Academic burnout is a cultural problem: Let’s dismantle it

A new book argues that workplace burnout can only be tackled by acknowledging the cultural and individual factors that can lead to burnout, challenging the unrealistic expectations we have of ourselves and others, and bringing it into our cultural conversations about higher education.

“No one wants to burn out, but we are all living like we are on fire.” – Brené Brown

Discussing burnout among faculty is difficult, not only because we are trained to resist any visible sign of weakness but also because we don't have the language or tools to have those conversations.

For years, I would commiserate with my colleagues about being ‘burned out’ at the end of a semester or academic year. We would wear it as a badge of honour to feel included in the cult of busyness that has cursed so many of us to fetishize productivity and reputation, not questioning the systemic structures feeding this perspective.

Burnout at work is specifically caused by chronic or unrelenting stress associated with one’s work, usually in one or more of the following areas: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, values. Depression and anxiety often accompany burnout, and according to the Mayo Clinic, if left unchecked, burnout can lead to fatigue and sleeplessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and physical health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Women in academia

When I was first diagnosed with burnout, high-functioning depression, and severe anxiety, admitting to anyone what I was experiencing meant (to me) admitting that I was weak, phony, useless, and even used by others. But as I accepted my reality, I gained confidence to speak with trusted peers and share my burnout story. And the more people I talked to, the more stories I heard – many from women academics.

Burnout can be experienced more deeply and regularly by women faculty for a variety of reasons. The sociologist Joya Misra builds on the challenges of the second shift, the expectation that women will do the majority of the care work for their families when they are not working. And those roles tip over into work.

One woman darkly joked with me about being the ‘housewife’ in her male-dominated department, expected to organise any department gatherings and to manage anything related to food for events. The role was even more ironic to her because she was not tenured or on the tenure track but instead largely supporting her own position by bringing in more grants than anyone else in the unit.

A 2011 metastudy of burnout literature conducted by Jenny Watts and Noelle Robertson found differences in how men and women were likely to experience burnout. Several researchers determined that women were more likely to experience the emotional exhaustion of burnout, while men were more likely to withdraw or depersonalise. Perhaps because they “adapted to the threat of burnout” better or used healthier coping mechanisms, women faculty were more open about their experiences with others than their male colleagues.

In 2017 Daphne Pedersen and Krista Lynn Minnotte looked at burnout among STEM faculty, in particular, and found that women faculty were more impacted by unresolved work and interpersonal conflicts, resulting “in a hostile work environment for faculty women, who were labelled ‘difficult’ and hard to get along with”.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski suggest that “women find profound satisfaction in understanding themselves and their identity in terms of relationships”, so prolonged conflict can cause emotional exhaustion related to burnout: “Women's difficulty is rarely a lack of persistence”.

How do we prevent, mitigate, or overcome burnout in a culture that creates the exact conditions required for burnout? We must first understand the cultural factors themselves and the behaviours they breed. But the COVID-19 pandemic certainly didn't help the situation. If burnout wasn’t prevalent before the pandemic, we can now say that it is endemic in higher education.

Unhealthy culture

A major step towards eliminating burnout from the culture of higher education is acknowledging that only systemic cultural changes will make a significant difference. Most of the reporting on burnout offers suggestions targeting individuals rather than the culture that led to the problem.

Because burnout is endemic in higher education – and only increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating possibly permanent changes in the careers of academics – individual interventions will not make a dent in the academic culture, especially for women and faculty of colour.

Our culture values external rewards and ever-escalating and often competing expectations, all wrapped in the idea that we are fortunate to be in higher education in the first place. Being seen as someone who cannot keep up or is a troublemaker could be a death knell for the career of a serious academic.

Reputation is the currency of the realm, a reflection of how busy we can make ourselves to look important, how often we can martyr ourselves at the altar of the discipline, or how much personal time and even our health we are ready to lay at the feet of the university, as well as how much the ‘popular kids’ at the institution or your disciplinary conference like you.

In a 2008 report, KerryAnn O’Meara, Aimee LaPointe Terosky and Anna Neumann found that “even after receiving tenure, being excluded from many of the invisible colleges, ‘intellectual parlours’ and significant disciplinary networks has left women and faculty of colour bereft of critical learning opportunities” and hence, potentially, more vulnerable to burnout.

We can tackle burnout only by acknowledging the cultural and individual factors that can lead to burnout and breaking the taboos by talking about it openly and honestly, by bringing it out of the dark and into our cultural conversations about higher education. It’s also about dismantling the unrealistic and sometimes toxic expectations we have for ourselves and one another, as well as dismantling the culture that feeds these beliefs.

This book is not about a career unravelling; it’s about reckoning with ourselves, one another, and the culture of higher education to make it better for colleagues, students and those academics coming after us.

Dr Rebecca Pope-Ruark is director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at the Georgia Institute of Technology, United States. She is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical strategies for managing research, service, and teaching and co-editor of Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative design for a twenty-first-century undergraduate education. This extract is adapted from her new book Unraveling Faculty Burnout. Copyright 2022. Published with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.