Saturday, January 22, 2011

More on Burnout

As I prepare for the start of a new semester, I have mixed feelings. I do love teaching and have some new ideas that I am excited about. But I also feel a sense of trepidation, in large part because I feel increasingly intolerant of being too busy.

Last semester, as I felt myself starting to worry about burnout again, I had a new insight about burnout.

I think that one of the causes of burnout is when we put extraordinary effort into achieving what is merely ordinary.

Now, the merely ordinary is a fine accomplishment--I’m not denying that. If our lives are spent achieving the ordinary things that contribute meaningfully to the functioning of the world, that is a life well-lived. We can derive a great sense of satisfaction from such work.

But when we continually push ourselves beyond the limits of personal health and well-being to do so (which we are doing when we are chronically “too busy”), our lives are out of balance. We suffer; those around us suffer--the cost exceeds the benefit.

There are times when it is noble and heroic to put forth great effort. Those times are times of crisis, and responding to crises is extraordinary. Those times, then, are times of putting forth extraordinary effort to accomplish something extraordinary. The cost is proportional to the benefit, and so, while tired and depleted after it is all over, we still are likely to feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that aids in our healing and recovery.

But those times are rare, intense, and relatively brief.

When extraordinary effort becomes a way of life, the norm instead of the exception, that’s a problem. It is not really a sustainable way of life. You work too hard without time for recovery and renewal. And while you are accomplishing something, your accomplishments are not extraordinary enough to result in either social appreciation or a sense of satisfaction proportional to your effort.

If you are a humble and modest type of person, you may say, "I don't work hard in order to gain appreciation from others, anyway," and that's commendable, but this is not a question of the purity of your motivations, but rather almost a physics question related to the law of conservation of energy. We cannot keep putting out energy without renewing our energy as well. And so if our efforts are extraordinary, our ordinary methods of taking care of ourselves will no longer be enough to keep us going. Net result: burnout.

7 comments:

  1. I think this is a genuine insight. We can work harder when we feel that we are accomplishing something out of the ordinary. There is a source of energy in visualizing great results. So what do you do if you feel you are burning out because you are putting out extraordinary effort and are just treading water?

    It will be small comfort to tell you that many people in the middle of their lives start to feel this way. The stress may be taking care of an elderly family member while trying to hold down a full time job or it may be something else. But stress on top of ordinary job duties equals trouble.

    When this occurs it is important to see what you can stop doing. Will the world come to an end if I stop trying to do X? There are things you will not be able to cut out. You've got to eat, sleep and exercise. You've got to do enough at work to keep your job. You've got to keep the house in decent repair. But there may very well be "things that are really good" that are still not "things that are absolutely necessary."

    And remember to take good care of yourself physically, socially and emotionally. Don't cut out all contact with friends or exercise.

    Whatever you do don't fall into a guilt thing about what you cut out of your schedule. You are only responsible to use your energy well in the service of others. You are not responsible for fixing every problem you see--even the local ones.

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  2. Yes, good advice, Richard. Thank you.

    In my case, I am reaching clarity about what I want to keep and what I want to let go, but it is still not an easy process to actually follow through with this. I am engaged in a process of discernment about how to do this.

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  3. Seek the advice of a weighty Friend in your meeting or ask that a clearness committee be set up. You needn't try to do this discernment alone.

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  4. Another tremendously clear and insightful post. Thank you. I would have always imagined that the teaching profession... with spring breaks, winter breaks, summer breaks, sabbaticals and holidays off...would provide ample time for recovery. I burned out off a 24/7 IT lifestyle that didn't even include weekends... let alone weeklong breaks. IT guess it's all relative.. and too much work for a person is too much.

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  5. Another tremendously clear and insightful post. Thank you. I always imagined that the teaching profession... with spring breaks, winter breaks, summer breaks, sabbaticals and holidays off...would provide ample time for recovery. I burned out from years of a 24/7 IT lifestyle that didn't even include weekends. I guess it's all relative.. and too much work for a person is too much.

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  6. Brett - Thanks for finding the post insightful.

    About academia: teaching is only a part of our job. The so-called breaks are not really breaks. While they are times that we do not have to teach, teaching is only part of our job. We also do research and have administrative responsibilities. So most of us work full-time throughout the year. Also, sabbaticals are not time off. We get one semester off every seven years to devote ourselves to full-time research. Or we can take a full year, but at half-pay.

    So, I would say that, realistically, I take a week off for Christmas and a week off in the summer. During the academic year, I pretty much work every waking hour. In the summer I do get to relax a bit on weekends.

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  7. Oh, and we don't get any holidays during the semester -- it messes up the class schedule too much. So, yes, I teach on Labor Day, Columbus Day, MLK Day, Presidents Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday, etc., much to the annoyance of my family...

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