Burnout and Work-Work Balance
Burnout has been the focus of much of my work life for the last five years—first experiencing it as a tenured faculty member, then writing about it as a researcher and memoirist, and now coaching about and facilitating workshops on it as well as burnout resilience for faculty across the country. In my book Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022), I dive deep into my personal experience and share those of other women from across academia with the goal of shedding light and providing language for us to have open conversations about this workplace phenomenon. Burnout can feel like a shameful personal secret, that we suddenly are incapable of doing our jobs with the same passion and motivation we may have in the past. However, burnout, by definition, is a syndrome caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and characterized by three elements: exhaustion, cynicism or mental distancing, and real or perceived lack of efficacy (World Health Organization, 2019). Workplace cultures of unrelenting stress cause burnout, not some deficiency in the worker.
But even knowing that, it’s much easier to focus on ways to change or “fix” individuals rather than cultures. I’ve talked to hundreds of faculty members through interviews, workshops and coaching engagements, and the resounding theme is “we’re exhausted, we’re expected to do more and more every day, and we are crashing.” It’s hard as a coach and facilitator not to want to fix the problem, to not offer explicit advice for how to get everything done or to change the workplace culture. Everyone’s experience with burnout is going to be different. Overcoming mine meant medical leave and ultimately changing careers and institutions. That won’t work or be necessary for everyone, it’s just what happened to work for me. For many of the people I work with and encounter, they just want a strategy, a best practice, something they can do to make burnout go away. We all know it’s not that simple.
Recently, I came across some literature on what the author is calling “work-work balance,” defined by Gabrielle Griffin as “the ways in which workers in higher education seek to balance conflicting concurrent work demands made on them.” I haven’t been able to get this out of my head since I read it, because she’s talking about the unrelenting stress in the burnout definition. She did a study of interdisciplinary faculty in the digital humanities in Nordic countries, most of whom are pulled in so many different directions, between departments, research centers and projects, even institutions, that they find themselves burning out and never getting everything done. Their work-work experience is like what one of my workshop participants described as moving one centimeter at a time in 20 different directions.
I posed some questions on Twitter as I pondered this study and work-work balance:
The questions were “So how does it all get done? Or does it? How does that impact faculty well-being? Are there strategies that vital faculty are employing to do the work (all of it? just the meaningful? just the required?)? Do faculty with work-work balance have work-life balance?”
I got a few responses, some about workload and labor practices as well as references to several texts, including The Gig Academy, Voices From Women Leaders on Success in Higher Education and Oliver Burkeman’s time management approach—all worth following up on. Andrew Stoehr directed me to Cal Newport’s new focus on “slow productivity.” In his New Yorker piece on the subject, Newport argues that shortening the workweek would likely only cause more anxiety for knowledge workers and that the way to address burnout hustle culture is to focus on decreasing work volume instead. Makes sense—having less work to do sounds great. Realistic? Not really. I just keep thinking about the faculty members who are buried under work—the administrative bureaucracy, the overwhelm of students and their needs, the heavy service load, the research they may or may not attend to in the face of everything else.
How does it all get done? Should it all get done?
I think, at some level, the answers to those questions have to be “it doesn’t” and “no.” Whether it’s realistic or not, Newport is right that the volume of work most, in this case, faculty labor under is unsustainable, and the autonomy inherent in our jobs will always make ever more time for work if we let it. The mental health and general well-being of faculty depend on our being able to set our priorities, assign our efforts accordingly and create enforceable boundaries around our time for work and not work. Where do our priorities come from? Partially from our passions, yes, but also from our contracts and job descriptions, from what we are evaluated on each year.
Liz Norell’s response to my tweets aligns closely to what I’m thinking about work-work balance:
“The incentives are there to cram in as much [work] as possible, but that means we’ll sacrifice quality and the depth of our engagement. All of this requires (IMO) a deep sense of ourselves and our priorities, so we can establish boundaries. But academia’s systemic interests are not aligned with our needs for wellness, and the culture makes it SO HARD to find your identity and erect those boundaries in healthy ways. So. Work-work balance is of a piece with rooting into our values/identity, just as work-life balance is. But I don’t think we *arrive* there … the journey is ongoing and imperfect.”
I appreciate Liz’s reminder that we need to be clear on our values and identity to be able to set clear, kind boundaries for balance. It’s also tricky because, pre-burnout, my values and identity were completely dictated by higher ed, and I gave myself over, never stopping to think if I had values or an identity separate from academia. Hence, I was ripe for burnout and lacking in any sort of balance—the work always got done regardless of my own health or well-being.
Rather than end by offering somewhat random suggestions for improving work-work balance and getting all the work done, I want to ask your thoughts. How does the work get done? At what expense? How do you prioritize tasks, and by what heuristic? How do you say no or let some work remain unfinished? Let’s develop a working repository of strategies, actions, scripts for saying no, as a place to start what could ultimately be a culture shift that takes work volume and faculty well-being into consideration for a workplace environment that doesn’t lead to burnout.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She is the host of the agile academic podcast for women in higher ed, and her book Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.