Professor of Psychology,University of Texas, San Antonio
PhD in Clinical Psychology, MA and BA in Psychology
Table of Contents
We dedicate almost a third of our lifetimes to our jobs, making it unsurprising that our work significantly influences our self-perception. This is especially true for Americans, where a strong work ethic is a fundamental aspect of their identity.
In line with a recent survey conducted in 2023 by the Wall Street Journal and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), the American populace places significant importance on their robust work ethic. When asked to assess the significance of various values, a substantial 67% of respondents emphasized the high importance of hard work.
Americans often dedicate extended hours to their jobs and opt for fewer vacations compared to individuals in countries such as Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan.
Individuals who are drawn to careers in helping fields such as education and medicine are particularly likely to spend years training to obtain a job they hope will provide them with a professional identity and a sense of purpose.
However, these idealistic expectations don’t always match the reality of workplace experiences, leading to distress and disillusionment.
When we begin to believe that we can’t meet the demands of our job, either because of insufficient training, lack of resources, unreasonable expectations, or inadequate financial support, we may develop burnout.
The term burnout, which originally referred to the failure of a mechanical device to function because of a lack of fuel, was applied to human behavior as early as 1966.
In 1981 the commonly used Maslach Burnout inventory debuted, and the World Health Organization recently defined burnout as an occupational phenomenon “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Although it might appear that the autonomy and flexibility afforded to professors at the college level should reduce stress, the reality is that faculty jobs have become increasingly stressful in the past decade.
Faculty members, whether in tenure-track roles where they balance teaching, research, and service commitments, or in adjunct positions managing multiple classes amid limited job security and inadequate compensation, are consistently expressing feelings of stress and burnout.
A Gallup poll indicated that 35% of college and university workers often feel burned out at work, and a Course Hero survey indicated that 48% of early-career faculty had considered leaving the profession during the pandemic.
But is quitting our only option?
Perhaps understanding more about burnout and how to combat it both personally and systemically, might make a difference.
Let’s start with five key elements of burnout, and then talk about how to manage them.
Burnout Sign #1: Physical Symptoms
It can take time for people to realize that they are experiencing burnout on a physical level.
Sleep difficulties, chronic fatigue, and pain-related disorders such as headaches and gastrointestinal concerns can all be early signs that you have been pushing yourself too hard.
In addition to the immediate discomfort associated with such conditions, they may also put your future health at risk. For example, sleep deprivation has been linked to weight gain and metabolic changes that can predispose people to Type 2 Diabetes, and stress can reduce the efficacy of your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to colds, flus and other contagious illnesses.
Pain and physical discomfort can also trigger or exacerbate depression and anxiety which themselves contribute to feelings of poor health.
Certainly, it is hard to perform your best in the classroom when you don’t feel well, and for many educators, not living up to your own expectations contributes further to burnout.
Try this: Consider practicing a relaxation technique. If you are good at escaping into your own imagination, you might try guided imagery. If you need to practice staying in the moment, give mindfulness a try; and if you have trouble staying focused when relaxing, try giving progressive muscle relaxation a try.
Burnout Sign #2: Emotional Exhaustion
Pressing yourself to continue working even when you don’t feel well, or don’t feel you are doing your job effectively, is a recipe for developing emotional distress.
Experiencing anxiety and self-doubt that lead to constant overthinking, feeling overwhelmed by doubts about your job performance, or becoming increasingly irritable with those around you, all negatively impact your personal well-being and hinder your ability to effectively carry out your job.
Paradoxically, people who identify with their jobs often respond to distress about their performance by working even harder, inadvertently increasing their emotional distress.
While we may think we can ignore our emotional pain, we aren’t doing our students, colleagues, or ourselves a favor.
Try this: I highly recommend reading a book called Rapid Relief from Emotional Stress by Emery and Campbell. While it is an older book, it does a wonderful job helping you recognize the thought patterns that are contributing to your emotional distress.
Burnout Sign #3: Decreased Engagement and Job Satisfaction
When getting through the day becomes a struggle, and we find ourselves dreading, or even avoiding work, it is likely that we are experiencing another component of burnout.
Whether we think in terms of lack of engagement (or quiet quitting as it is sometimes called) or simply dissatisfaction with the tasks we need to perform for our job, it can be debilitating. Anyone who has procrastinated on grading, found themselves getting to class late for no real reason, avoiding important meetings, and viewing new challenges with dismay or hostility knows how this feels, but it is not always easy to recognize in the moment.
I study stress for a living, and yet it took me months to realize that the reason I was getting to school later and later was that I needed to step down from an administrative job that wasn’t a good fit for me.
In the teaching field, disengagement is a particular problem because it has such a negative impact on our interactions with students.
Try this: When you are overwhelmed, it can be difficult to remember why you liked your job in the first place. Make a list of the tasks you are trying to accomplish in a day or a week, and rank them not on importance, but on how much you care about each one. Try to devote time each day to working on that project and reminding yourself of why it matters to you.
A colleague of mine once said that he wished we would stop saying “We have to go teach” and change it to “We get to go teach.” That simple change reminds me to focus on the parts of my job I really like.
Burnout Sign #4: Reduced Job Performance
You have probably noticed by now that the symptoms of burnout are interconnected.
If you feel ill, depressed, and unhappy with your job, you are unlikely to perform well at your job. Doubling down by trying to do more doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of your work. However, in the competitive academic world, few of us want to admit that we are not doing our job well.
Non-tenure track faculty realistically fear that if they don’t earn good teaching ratings, they won’t be hired again. Tenure-track faculty worry about peer evaluations of their research, colleagues, judgements of their contributions to the department, and student evaluations impacting their promotions and status.
When you enjoy what you are doing and are in good shape mentally you can shake off the occasional criticism or mistake. But when you are already struggling to meet external requirements or questioning your own competence, the lack of tangible rewards, and frequent criticisms inherent in academia can become overwhelming.
Try this: Rarely is working harder the solution. Paradoxically, taking time for self-care in the form of getting more sleep, socializing or doing things you enjoy like hobbies or exercise can actually make you more productive when you get back to work.
Burnout Sign #5: Increased Emotional Distance
When animals are sick, they often distance themselves from others. This behavior is thought to be instinctual, aiming to minimize the transmission of contagious diseases and thereby enhance the species’ chances of survival.
With humans, we tend to create social and emotional distance when we are unhappy with ourselves, the people around us, or our circumstances.
Detaching from a painful relationship may sometimes be necessary, and even within our close relationships we need to create boundaries to protect each other’s autonomy.
But when we withdraw from our students, colleagues, and friends, it can be a sign of burnout.
People can provide us with guidance, reassurance of our own worth, and tangible help—but only if we tell them what we need.
Pulling back from our social contacts often results in our missing out on activities that would normally bring us relaxation or joy. If you feel too discouraged to go out with your friends in the evening or too tired to engage in a hobby or activity you normally like, you are missing the opportunity to recharge emotionally, furthering your slide into burnout.
Try this: To combat emotional distancing, you have to admit and honor your own feelings. Being honest about how you feel and talking about your concerns with a trusted family member, colleague or a therapist or coach can help you regain your perspective and start connecting to others again.
Managing and Preventing Faculty Burnout
Ironically, the key to combating burnout is to do exactly the opposite of what faculty are taught in graduate school. Rather than pushing harder, you need to pay attention to what your mind and body are telling you.
If you feel physically ill, you need to rest, seek medical help if appropriate, and acknowledge that prioritizing your own health is not a sign of weakness, or vulnerability.
You also need to spend time reflecting on what your emotions are telling you rather than hoping they will go away. Sometimes simply admitting how you really feel can give you permission to change. Other times you need to seek the help of others.
Every time I facilitate a workshop on faculty stress, participants tell me that their biggest takeaway is knowing that other people feel the same way they do. While professionals often find it difficult to ask for help, working with a therapist or coach to figure out how to better manage your thoughts and feelings about work, and develop appropriate boundaries in your personal and work life can also help.
Enlisting friends and family to help you rethink your work-life balance, can make a huge difference, as can reducing the time you spend with people who are still espousing the “no pain, no gain” approach to life. Self-care in the form of time away from work, socializing, exercising, pursuing hobbies, practicing relaxation techniques and sleeping.
Sleep is not selfish; it is essential for both physical and mental health.
Finally, many of the triggers for burnout aren’t under our personal control. As professionals who care deeply about doing our job well, we need to advocate for each other.
Departments can set boundaries on when people are expected to answer email. Universities can make it easier to use new technology, prioritize job demands, and get the administrative help necessary to do our jobs well.
While it is true that we as individuals can’t demand those changes, we can advocate for what we need to be effective educators—if we work together.
- American Work Ethic: Orginisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECDSTat. https://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?DataSetCode=ANHRS
- Pew poll https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2023/03/30/how-americans-view-their-jobs/ Horowitz, J.M. & Parker, K. 2023 How Americans View their jobs.
- Educator Burnout:
- Patrick, P.K.S. (1984). Professional roles at risk for burnout. Family & Community Health 6(4), 25-31. https://journals.lww.com/familyandcommunityhealth/citation/1984/02000/professional_roles_at_risk_for_burnout.6.aspx
- Minter, R. L. (2009). Faculty Burnout. Contemporary Issues in Education Research (CIER), 2(2), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.19030/cier.v2i2.1090
- Fidelty (2020). Chronicle: On the Verge of Burnout. https://connect.chronicle.com/rs/931-EKA-218/images/Covid%26FacultyCareerPaths_Fidelity_ResearchBrief_v3%20%281%29.pdf
- Camera, L. (2022) Educators report highest level of burnout among all other industries. US News and World Report, https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2022-06-13/educators-report-highest-level-of-burnout-among-all-other-industries
- Consequences of Burnout:
- Salvagioni DAJ, Melanda FN, Mesas AE, González AD, Gabani FL, Andrade SM. Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. PLoS One. 2017 Oct 4;12(10):e0185781. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0185781. PMID: 28977041; PMCID: PMC5627926. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28977041/
- APA Stress Effects on the Body https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/bod
- Stress Sleep and Mental Health Merrill RM. Mental Health Conditions According to Stress and Sleep Disorders. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Jun 29;19(13):7957. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19137957. PMID: 35805615; PMCID: PMC9265846.
- Individual Strategies for Reducing Burnout:
- Kennette, L.N. & Lin, P.S. (2019) Focusing on Faculty Stress. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal. 12(1). https://www.kpu.ca/sites/default/files/Transformative%20Dialogues/TD.12.1_Kennette%26Lin_Faculty_Stress.pdf
- Schabram, K.S. & Heng, Y.T. (2021). Educators and Students Are Burned Out. These Strategies Can Help. https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/educators-and-students-are-burned-out-these-strategies-can-help
- Organizational Strategies for Reducing Burnout:
- Chessman, H.M. (2023) Effective strategies for combating faculty burnout. Higher Education Today , https://www.higheredtoday.org/2023/05/18/effective-strategies-for-combating-faculty-burnout/
- Drayton, M. (2021. Anti-Burnout, Routledge.
About Mary McNaughton-Cassill, Ph.D.
Dr. McNaughton-Cassill received her Ph.D. in 1991 from the University of California, San Diego- San Diego State University Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology, with an emphasis on Behavioral Medicine. Her research involved Psychological and Psychoimmunological explorations of stress responses among elderly Alzheimer’s Disease Caregivers.
She also holds a Master’s Degree in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Psychology with an emphasis on Physiological Psychology, where her research involved the study of glucocorticoid responses to stress in rats. She is currently an Associate Professor and the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Affairs for the College of Liberal and Fine Arts.