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Understanding Burnout
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Nicole Cranley


I recently hit the ground running after a long weekend away from work. During that long weekend, I did my best not to let my work follow me, but there were times when I had to step away to respond to some emails. I did, however, take some time to get a little rest and relaxation. It got me thinking about burnout and how important it is to take time away from work to recover. I've had a lot of research and personal experience in the area of burnout, and the lesser researched topic of recovery. In part one of this two-part series, I'm going to focus on burnout. In my next article, I will talk about the more uplifting topic of recovery.


But first, what is burnout? Besides being a term thrown around a lot among academics, occupational psychologists, and the tired high school senior who doesn't want to study for exams, burnout is a diagnosable mental health condition that is both serious and debilitating. This would be the part where I would normally provide some statistics on the rates of burnout among academic populations. But there is not conclusive evidence on how widespread burnout is, beyond knowing that it is, in fact, widespread.


Burnout is often characterized as exhaustion, lack of motivation and feelings of inadequacy, which often result in reduced productivity and higher turnover in the workplace. It is more widespread among high-stress occupations: nurses, physicians, social workers, customer service workers, and—you guessed it—academics. Burnout is not limited to these professions. There are stressors that are unique to every profession, and each of us react and cope differently to stress. You have probably experienced symptoms of burnout in the past, even if you didn't realize that it was burnout interfering with your ability to concentrate, causing decreased sleep quality, and zapping your motivation.


Christina Maslach and colleagues, leaders in the field of burnout, lump the symptoms of burnout into three categories.


Emotional exhaustion


Emotional exhaustion? I get emotionally exhausted watching Titanic! It's important to make sure we make a distinction between the exhaustion you feel after Jack dies (acute) and burnout (chronic). Chronic fatigue, trouble falling asleep (and staying asleep), and forgetfulness or an inability to stay focused are some common symptoms. More serious symptoms of emotional exhaustion include physical symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, and gastrointestinal issues (e.g., pain, upset stomach). You are also at a higher risk for illness. Your body's immune system is not as strong when you are under high stress for extended periods of time. Psychologically, feelings of increased anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and sometimes increased irritability are common symptoms of emotional exhaustion.




Depersonalization often starts with a lessened eagerness to work. You are probably thinking, "Well, I'm never exactly eager to work." Depersonalization is different. Often for people experiencing depersonalization, it starts with work and can permeate into other areas of life, including time with family and friends. Do you ever get so stressed out that you just want to go hide under the covers? Don't worry, we've all been there. But feeling an increased desire for isolation—leaving work early to avoid contact with others, declining lunch invitations, and getting frustrated with others when they try to spend time with you—are a little more serious.


Reduced sense of accomplishment


"What's the point?" If I had a nickel for every time I said that while writing my dissertation...


This is a common thought among those who are experiencing a reduced sense of accomplishment. I cannot tell you how many times I looked at my tired, bloodshot eyes in the mirror during my doctoral work and thought, "What's the point? Does my research even matter? Am I actually going to make a difference?" I think this is the symptom of burnout I experienced the most. This sense of apathy can impact your level of productivity, which can lead to a sense of guilt and frustration when you aren't meeting your goals. I can sometimes find my to-do list paralyzing! I’m sure I’m not the only one. The growing to-do list, increased guilt and frustration can also elicit feelings of irritability which sometimes interfere with relationships with others.


The key to remember is that we all get burned out sometimes. We have a big grant due, an important presentation, or a career-changing proposal. We invest all our faculties (emotional, physical, mental) into the success that we hope for; we neglect ourselves. The problem is, for academics, those major deadlines, presentations, grants, publications are always there. These are constant stressors in our lives. We must equip ourselves with the knowledge, skills, and good habits of keeping burnout at bay and making space for recovery.


Stay turned for part two of this series in the next issue of The POSTDOCket.


Nicole Cranley, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Cancer Health Disparities Training Program at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article is adapted from a post that originally appeared on The Doctorette. It has been published in The POSTDOCket in an edited form with permission from the author.


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