Preventing Academic Burnout

January 24, 2017

By: Amanda B. Nickerson, Ph.D.
Professor and Director, Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, University at Buffalo, the State University of New York

“The 40-year-old burnout: Why I gave up tenure for a yet-to-be-determined career” Bryn and Amanda to invite me to write a blog about the topic of burnout and resiliency, which I am so pleased to do! Before describing burnout (and more importantly, things we can do to build resilience and avoid burnout), I want to give a shout out to the other excellent Early Career Forum blogs that address related topics such as work-life balance, being efficient, fostering partnerships, saying no, and academic parenthood.

Burnout, a term coined by Freudenberguer (1974) and evolved from the work of Christina Maslach and colleagues; involves:
·      Emotional exhaustion (feeling emotionally overextended and exhausted by work)
·      Depersonalization (detachment or cynicism toward clients, students, or others served at work)
·      Lack of personal accomplishment (dissatisfaction, feelings of incompetence or lack of success at work)
Professionals who experience burnout often suffer from physical (headaches, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, pain) and psychological (low self-efficacy, depression) symptoms, which can take a great personal and professional toll.

Although your image of burnout may be of a checked out professor who should have retired long ago, hardworking and ambitious early career faculty members are not immune. With increasing demands for research, teaching, and service in academia, the work can seem limitless. When the semester is in full swing (and I am behind on grading and facing deadlines for grants, manuscript revisions, committee work, journal reviews, and conference presentations), I often think, “if anyone asks me to do one more thing, I might go off the deep end!” Thankfully, it hasn’t happened (yet), and I can honestly say that going into my 15th year in academia, I still love the career I have chosen. Thankfully, there are many things we can do to enhance our resilience and prevent burnout. As school psychology faculty members, you are probably familiar with many of these…and you probably teach them to others. Of course the challenges becomes to practice what we preach! Below I list a few that are most helpful for me.

Reframe. You know this one – the almighty, ever-helpful cognitive restructuring (identify a maladaptive thought and instead view and experience the idea as more positive).
Example: receiving a decision of Reject – Revise and Resubmit.
Maladaptive thought: “I was rejected.”
Reframe: [after acceptable first reaction of cursing the reviewers and feeling beaten down] “The reviewers saw merit in my work and making these revisions will make this a stronger contribution.”

Find your Peeps. Surround yourself with social support. Collaboration makes the work better and more fun. The School Psychology Research Collaboration Conference is a great venue for meeting others with similar research interests. Within your department and across the country, there are people with whom you can collaborate that can make life easier and more enjoyable. Others may not be collaborators, but could be potential mentors or just coffee break buddies. I also find it helpful to engage in social media outlets that make me laugh about our shared reality (e.g., “Shit Academics Say”) or offer social support and advice (e.g. social media outlets such as “Academic Mamas” on Facebook). Having people outside of our work lives is even more important, so cherish and make time for family and friends.

Work when it works.  So everyone knows that the joke about academia is that we can choose the 60 hours per week we work, but this is truly a luxury (did I mention how much I like reframing?). Some people find that carving out an hour or two each morning to write before checking e-mail or doing anything else works for them. Others can pull all-nighters to crank out a manuscript. I have learned that if I am feeling exhausted and spent, I am not productive – and when the mood strikes to work/write, I should seize it as I can be extremely productive in one hour when the timing is right.

What are your “go to” strategies for self-care, building resilience, and preventing burnout? I would love to hear your thoughts. Even though I am no longer an early career faculty member, I learn a lot from the ideas, blogs, and interchanges through the Early Career Forum, so keep up the great work. It makes me optimistic about the future of school psychology with you all as emerging leaders!

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