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I must have played thousands of hands of solitaire, comforted by the logic of the game, the tedium, and the fact that solitaire wanted nothing from me except to turn the next card. The people on campus wanted things from me, expected a version of me that would shatter in a mental breakdown before Christmas later that year. That expected version of me had played the higher-ed game at a high level for her corner of academe — she published regularly, had a book with a highly respected university press, was a liked if challenging teacher, and actively served her institution (Elon University) and discipline (professional writing and rhetoric). She had a reputation for getting things done.
That was not me anymore. I had burned out, and it shocked my system to the core. It had been building for years: Every department meeting had to be maximally efficient, every class had to be perfect, every opportunity to show leadership had to be fully taken advantage of. The perfectionism and pressure had gradually worn me down. Sometimes after class, I’d stand frozen in an empty stairwell, trying to decide what to eat for lunch, as if it were the biggest decision of my life. I dreaded running into anyone — student or colleague. I had panic attacks over going into my office — even though it’d been my workplace for a decade.
And for all this I felt deep shame. Before my burnout diagnosis I didn’t have a language or rationale for what was happening to me. The brain fog, decision fatigue, panic attacks, inability to do any work that wasn’t publicly performative, the solitaire addiction: What was happening to me? I truly had no idea. The message I initially took away from my diagnosis was that I just wasn’t good enough anymore, and that higher ed would spit me out for falling short of the very productivity goals I’d once prided myself on. The idea that I was “a burnout” was crushing to my personal and professional identity. And I believed that once people found out about my burnout, it would be all over. So I waited, one game of solitaire at a time.
My experience aligned with that definition. I was exhausted, physically unwell, emotionally volatile, intellectually blank. I had distanced myself from everyone related to the university. I deeply questioned if anything I did really mattered. When I took the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most widely accepted research instrument to determine levels of burnout, I scored almost off the charts. I had nothing left to give, it turned out, even though my work demanded more and more of me. But it wasn’t all my fault. As Kevin R. McClure put it in these pages, “burnout isn’t just about people struggling to cope with stress; it’s about people struggling in workplaces where stress never subsides.”
The most important words in the WHO definition are “chronic workplace stress.” Burnout is a workplace phenomenon. Burnout is systemic; it’s a product of workplace cultures that value productivity above all else. Burnout is also a product of higher ed, a culture where productivity infuses everything we do, and where the longest CV wins. Wins what, I’m not sure. More work? In this vein, Jonathan Malesic argues that “burnout isn’t a failure of productivity but the continuation of productivity despite lacking the strength it takes to produce.” Burnout occurs when productivity becomes toxic.
Higher ed, as a culture, espouses the values of lifelong learning, discovery, contribution to a better world, and striving for excellence — all wrapped up in a view of the academy as a calling. Professors change the world through research and teaching. I love those values as ideals. In a sense, I gave myself completely over to them, to the cultural imperative that the vaunted halls of academe call only a few and that fewer still can belong in the long term. For me and for many faculty members with whom I’ve spoken, the idea of being “called” caused us to overcommit to our work, which, in turn, set us up for burnout.
When you “do what you love” — when you have a calling instead of just a job in higher ed — it’s easy to slowly give more and more of yourself to work. The heart of academic culture is an orientation toward competitive productivity. This is why we take work-related reading with us on family trips. This is why we check our email incessantly, regardless of where we are and whom we are with. This is why holiday breaks are spent revising and resubmitting. This is why we have colleagues we constantly measure ourselves against. Success is bound up in higher ed’s other core values: productivity, achievement, and the ability to keep up with the expectation escalation and ladder-climbing of the academic career trajectory. The “publish or perish” mentality is alive and well across higher ed, despite what this ideological imperative can do to one’s mental health and well-being. Amid this culture, intellectual joy and community are diminished greatly.
To me, faculty work can be both job and calling, but as colleges and universities become more administration-heavy, more driven by grants and profit, and more exploitative of faculty labor and productivity, the more we lean into academic capitalism and a student-as-customer mentality. I had internalized productivity as a core value long before burning out, partly because in our education system we are trained to judge ourselves, as Kristina Hallett says, on “doing well rather than living well” — or, as Celeste Headlee puts it, to “judge our days based on how efficient they are, not how fulfilling.”
We see those concerns manifesting now in pandemic trends such as “quiet quitting” and the Great Resignation. Quiet quitting has become quite the buzzword lately, a TikTok trend gone mainstream. Definitions are all over the place, ranging from doing only the assigned duties you are contracted to do and setting clear boundaries to a lazy, passive-aggressive way to “stick it” to “hustle culture.”
Quiet quitting, like higher ed’s “great disillusionment” among faculty members, is a product of low morale, poor working conditions, toxic culture, and work that is less than meaningful. As McClure points out, “normal wasn’t working for a lot of people in higher education” before the pandemic. He continues: “Now that the supports, flexibility, and grace that were put in place during the pandemic have started to dwindle, faculty and staff members are left with the same old organizations, plus the cumulative effects of the past two years.”
Those conditions have driven a wave of faculty and staff departures for jobs at other institutions or for jobs in the private sector in a bid to find better working conditions, more meaningful work, or improved workplace culture. None of these problems are new; they were just made so much more visible and challenging during the pandemic. What’s to be done about these challenges? The management consultant Christine Spadafor argues that “toxic environments stem from culture. You get culture right, you will see an improvement in retention … When you have that kind of healthy, welcoming culture, when things get a little bumpy, people don’t run for the exits.”
Can higher ed change to focus faculty work on purpose, compassion, connection, and balance for the good of the institution and higher-ed culture broadly?
But burnout is, at its core, a workplace problem, not a worker problem. Beth Godbee has it right when she contends that, as a syndrome, burnout is mutually created within “dehumanizing” systems “meant to undermine humanity and wholeness.” Even if the individual coping strategies are working for you or for many on your campus, the pervasiveness of the challenge means we must undertake a larger cultural change. Institutional problems deserve institutional solutions. Knowing and following my purpose, practicing compassion for myself and others, deepening connection with peers near and far, and pursuing realistic life balance helped me personally. But imagine the transformation that could be accomplished if we focused burnout fixes on the level of institutional culture. There are four pillars to such an approach, as I see it:
1: Knowing and Following Purpose. One of burnout’s hallmarks is a feeling of reduced professional efficacy, a skepticism that your work matters to anyone. When a critical mass of faculty members feel that way, it’s past time to examine the culture of the institution. One way to do this is to reclaim institutional values or redefine them. For example, in the most recent strategic plan, my new institution, the Georgia Institute of Technology, states that students are our first priority, and we are working to build our culture around this as well as our vision of developing leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition. Those aren’t just words — the values are infused in all strategic efforts and are used to make decisions at all levels. A well-defined shared purpose helps make us more likely to recommit ourselves, see value in our labor, and work toward change.
2: Practicing Compassion. Feeling ineffective or exhausted can seem shameful to a burned-out faculty member — it certainly did to me in my solitaire-addiction phase. Now more than ever, we must continue to extend grace to ourselves, our peers, and our students. Practicing compassion at the institutional level might look like flexible work policies, opportunities for people from different identity groups to gather informally, increased access to mental-health professionals, and good-faith and equitable contracts for contingent faculty members. Acting compassionately gives people new ways to deal with stress and feel a sense of belonging.
3: Deepening Connection. My ability to connect to my students and colleagues was one of the first things to go when my burnout surfaced, and indeed, cynicism is a marker of burnout. Colleges can take steps to mitigate that. Small groups of faculty members can be paired with a trained facilitator to offer burnout or other personal support. New programs can give faculty members incentives to reach out and connect with peers or students. Colleges can also encourage faculty members to reconnect to family, friends, or pursuits they may be neglecting while buried under a heavy workload.
4: Pursuing Realistic Balance. Faculty work is demanding and will take as much as you are willing to give. What does balance look like, culturally? Leaders who model balance talk about their commitment to exercise or hobbies or free time. Department chairs can be good examples by refraining from evening or weekend emails and meetings, encouraging those in their departments to spend time on rest or with family and friends. Institutionally sanctioned work groups can also look at faculty workloads and recommend how to make them more fair and equitable in reports to the administration. When institutions commit to working toward a culture of better balance, faculty members feel heard and empowered to consider balance in their own work and lives.
I don’t claim that higher-ed culture is only bad or destructive. It is, at its best, a haven for intellectual exploration, lifelong learning, and civic optimism. It can nurture creativity, inspire innovation, and connect people in indelible ways. But we also are in the middle of a fight to bring burnout out of the academic shadows and remove the shame associated with it. We must normalize talking about burnout without normalizing the culture that causes it. We can pretend that the system isn’t to blame or that we don’t all play a role in perpetuating it. But the reality is that we are our institutions. We are our culture.
Burnout changed me. I no longer spend hours upon hours playing solitaire, and I’ve made some big life and career changes. I asked for help from not only mental-health professionals but also my colleagues. I was never “found out” because I revealed myself first. That, it turned out, was a gift to myself. I was genuinely surprised by the amount of compassion that was shown to me. And that compassion gives me hope that changing academic culture is possible — one faculty member, department, or college at a time.
Parts of this essay are adapted from the author’s new book, Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins University Press).