On Academic Burnout

Having left academia with no significant table-flipping, people ask me why I left. I said, and still believe, that I was mostly looking for a change after 10 years in the same job.

But some of this piece on burnout by Jonathan Malesic in The Chronicle of Higher Education resonated with me. Here’s three things that I highlighted.

Burnout is the workplace, not the person

“The factors that Maslach and Leiter say cause burnout — an overloaded schedule, lack of control, insufficient reward, breakdown of community, absence of fairness, and conflicting values — are characteristics of workplaces, not individuals.”

I’d say all of those were pretty accurate. The overloaded schedule and lack of control particularly. When I started as a research fellow, my week was basically my own. As I took on more teaching responsibilities and service roles, I could have weeks completely that were completely booked out.

Burnout is dislocation

“A key dislocation for academics: We train as researchers but spend our days managing the emotions of late adolescents, haggling over budgets, and figuring out how to use Moodle’s gradebook.”

The lack of direct connection, at times, between what I was being paid to do and what I was employed to do was pretty stark.

Burnout is being a shock absorber

“Academic culture fosters burnout when it encourages overwork, promotes a model of professors as isolated entrepreneurs, and offers little recognition for good teaching or mentoring. The persistent financial stress on colleges and universities only exacerbates the problem, because, as Maslach and Leiter put it, “individual employees become the ‘shock absorbers’ for organizational strains,” including financial ones.”

This is the one that really got me. At my busiest I was acting as a stop-gap for the organisation. For example, when stepping in to a service role when someone was on leave, the person on leave would have workload allocation but I didn’t, or I didn’t get the full allocation for the acting role. This meant that my “normal” activities would take a back seat so I could act in someone’s place — working on the weekend or in the evenings to make up the time.

Burnout is too many contrasting rhythms

Someone asked me the other day what was most different about working in the commercial world. I said that the main difference so far is that the work has a more consistent rhythm.

The pace of academia is a little slower than the commercial world — though not by much! But in academia I found that each project had a completely different rhythm. Research runs to a 12 month to three year rhythm. Post grad supervision has three movements per student. Undergrad teaching runs to a semester with a coda of marking. Committee work comes around even two or three weeks. Some service roles are weekly.

If you’re practiced in the different rhythms, you’re probably going to be better at it than someone who isn’t. This might be where the advice to recycle your teaching materials comes from — it saves you from re-building that road each time you drive down it.

Just keeping track of all the different projects and their different rhythms was time consuming. Of course, no academic workload model will ever include time for articulation work so that work gets done out of hours.

Looking back, it’s the contrasting rhythms that did me in.

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