To the Editor:
In her recent Advice piece, Maria LaMonaca Wisdom asked readers to consider that burnout might not be as epidemic as some, like me, have argued but is instead a crisis of faith in or accounting of our impact as academics (“Faculty Job Dissatisfaction Isn’t About ‘Burnout’,” The Chronicle, January 6). The faculty Dr. Wisdom coaches at Duke University are expressing a deep desire for their work to have visible, or at least measurable, impact on the world. She says, “The faculty members I coach face very real challenges in terms of workload, balance, and professional satisfaction. It’s just that ‘burnout’ isn’t their issue. And I would venture that many, if not most, academics would agree.”
I have no doubt in Dr. Wisdom’s expert assessment that the faculty she works with may not be experiencing burnout as clinically defined by the World Health Organization, and that’s wonderful...but perhaps privileged. After talking with hundreds of faculty through research interviews, workshops for universities and professional organizations, and virtual retreats, I don’t agree that “many, if not most” academics would say burnout is not their problem or that what they are experiencing can be fixed by focusing on impact alone. She notes, “Many Ph.D.s — myself included — find it difficult to reconcile our current work challenges with the most extreme burnout symptoms, such as the literal inability to keep working,” and references my personal experience as an example of that extreme.
Yes, my experience was unique and certainly not one the majority of people I speak with report having. But I’m still talking regularly with academics across every type of institution and in every type of faculty role who are experiencing the exhaustion, increased mental distance or cynicism, and lack of efficacy that characterizes burnout as a syndrome. Here are three composite examples to protect anonymity: The department chair struggling to keep up with her responsibilities to her faculty as she falls deeper into cynicism about her institution’s stated vs. enacted values. The lecturer exhausted by semester-after-semester of teaching four different courses who wonders if he’s appreciated at all by his department as his health takes a nosedive. The assistant professor trying to keep up with slippery expectations and a seeming mismatch between what she is being told will impact her tenure case and what is being assessed in her annual evaluations as she tries to take care of a growing family at home. These aren’t extreme, but they are experiences of burnout nonetheless, ones with intertwined personal and cultural elements that won’t go away by focusing solely on impact.
Dr. Wisdom worries that focusing on burnout as a frame for “the current collective faculty plight..risks keeping people mired in place…[because] burnout is something that happens to us.” So what is collective faculty plight? Do I think all, or even most, faculty are in full-blown burnout? No, but there is evidence pointing directly to a large problem. Do I think those who are experiencing burnout can do nothing in the face of it but accept their plight or ignore it? Also no. I find, in many cases, having language to discuss it and knowing they aren’t alone in their burnout experience is a huge step forward to healing.
Burnout is a problem that individuals face and also a cultural problem created in our institutions and higher ed broadly. There are productive ways to cope individually with burnout, and there are conversations we need to be having top-down and bottom-up to address needed culture shifts. Focusing on our impact could absolutely be one of the ways to cope or even help avoid burnout, but it can’t completely replace attention to a serious problem in academic culture.
Not talking about burnout doesn’t solve any problems; instead, it just buries the conversation we need to be having about workplace conditions, conversations we’re only beginning to treat as not individually shameful or professionally embarrassing. Suppressing discussions about burnout further entrenches the cultural problems that cause it in the first place; whereas, discussing burnout gives faculty an opportunity to identify systemic, structural problems and collaborate to address them before they burn out.
Director, Office of Faculty Professional Development
Georgia Institute of Technology