we also sat in the audience when my dad’s rock band was playing a gig. I participated from a very young age in my mother’s choir rehearsals in school and both of us sang in the local church choir once a week. Reading and making music have filled our home almost every day for either work or free time purposes. In this environment, my parents were sometimes exhausted, particularly also because they were taking care of two children, but while being exhausted, they seemed happy and thriving—at least the majority of the time. That’s why it is hard for me to distinguish between work and free time, but not difficult to know when I experience positive or negative stress. So, instead of hoping to end the workday and start my free time, I rather think of this distinction as one between doing what I love and being able to include my family in it and those moments where I just go through the motions of getting something done that I don’t enjoy. I try to avoid the latter as much as I can.

What do you hope your students learn from you about how you manage stressful situations? How, if at all, do you model these strategies in your course design or teaching? 

  • Juliane: When I am in a stressful situation, I seek support from other people and I need to be able to trust these people and their good intentions to help me. I am searching for a safe base where I can regroup and start over or adjust my approach. I hope to model this need for support and trust in my course design in that I allow for students to make mistakes, seek out help, and be able to take some time to figure out a new way to reach their goals. My class content and assignments are demanding and I provide scaffolding to support students through the challenges. Within that framework, I am ready to adjust to each individual student’s situation as best as possible: deadlines can be moved, skills can be practiced more than once, content can be tailored to the student’s interest particularly in creative projects. My baseline is: I trust my students that they want to learn, improve their skills, and be good citizens on campus. I offer them a welcoming environment that challenges and inspires them to pursue their path. And when they are faced with a stressful situation, their classmates and I are there to support them. 
  • Kiley: Like Juliane, I try to scaffold my courses and assignments so that each task prepares students for the next one, allowing them to build on their skills and demonstrate their learning in different contexts. This also ensures that students start working on projects or assignments in a timely manner. Given the chance, I will procrastinate on any task, and I hope that my course design helps students who might have similar tendencies. Because of my own habit of procrastinating and my strong inclination toward perfectionism, I think I can be more empathetic when I see the same traits reflected in students. It’s difficult for me to let go of mistakes I make, but, at the same time, making mistakes is part of learning. I also believe that flexibility and understanding go a long way—if a student needs some extra time to finish an assignment, that is fine by me. I find that being organized for each class and laying out my expectations clearly helps students know what to expect each day and throughout the term.
  • Seth: I too scaffold assignments and work toward a balance between structure and flexibility to support my students. But to be honest, I hope students get input on time and stress management from better sources. I am not a role model in this regard, and it’s also too late once they get to my class. The chance for significant changes comes before the terms start, when choosing courses and activities. Until recently, my personal tendency has been to sign up for too much, and as a result, I didn’t sleep enough. Since I’ve been at Carleton, the issue has gotten better. But I don’t think I have changed: the difference is that during the previous five years, I was in visiting (meaning short-term, unstable) academic jobs in which I was teaching more courses at once, struggling to get my research portfolio started, and also constantly applying for tenure-track positions, which felt like an additional half-time job on top of everything else. My positionality is different now. With all the privileges that come from a tenure-track job at Carleton (challenging as it might be), it’s much easier to get enough sleep and manage my stress level. The advice that would be most helpful to students, I think, is about how to set up a sustainable balance between activities even if there are major uncertainties (employment, family crises, health, economic security, grades, deadlines, or lots of others)—and how to choose activities and expectations for oneself that allow enough mental space and time to de-stress. To figure this out, talk to friends, professors, academic advisors, family, counselors—no one person is likely to have the magic solution. But my input might be helpful as one data point as students surround themselves with resources, and draw on them to set up a manageable schedule each day, and more importantly, at transition points like the start of a term or academic year.