From Burnout to Green Days

by Mirjam Knapik, Counselling Centre

“I declare I don’t care no more, I’m burning up and out, and growing bored… …Apathy has rained on me, now I’m feeling like a soggy dream.”

Burnout, by Songwriters: Billie Joe Armstrong / Tre Cool / Mike Dirnt, Performed by Green Day

The physical and mental exhaustion that mark a state of burnout can creep up on us such that, once recovered, we wonder how we ever managed to function as long as we did. The stressors that have led to this state are often demands to which we are deeply committed and which, if we let go of them, have significant consequences for our relationships, livelihoods, identity, and so on.

Writing about burnout, requires some up-front consideration of stress and individual differences. It is all too obvious that to be human means we face life demands that can be joyful or painful, desired or forced upon us, anticipated or a shock. To manage the wanted and unwanted stressors life presents, we draw on inner resources such as our persistence, our knowledge and skills, our strengths, or beliefs that support a satisfying and joyful existence. The more skills we have developed that help us to face demands, and the more our circumstances match our abilities, the better our chances of avoiding feeling overwhelmed.

We are also supported in our coping by resources outside of us that support our functioning and well-being. This can range from such factors as access to healthy food, a good education, a community where we feel a sense of belonging, a meaningful career, and stable employment. A Collective Agreement with clear processes for disputes, a trusted caregiver standing in the wings to mind a sick child, a partner that understands work demands, a Triad group with whom we can speak our truth, an EAP program that provides counselling, access to work-out facilities, opportunities for training and personal growth, all factor into our ability to cope. When the resources are sufficient to meet the demands, life can feel like an adventure. When demands overwhelm our resources we experience a stress response.

Notably, there are individual differences in what initiates a stress response. The demands of service, teaching, and scholarship, even those that we find challenging, can be invigorating. Faculty may, at varying times, experience work as a place of refuge from other less manageable demands, an additive joy, or the primary source of stress. So how we appraise demands matters. Each of us are shaped over time by many factors, including genetics, socio-economic status, mental health of parents, ease of access to emotional support, and exposure to traumatic events. These factors can have a long-lasting effect on how our nervous systems function and respond to stress. While we can do much to influence our well-being, it is important to acknowledge that our capacity to regulate our response to stressors is also impacted by our history.

Before saying more about burnout and strategies for prevention, I want to acknowledge that there will be individual differences in the ease with which strategies can be realized. We don’t know what people have experienced that impact their current coping, and we may be slow in recognizing that change is needed for ourselves to be well. While universities are the place to explore conflicting ideas, conflict with colleagues can be a significant contribution to burnout. Patience and kindness toward ourselves and others, and recognition of individual differences, are warranted as we promote well-being on our campus.

With this cautionary background, what does burnout look like? Some of what distinguishes stress from burnout is a matter of duration and symptoms. When our emotional, physical, or mental capacities are stretched thin for short periods of time, and when we feel we can influence the things around us that seem wrong, we can generally be resilient. We make adjustments by rethinking our priorities, increasing our support systems, or ameliorating the negative effects of stress on our body by increasing our self-care. However, when we are overwhelmed with demands and feel powerless to change things for sustained period of time, we can move beyond a stress response into burnout.

In addition to feeling exhausted, we can present with sarcasm that has lost its humour, a growing cynicism marked by hopelessness, and scepticism that lacks curiosity. We can feel disconnected from others and find it difficult to bring forth empathy and compassion for co-workers or the people we serve. We can begin to question the value of our work, question our accomplishments, and lose motivation. This is not a bad mood or a day of feeling irritable. Our gas tanks are empty and our minds and bodies say no.

That we are discussing burnout at a time of budget cuts makes sense. The list of factors that contribute to burnout include frequent and rapid change, workload creep to unsustainable levels, reduced resources with which to do the work, feeling unable to have an impact on problems, and a sense that we are being less effective are very real dangers as we grapple with current realities.

So what can we do to prevent burnout? Doing what we all know is good to do (sleep, move, eat well) is an obvious refrain that we can’t ignore. Regularly checking in with ourselves is another good early line of defense. Knowing our signs of stress, such as poor sleep, racing thoughts, difficulty relaxing, or getting sick frequently, can serve as red flags that we need to do a bit of accounting. There are times when, in a stressed state, all things seem equally important and our resources feel stretched and finite. Making a two-column list of one’s current demands and resources can make the process of prioritizing easier and show the “I have to” list as more negotiable than we thought. It can also help us to recognize resources we had forgotten or not yet explored. As well, being able to talk things through with another person is sometimes necessary to get us unstuck, gain perspective, and make some needed changes.

Some of that perspective taking may have to do with recognizing where we are putting our time, energy, and attention. Sometimes the things over which we have no influence can take up a lot of space and are a drain our mental energy. Identifying where our power and influence lies, where it can be most effective or meaningful, and how much energy we have to give to something at this particular time in our lives, can serve as helpful questions to parse out our energy more intentionally.

Burnout can also come from a slow but steady disconnection from the things we love to do because these are the things that seem expendable in our busy lives. However, intentional engagement in activities for which we feel some passion or joy, where we experience a sense of personal satisfaction, competence, or where we feel free to not do it well, can be a wonderful break from the pressures of academia. Often these activities serve to connect us with others. Tasks or responsibilities that bring us joy within our roles on campus can also energize us and serve as a protective factor.

All of these suggest that burnout is an individual problem. However, a case can be made for thinking about this as a shared problem over which every member of the community, administrative decision-makers, front-line workers, support services, and students can have some influence. MRU has signed on to the Okanagan Charter, a document that outlines principles and practices that create health-promoting campuses, and we are only beginning to create some sense of what that means. There will be times we can support our own and the community’s well-being by saying yes to tasks and there will be times we best support that by saying no. I encourage all of us to engage in conversations that help us to figure out what is best when to create our own  “green days,” while honouring that helpful strategies will not look the same for everyone.