I often joke with students that I don't have the most important job in the world; that honor goes to Vince McMahon of the WWE. But I do have the best job because it allows me, directly and indirectly, to support students in pursuing their dreams.
Many of my colleagues in student affairs share a similar passion for our profession. But there are times when that passion is seriously tested by the circumstances and conditions of our work. The accumulated effect of long hours, increasing demand for services, shrinking budgets, intractable issues, litigious environments, and what seems at times like incessant bashing of higher education for political purposes can lead to burnout among even the most dedicated of student-affairs professionals.
So what can you do to avoid losing—or, if you've already lost it, to regain—your zest for the work?
Having served in student affairs for 30 years, I hope here to share some ideas for avoiding burnout and some tips on how to carry out those ideas in daily practice. By no means will this list be exhaustive, or completely original. Nor do I make any claim of having mastered the problem of burnout. These are simply steps that I have found helpful.
Live a balanced life. That is typically understood to be a healthy and satisfying apportionment of time and energy between the tasks and opportunities of life. But too often, balance is thought of as static—a fixed fulcrum on which rests a correctly balanced teeter-totter. Our lives, however, are anything but fixed, and the importance of any particular task or opportunity can vary widely.
Make a list of your tasks and opportunities. My own construct of balance is pretty simple: It's made up of working and resting. I'm a single person who is most happy when I'm involved in my profession (either through work or through other activities such as writing), and I know myself well enough to know that a few long weekends off every once in a while are typically much more helpful to me than weeklong (or longer) vacations during which I get bored and miss being around students.
But this spring, a number of critical situations came up in my extended family that required a reapportionment of my priorities. Balance looked different to me during that time than it had six or seven months earlier. Balance always looks different to me than it does to my friends who are married or with children, who are enrolled in degree programs, or who have a hobby they love.
Set boundaries on social media. Another dimension of balance relates to the way that increased use of e-mail and social media has blurred the boundaries between work time and down time. It might be interesting to inventory your own use of those tools. Have you set limits on how much you allow those work-related tools to infringe on your personal time? Can you set such limits? The answers to those questions will vary from person to person, and even for each individual at any one point. Monitoring how much time you're spending on work via social media is a helpful step in avoiding burnout.
Accentuate the positive as much as you can. Reinhold Niebuhr's now-commonplace plea is for the serenity to accept things that can't be changed, the courage to change those that can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Long hours, increasing demands, diminishing budgets, sticky litigation, and the whims of public-policy debate have been a part of student affairs for many years, and will continue to be so. Any time spent railing against those features of our work lives is probably not time well spent.
Instead, invest your energy where you can make a difference. It is not my intention to make a blithe "don't worry, be happy" argument here. But the truth is, you will be a lot less stressed if you can focus a good portion of your day on celebrating the positive. One way to do that: Develop the habit of writing notes of thanks and congratulations. Make a point to write five notes a day to students, colleagues at your institution, colleagues outside your institution, or members of the local town—congratulating them on a milestone or a success they have achieved or a difference they have made. Meeting that goal will require that you actively search for positive news to recognize. But you are helping the recipients to know that their efforts matter, and you will end up feeling better about yourself in the process.
Focusing on what Karl Weick calls "small wins" is another way to emphasize the positive. The parable of the young boy and the starfish is one of my favorite ways of illustrating this notion: A seasoned beachcomber approached a boy who was tossing into the sea some of the starfish that littered the beach by the thousands. "What are you doing?" the man asked. "Saving starfish," the boy replied. "Don't you see there are thousands on the beach? You can't save them all," the man said. The boy paused to think, then bent down to pick up another starfish, and tossed it into the waves. Smiling, the boy replied, "I saved that one."
Rather than worry about how much more there is to do in conquering some big intractable problem, pay attention to the next small step in the process. We in student affairs suggest that tip all the time to students who are facing complicated situations. We would do well to heed our own advice.
Take a moment. One final strategy for avoiding burnout is to engage in daily reflection. Try to find five or 10 minutes each day to consider what you have learned that day and how you will use it to help others move forward. It's a simple exercise that offers us a chance to be hopeful about the ways in which what we do every day can benefit others.
It is the opportunity to learn and to help others that drives the passion that many of us have for student affairs. Finding ways to nourish that passion along the way will help assure that it is not diminished or overwhelmed.