Identifying & Dealing with Burnout in Academia
When we consider the state of our mental health it’s often so much more complex than simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There's a whole spectrum of states and conditions that we can experience during our lifetimes, and pursuing a career in academia is particularly challenging to the quality of our mental health.
When things are going well, we are striving and thriving, performing and feeling our best. However, when stress is introduced to our lives, the way we continue to function very much depends on how we manage this stress. If levels of stress have been building up for some time, it’s likely we’ll soon reach a point of distress which can affect our appetite and sleeping patterns. If these symptoms are ignored we may move from distress to disease, or if these symptoms are related to our work we may also experience burnout. Ignoring our mental health may increase the risk of getting depression, and in the most extreme cases, to thoughts of suicide.
Scientific research settings have unique pressures, and with academia comes the added consideration of cultural and systemic barriers which make it less likely for scientists to seek support. Once you reach a postgraduate level of education, whether or not your career path remains within academia, you’ll face challenges unlike any you've experienced before, and a culture that stems from stigma laden academic environments. Therefore it’s vital as scientists that we learn to spot the signs of burnout long before we reach the point of crisis. When signs of distress become visible, either in ourselves or in others, we need to understand when and how to take action before matters worsen. In order to help scientists know when and how to take action, Dragonfly Mental Health was created.
Dragonfly Mental Health is a team of volunteers who deliver evidence-based workshops, programs, and consultation to academic communities around the world. It is important to note that we are not a healthcare provider, so any information provided in this article does not qualify as medical advice, nor as a substitute for speaking with a medical professional. This article aims to offer practical advice on recognising the signs of burnout in yourself or in colleagues, and steps you can take to help manage the symptoms.
Identifying the signs of burnout
The World Health Organization defines burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ and a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It may manifest as a feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion and/or increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism to one's work and reduced professional efficacy.
Who can be affected?
Essentially anyone doing a goal-directed activity can be affected by burnout, not just scientists, researchers or PhD students. If you're a volunteer and you're doing a goal-directed activity you can come under the sort of pressure that leads to such problems. It can affect athletes, parents, caregivers and clinicians. A huge range of professional and non-professional people can suffer.
What are the symptoms?
There are numerous symptoms of burnout that can be displayed in different ways. When a person reaches burnout they may experience emotional or physical exhaustion, reduced emotional regulation, changes to cognitive functions, like the inability to concentrate or take in information, reduced memory capacity, or sleeping problems. The way we interact with others can be a strong indicator of burnout too. If you are easily irritable, or are withdrawing or distancing yourself from your peers, colleagues, family or friends, these can be significant signs. You may notice that your performance levels at work have reduced, or you might feel cynical or inflexible about work matters.
It is important to note that burnout is situational. What this means is that it can be one-dimensional, for example it can affect your work, but not your personal life, or it can affect your bench work in the lab but not your desk work. Also those struggling from burnout may be able to contain or manage symptoms, keeping the effects hidden from those around them. We tend to call those people ‘high-functioning’ but more often than not it is their surroundings which are helping them to keep their burnout hidden.
A common but dangerous misconception around burnout is that if it isn’t life-threatening, it’s ‘not serious enough’ to ask for help or to seek treatment. Of course this is not true, and as we are learning, one ‘mild’ symptom of burnout left untreated leads to the next more serious symptom, and so on. Treating burnout at the earliest possible stage is the best way to avoid it reaching life-threatening levels. Remember that each day will be different and some days we may cope with the symptoms better than others, but this doesn’t mean we must wait for a ‘constant’ period of difficult days before we ask for help.
What causes burnout?
Burnout is caused when chronic stress relating to work or other ongoing activities isn’t managed well. There are a number of possible contributing factors, some of which are very specific to scientists and academics in science research.
Lack of control
Factors such as lack of control, be it physical or perceived, can contribute to burnout. A physical lack of control might be, for example, if your collaborators were expecting you to contribute to a project, but your supply chain was affected so you didn't get the equipment or supplies needed to complete the task, therefore you end up letting your colleagues down. Something that is physically out of your control, yet adds a great deal of stress to your life and your workload can lead to burnout. Perceived lack of control can also be problematic, making things feel worse than they are, and an uneven work-life balance will also contribute to these issues.
Being in a work role with limited authority can also add to the feeling of lack of control. For example, say you are a PhD student and you already have a lot on your plate yet your PI asks you to contribute more. You're not in a position to say no, so of course it leads to the point where you have too much to do, and if this persists, it will eventually lead to burnout.
Difficult working conditions
Working in a difficult environment can also be a factor that contributes to burnout, for example, dealing with toxic behaviour, bullying or microaggressions can lower our self-esteem and/or our mood and ultimately have a damaging effect on our mental health. These factors are multiplied in academics that belong to marginalized groups.
Disconnection from values is something which some of us face in the world of science research. A common issue is the requirement to work with animals when our values or beliefs are in disagreement. In these instances, you are often not in a position to argue against the policies that violate your values and instead continue on as best you can. However, pushing yourself to struggle through these circumstances, despite your discomfort, can actually lead to burnout.
Lack of identity outside of work is something which many scientists also struggle with. We are often so dedicated to our work and to our research, that we forget to live our lives outside of the lab. When we identify ourselves first and foremost as scientists, when something goes wrong, for example an experiment fails or we make mistakes in the lab, it feels like a personal failure, which of course is not the case. Failure is a huge part of science, so having an identity beyond work is really essential so that we can put things behind us at the end of the day without letting failures affect our personal lives. Of course another big part of science research is the realisation that sometimes we may never find the answers. After working on a long project lasting three, four or even five years, our experiments may never have the satisfying conclusion we so hoped for. This can be truly detrimental to our morale and our mental health, leading eventually to burnout if not managed in a realistic way.
The Burnout Cycle
Visualising the path of burnout symptoms can be useful to help you understand your situation or that of others, and we do this using a useful tool called The Burnout Cycle. Causes lead to symptoms, which can worsen if left untreated leading to lower employee satisfaction and productivity. By working around the cycle of symptoms and behaviours you can potentially track where you are in that cycle and understand what sort of solutions you should be looking to use to help break the pattern.
- Exhaustion - when we are overtired we reach a point where we don’t care any more >
- Cynicism - when we stop caring we take ourselves out of community discussions >
- Social withdrawal - lack of social interaction adds to our inability to concentrate >
- Lack of concentration - when we are not focussed we become less efficient >
- Inefficiency - poor productivity leads to an increase in backlog or workload >
- Work extension - increased workload causes physical and mental exhaustion >
Each and every time you work around the cycle, things get worse and it's important to underline that you can break out of this cycle as long as you understand and recognise where you are in the pattern.
Statistics from 2020 studies show that up to 76% of academics experience burnout at work at least once in their lives. 70% have felt stressed and fatigued, 35% have felt angry, and more that 50% have considered changing their career, retiring earlier or leaving academia altogether.
How can we deal with burnout?
As scientists we are passionate about our jobs and should never feel forced out of the career that we love by unmanaged stress or pressure. So let’s look at a number of methods and approaches to help deal with the symptoms of burnout that can hopefully relieve that pressure and help us to retain our happiness at work:
Better education and a culture change around the topic are required to bring awareness and destigmatisation of mental health in academia. When there is no longer a stigma around the issue, communication and conversation will be much easier, allowing for better social support amongst peers and colleagues. We must start to normalise conversations about mental health.
Take a break
It's essential to balance work with rest, and taking vacations when you need them is strongly encouraged. When workloads are heavy, it’s tempting to take your holiday time in shorter 2-3 day breaks, rather than a full week at a time which would better allow you to relax properly. It’s important to disconnect your body and mind from work completely from time to time.
When you are at work, try to commit to taking regular breaks during the day, again to disconnect yourself from your tasks and allow your brain to breathe. So many of us consider switching activities to be the same as a break, for example, if you need a break from writing you might move over to bench work for a while. This is not a ‘proper’ break as your mind will still be in ‘work mode’ and won’t have the time it really needs to rest and recharge.
Consider adding very short but regular breaks into your day, for example, working for 50 minutes followed by a 10-minute break, or for 30 minutes with a 5-minute break. Of course some of these breaks will be necessary for eating, drinking, or going to the restroom, but try to factor in more ‘joyful’ breaks too. Take a coffee break with a colleague, go outside and take in some fresh air… anything that will bring you a moment of enjoyment or relaxation to give your brain a real break.
Look after yourself
Taking better care of your physical health will always have a positive effect on your mental health too, so consider mindfulness exercises, better sleep patterns and regular physical exercise. Guided relaxation and breathing exercises are simple things you can add to your working day. Sadly there’s no ‘magic pill’ so it requires work and dedication to factor these things into your daily life, but the positive effects on your wellbeing can be enormous.
Try to avoid isolation and surround yourself with people who make you feel at ease. Treat yourself like a tree whose essential needs are sun, air and nutrients! Get fresh air and sunlight, and try to eat well. Whatever ‘nutrients’ are for you, be it going outside and exercising or binge-watching a series on Netflix, giving your body what it needs will help you to fight the effects of burnout and manage stress better.
Better working conditions
Where possible try to improve your communication at work and consider negotiating better working hours. The COVID-19 pandemic showed all of us, including our PIs and managers that we can work effectively from home, be it on a part-time or full-time basis. Approaching management can be daunting so if you're a junior scientist or you feel uncomfortable discussing these things with your PI, Dragonfly Mental Health has a ‘Managing Upwards’ talk on YouTube which offers great advice on improving student-supervisor communication around wellbeing and mental health.
How can I support a colleague who is displaying signs of burnout?
First of all, be open. Let them know how you feel, that you are worried for them and that you are available to talk if they feel they would like to reach out to you. Let them know that you are here to support them however you can, but don’t put pressure on them to open up to you as they may not be ready. Whether they are open to talking about it or not, a kind gesture is always appreciated and can go a long way towards helping them feel supported. Some examples of how you can do this include lending them a hand with their designated lab chores, offering to help them brainstorm on a problem they’re struggling with, or asking them to join you for a quick coffee break.
That said, remember that your mental health comes first. Although we often feel like it’s our responsibility to help, in truth, it isn’t when doing so would be detrimental to our mental health. Before you intervene, make sure you consider the impact it would have on your own mental health and whether or not you are currently equipped to offer your support.
How can PIs or managers create more supportive working environments?
As a PI it’s your job to manage the lab, to be in charge of what happens day-to-day and to ensure everything runs smoothly. However, creating a supportive environment requires the help and input of a supportive team. It’s not an overnight process and you must consider having those conversations when hiring staff to ensure you are building the type of team that will be open about mental health and who will work towards destigmatizing the topic. Surround yourself with colleagues who appreciate their work-life balance and who will not impose imbalance on others.
You are not a failure
Finally, please remember that suffering from burnout does not make you ‘weak’ or a ‘failure’. Burnout is a consequence of a system that expects a person to work long hours and sacrifice their personal lives in order to do so. It’s a natural physical reaction to extreme mental pressure and stress that we all face from time to time.
If you are in crisis now and need urgent support please contact your local mental health hotline or reach out to the Samaritans at samaritans.org. Their 24/7 helpline is completely free and they also offer email support. You can also visit your local ER department who will be able to assist you.
Dragonfly Mental Health also has a great range of online resources including a YouTube channel full of useful videos offering advice on a variety of mental health topics. Visit their website for further information: https://dragonflymentalhealth.org/
The Hello Bio blog also has a number of other articles and resources on mental health and wellbeing:
- Workplace Wellbeing for Life Scientists
- The Life Scientists’ Guide to Wellbeing
- Mental Health & Wellbeing for Scientists: Support Pack
- How to Manage the Expected Pace of Work in Scientific Research
- Under Pressure: Breaking Free From the Stress of Your PhD
Watch Olya's talk at the Hello Bio LabLife Conference
This article is based on Olya Vvedenskaya's talk on 'Identifying & Dealing with Burnout' at the Hello Bio virtual LabLife Conference in June 2022. You can watch the full video on the Hello Bio YouTube channel here:
About the authors
Dragonfly Mental Health is a globally operating non-profit organization, formed by academics for academics. Made up of a wide range of scientists, researchers, students and faculty from all over the world, they have come to realize how common the struggles are in the academic environment and that aspects of academia itself unnecessarily contribute to and sustain unhealthy conditions. Dragonfly Mental Health is powered by volunteers operating with a horizontal hierarchy, to bring together academics from all over the world to support each other and create lasting and systemic change.
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