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If you can’t stand the heat, turn down the thermostat: Let’s talk burnout

Title: “Burnout is about your workplace, not your people”

Author: Jennifer Moss (2019)

​TL;DR: With so many people burning out in academia, we need to question why we’re asking students and researchers to take so much heat in the first place.

Why I chose this topic: I’ve had a lot of major interruptions to my degree program the last few years, and I often feel like I’m dancing on the edge of burnout. It mixes with impostor syndrome in some pretty nasty ways – am I just not capable of keeping up? Or is something wrong with the system itself? As pushback to unhealthy hustle culture permeates through other sectors, I’m hoping it hits academia hard.

You’re scrolling Twitter. Nestled in between Tweets about global news, research from colleagues, and memes, you see it – another colleague is leaving academia. It might be a grad student dropping out of their program, a newly-minted doctor choosing not to pursue postdocs, or a professor pivoting to industry. Despite the differences in position and experience, the Tweets almost universally sound the same: suffering mental health, toxic and abusive workplaces, lack of administrative support, lack of funding – the list goes on.

As one Tweet puts it, “if academia is a calling, do NOT pick up the phone.”

So why are so many bright lights burning out?

Pathologizing Burnout

Burnout itself as a concept isn’t new: although the medical community has debated what, exactly, it entails, the term has been around in one form or another since the 1970s. Recently, the World Health Organization included it in its International Classification of Diseases – although they immediately clarified that it’s an “occupational phenomenon” instead of a disease. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s clear that the medical community knows that burnout is of serious concern: workers with burnout take more sick days and are more likely to end up in the emergency room.

The problem with this angle, of course, is that burnout is not an epidemic in the traditional sense. As Christina Malasch, the leading expert on burnout, points out, pathologizing it makes it a personal issue, not a systemic one. People burn out, but they are not the cause of burnout. Rather, the cause of burnout stems from hostile workplaces with unreasonable demands on workers’ time, energy, and productivity. Workers cite not knowing their role, not being supported by management, and being asked to do too much in too short of time.

And, if you have friends in academia sharing Twitter threads about their departure, this all sounds terribly familiar.

“Nobody Wants to Work Anymore”

It’s not just on Twitter: the past few years have seen a massive shift in workforce dynamics, commonly known as the Great Resignation. And it’s not hard to see why – stagnating wages coupled with high-pressure work environments and global instability fuelled by a pandemic are more than enough to cause burnout across all sectors. Everywhere is hiring, but “nobody wants to work anymore.”

The name “Great Resignation” is a bit misleading, though: turns out, people do still want to work. They just are being more selective about their jobs. Rather than a mass exit from the workforce, workers are shifting laterally or upwards in employment – why burn yourself out for a job with low pay and no benefits, when another place is happy to ensure your needs are met?

Those who choose to remain at their jobs are turning to what young workers on TikTok called “quiet quitting” or what older workers might know as “work to rule” – essentially, doing only the work outlined in the job description. It seems strange to describe doing one’s job as quitting, but the intent stems from the cultural norm that work demands more than 100 percent of one’s effort; anything else is disrespectful, weakness, or proof of incapability of doing more.

In academia, this pressure to constantly be available is stronger than other fields: so much of the job isn’t actually outlined in the job description. Grad students, for example, are expected to juggle classes, research, teaching assistantships, writing, networking, and mentorship, and often only the TA hours are paid. Academic work-life imbalance is just seen as part of the job, and it’s not unusual to see academics discussing 70 or 80-hour workweeks (especially in the context of how damaging and stressful it is). It’s so normalized, in fact, that grad students may even face backlash from professors for shortening their working hours and be considered unwilling to do “hard work.Academia, after all, is a calling.

It’s no wonder, then, why so many people are burning out and choosing to get out of academia entirely.

Turning Down the Heat

For many people, academia is a dream job. But dream jobs are still jobs. We simply place higher expectations on them and more guilt when they don’t work out: how could you possibly complain about your job when it’s your dream?

Whether we’re in academia, industry, public service, or freelance, our culture attaches a lot of importance and self-identity to our work. For the past few years, hustle culture has encouraged us to work harder, stretch ourselves thinner, and capitalize our personalities and hobbies. When the grind follows you home from work and into your personal space, time, and online life, it’s no wonder that so many people are looking for an escape. And, for many of us, the transition to full-time scicomm has provided it.

Burnout is not caused by personal failure. The longstanding “wisdom” in high-pressure, high-achieving fields like academia is “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” But as recent trends have shown, the problem isn’t an individual’s heat tolerance; it’s that the kitchen probably doesn’t need to be that hot in the first place.

It’s the job of administrators, supervisors, and managers to set the tone of the workplace and mitigate burnout in employees. For the rest of us, we need to take care of ourselves in whatever way fits our needs and our lives best, whether that’s pivoting to scicomm full-time or merely changing the way we address our work-life balance. Academia may still be a calling, but it’s welcome to leave a voicemail.

Edited by Teodora Stoica and Niveen AbiGhannam

Cover image credit: Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich via Pexels



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