Confronting Burnout

I think I’m hitting that point of the semester (and the year) where I’m starting to lose steam. Nothing dramatic, but I’m just feeling weighted down by the slow accumulation of daily tasks, university initiatives, student complaints, teaching, and writing that are all drawing on my reserves. I don’t think that I’m alone in this, as many of my faculty colleagues similarly seem to have less and less in their individual and collective “tank.” The problem is that we’ve got several important institutional tasks and year-long projects we need to bring to conclusion, such as assessment reports and revision of our bylaws. I’m afraid either we’re going to do some of these just to get them done (and thus miss whatever actual benefit they could bring) or just let some of these projects—and the work we’ve put into them—just languish. How can I help us push through on these, especially if I’m already starting to feel burned out myself?—Running on Empty

Dear Professor Empty,

All of us face the problem of burnout at some point in our tenure as chair. While for some it can manifest dramatically, for most of us it’s a slow drain on our energies until everything feels like a burden. Sometimes all it takes to fix the problem is a short break — a day or two — to go somewhere sunny, or spent on pleasurable activities. But this seems more chronic and needs more  care and attention.

One of the reasons for burnout is a feeling of isolation, that you’re all alone in slogging through. Another is a feeling of powerlessness: what’s the point of doing all this work? Something like an assessment report can hook into both these reasons, since it’s often the work of a single drafter with edits from others, and it’s hard to know whether all that assessment actually has a meaningful effect on anything or whether it’s just an empty exercise to keep the higher-ups happy. And finally, it’s too common for these projects to require hours of what seem like endless meetings with few results beyond the decision to meet again.

I’d recommend that you make these projects genuinely joint enterprises with clearly defined goals and processes. This is going to require you to do some extra work and put in additional energy, so fire up that coffee machine and get started. First of all, at any meeting to talk about these projects, come with a clear agenda, broken down into specific items, each with a time limit attached to it. Each meeting should have a specific goal or set of goals (e.g., “in this bylaw revision meeting we’re going to clarify the roles of department officers and committees”), and should end with a review of assigned tasks for the next meeting. Bring snacks to the meeting, or get volunteers to bring them (or, if you have the skill and inclination, make something. I occasionally bring home-baked cookies to meetings and the the effect on morale is miraculous).

You need to model efficiency and energy for your colleagues — keep everyone on topic and within the time limits, and keep the meeting humming along briskly. That includes cutting off your more verbose colleagues: it’s ok for you to jump in and say “I’m going to stop you there, since we have only limited time and a lot to do.” I’d also encourage you to enlist the more energetic of your colleagues to help move discussions along. And plan for some kind of event when the project is completed: going out for drinks, tea and cookies in the department lounge, or a committee-wide potluck to celebrate a job well done.

A challenge here is to help your faculty share a sense of mission around these projects, rather than seeing them solely as time- and energy-sucks. It might help to have a short and focused conversation within the department and/or committee working on the issue on your larger goals and hopes for the process and its results. Why are you revising your bylaws? What are you intentions in doing so? A shared set of intentions for the work can help to motivate you and your colleagues to get it done.

This will be more work and effort on your part, but it will pay off in terms of imbuing these tasks with some positive energy, and maybe even result in a higher quality of work. At the very least, you’ll be able to show off your baking skills.

—The Chair

1 Comment

  • Very helpful suggestions.
    And: I think self-care is at the root of succeeding here.
    1. Consider writing a mission statement of how you plan to stay healthy, happy, connected, and productive during this time.
    2. Consider letting go of some of the things that were part of your unit’s action plan.
    3. Try gathering for a “happy hour” with a few trusted administrator colleagues to share ideas.
    4. Read Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF—“, substituting these words in the last line, “…you’ll be a leader, my friend.”—

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