My burnout experience:
Four years ago, I took an unpaid leave of absence from my position as Chair in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Sheffield. There were many reasons behind this decision, including Brexit and other personal reasons, but certainly one of the reasons was that I was tired and not feeling as creative and productive as I used to be. I went away from the academic world for two years and it was a period of reflection, a period of challenge to take care of my two kids on a daily basis, and also lots of fun and freedom.
During that time, I did a lot of personal development and thought hard on what would be my next scientific challenge and the breakthrough that I was hoping for. It has been a really positive period and I would recommend anyone to do it for at least 6 months as this is a good way to really recharge your batteries.
What I had not realised when I took the leave of absence was how close I was from a burnout. Although I felt tired and not with the same enthusiasm, motivation and creativity than say 10 years ago, I had not realised how bad I was. What really made me realised that I was close to a burnout was the anxiety I was feeling when I was checking my academic emails.
Even though I was not working anymore, I still had a continuous flow of emails for a few months and I checked them every 2 weeks more or less. Every time, I opened the email app, I was dreading for the hundreds of emails I would get. Yet, I had no more pressure, nor any professional obligation, but I could feel the psychological stress of the weight of the emails and the responsibility to answer them.
This is when I realised that, had I stayed longer at the University, I would most likely have suffered from a real burnout. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to avoid it and I would like to share what I think are the most common causes of burnout and how to prevent them.
Taking control back
For me the most important reason for a burnout is the sense of lack of control in your actions. If you feel that you are not in charge anymore of the tasks that you are assigning to yourself and if you feel overwhelmed when you try to execute them, then you are set to suffer from burnout if this situation lasts for too long.
You have gone into reactive mode, and gone out of the active mode you want to be. For me I had the feeling of being a fire fighter, moving from one fire to another but never choosing what I really wanted to do. Some will experience this when they try to empty their email inbox, only to find out the next day that it is just as full as the day before. It is a sense of disempowerment.
In academia, I think more than in any other sector, it results in cognitive dissonance. Most of us have chosen academia for our high aspirations to make the society a better one and to achieve our dreams set by ourselves. So, losing control of our own agenda is particularly difficult to accept for an academic.
At the beginning it feels like this is just overload, with more and more tasks being added on our plate, until we realise that the tasks that we regularly do prevent us from doing the ones that we really care about.
How to reduce your chance of burnout
I think that my best tip is to be organised and very strict with your agenda. Use your agenda as your companion to tell you whether you should accept requests or not. First of all, every first of the month I make the list of my objectives at 1, 6 and 12 months. That helps me set my priorities and have them in mind every month.
Then, every Friday afternoon, before the end of the week, I review my agenda for the following week and write what I want to achieve during that week.
Then, every day before the end of the day, I review my meetings for the following day and visualise what I expect from them. All this helps me to better focus on the tasks that have priorities for me and helps me seeing progress being made week by week.
I also block a lot of my time in my calendar for either recurrent tasks (like email) or planned tasks (like a review for a grant or a journal). That helps me reduce the workload. I also normally do not accept any meeting with less than a week notice, except if this is really urgent or if it fits my priorities.
All that planning helps me to carve some time for doing the non-urgent but high priority tasks, like grant or publication writing. I have been doing this for the past 2 years and so far, it works for me. This routine, or something else, could work for you; it is up to you to try and decide what fits best for you.
Others could also share in this post what are their routine to ensure that they are not overwhelmed.
But the main point about the organisation of your own time is that it enables you to get back in control and be more active than reactive. This makes a big difference in your sense of contribution and purpose, and can largely prevent you from burning out (at least too quickly!).
In our new course, I go into a lot more details on managing stress and there are certainly a lot more aspects to care for: for example the importance of defining realistic goals, the importance of celebrating your results, the development of healthy habits throughout the day, the importance of working on a healthy work life balance, the importance of saying ‘no’ and the importance of sleep, nutrition, exercise and mindfulness.
In any case, this is a topic that you should not neglect. Since the pandemic started 2 years ago, we have seen how more and more academics are affected by burnout, in particular mothers who are more vulnerable to a work life unbalance. So, be aware of it for yourself, and for your colleagues who might also need your support.
I hope that this reflection will prevent you for going as far as I went and also it might make you more aware of friends and colleagues who might be on the point of suffering burnout. Anyone who wishes to share their own experience is very much invited to do it here.