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How to Avoid Burnout

by Kristina Kauffman

An old proverb says, "If you choose a job you love, you'll never work a day in your life."

This section addresses minor job burnout, it does not address clinical depression.  Those whose symptoms are more severe should seek medical help or counseling.  Some times depression can be a symptom of a more serious illness, and its treatable symptoms should not be ignored.

"Burnout isn't a neat diagnostic category that you can find in the psychiatry books," according to Michael H. Gendel, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver, Colorado, and a psychiatrist in private practice. "At this time, there's a lack of hard data and diagnostic research behind the burnout idea. The right studies and prospective studies haven't yet been done."  Nonetheless, Dr. Gendel believes a diagnosis of professional burnout (PBO) can be made on the basis of three main symptoms:

  • Detachment (especially from clients and staff)
  • Exhaustion (physical and especially emotional)
  • Loss of satisfaction or sense of accomplishment
Who will burn out and who will stay fresh and balanced is a multi-pronged question, according to Dr. Gendel. Some executives seek out and thrive on stress, pressure, and long hours, whereas others quickly reach the point of diminishing returns when the workload becomes oppressive. So being under stress, while often contributing to PBO, does not necessarily predict who will burn out. The development of PBO is tied to a number of factors, including genetic predisposition, environment, experience, business type and management, and lifestyle choices.

Burnout is more likely to occur (Maslach 1997) when:

  • We feel overloaded

  • We lack control over what we do

  • We are not rewarded for our work

  • We're experiencing a breakdown in community

  • We aren't treated fairly

  • We're dealing with conflicting values

The following guideposts help to avoid, or overcome burnout:

  • Sustainable workload

  • Feelings of choice and control

  • Recognition and reward

  • A sense of community

  • Fairness, respect and justice

  • Meaningful and valued work

Another way of looking at this suggests that we should be concerned if you feel that:

  • You have neglected aptitudes.

  • You are not having enough fun.

    • Some of us grow up with the idea that work is serious stuff.  While we might take our work seriously, this does not mean we have to be serious about it all the time.  An interesting test of this perspective asks what your salary would be if it were determined by the amount of fun you have in your work life.  Students learn best when learning is fun.  You should allow yourself to have fun too.

  • There is not enough safety and affirmation. Feeling that you belong is critical.  Trust matters.  Research suggests that it is very important for women and minorities. Institutions and colleagues who are sensitive to this provide important support structures. 

  • Your work occurs in the wrong rhythm.  Departments that value your contributions will want you to teach when you are at your best.  While this may not always be possible (remember that student needs come first), you should feel comfortable mentioning that you are a morning or night person and will do your very best with a schedule that reflects that.

  • You are getting too old to teach effectively.  While health and aging may limit our abilities to teach and may end our careers, just feeling out of date can be a sign of burnout.  In a study of 150 people aged 65 -102 by Gerontologist Lydia Bronte, more than half said that they had what they considered their most productive years after age 50.  More than 1/3 said that their most important achievements happened after age 65.

To avoid burnout, reinvent yourself every few years (the seven year model presented in the boundaries and balance reading is the absolutely longest period of time you should go without significant change).  Develop or renew your vision and sense of purpose so that there is a feeling of coherence and consistency between your work and your beliefs.  Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, among other works, says that there are 13 traits that he finds in his personal heroes.  I suspect that nearly every faculty member has many of these traits.  If you are nearing burnout, you've probably buried these characteristics.  Let these traits surface in your life by taking a risk and trying something new, challenging, or just plain different.  The traits include:

  1. Self-invented:  make your own path

  2. Ever changing

  3. Battered and bruised:  just think how much you have learned from your failures, celebrate that

  4. Inquisitive

  5. Childlike, naive

  6. Free from the past

  7. Comfortable, even cocky in a way: know that life is ever changing and relish the adventure

  8. Jolly

  9. Audacious and a bit nuts
  10. Iconoclastic
  11. Multidimensional
  12. Honest
  13. Larger than life, paint life with broad brushstrokes

In my experience nearly every faculty member who has taught for 20 years or more has experienced at least a little burnout.  Do a bit of research on senior faculty and see who appears the most optimistic and approachable.  They might just be your best confident about your burnout concerns (even very minor concerns).  Often simply acknowledging your concerns and sharing them with someone who really understands can be the first leap toward recovery.  Enjoy!


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