What to Do About Burnout.

Your eyelids weigh 25 pounds. It’s dark outside, and even Dracula has gone to bed. The caffeine elixir that once was a cure-all has lost its kick. Now it’s time to face the beast: Your work computer.

Am I narrating your morning, or last night? Unfortunately, for many professors this could be both.

Burnout is a problem in higher education. If you throw in a pandemic, shrinking institution budgets, and sometimes child care, burnout is inevitable. We’re about ninth months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and for many educators the situation has only gotten harder. The end of the semester is right around the corner, and the Thanksgiving holiday is days away. But will the day (or days) off actually feel like a break, or will it turn into another desperate rush to catch up?

In a forthcoming survey of more than 1,100 faculty members, conducted in late October by The Chronicle and underwritten by Fidelity, two-thirds of respondents said they felt “very” or “extremely” stressed or fatigued in the past month.

Our Beth McMurtrie reported on faculty-member burnout, and wrote that for many instructors, the pandemic has stripped teaching of at least part of what makes it energizing, meeting students in person. That leaves them with the parts of academic life that were already challenging.

Some instructors are feeling increased pressure, especially Black and Latina/o professors who support students of color, adjunct professors who hope that budget cuts don’t come for their jobs, and professors with children at home who need care and attention.

This week, Erin Marie Furtak, a professor of STEM education and associate dean of faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote an advice piece for parents in the last category. Furtak writes, “Seemingly inconsequential in the moment, those tiny interruptions add up and can interfere in a big way with our writing and research.”

Furtak wrote that she and her husband found it hard to keep a schedule with their two children, ages 6 and 8. Instead, she had to decide what type of work was interruptible and what required more devoted attention.

But ultimately, there’s no peer-reviewed method to curb burnout. Some professors have put aside professional ambitions to focus on students. Others are waking up early to get work done. Most people are doing the best they can as the pandemic shows no signs of stopping. This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to take a break for however long you can. It’s been a wild year.

There will be no newsletter next week because of the Thanksgiving holiday. I’ll be back in your inbox on December 5.


  • Learn. Why search a home-buying website if you’re not in the market to buy a house? It’s fun to contemplate an alternate life. (The New York Times)
  • Read. The end of the year prompts media outlets to publish lists of memorable books published this year. Here’sThe New York Timesslist of 100 notable books. I recommend the titles The Children’s Bible, Little Eyes, and Uncanny Valley from the list. (The New York Times)
  • Listen. Your phone. Your car. Your Bluetooth headphones. Your back-door alarm. Every day a new appliance or tool talks to you. What does this additional noise do to your brain? This episode of Freakonomics Radio reports. (Spotify)
  • Watch. The new documentary, I Am Greta, is an intimate portrait of Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate-change activist. It’s a film about activism and what it’s like to grow up with Asperger’s syndrome. You can stream it on Hulu. (Vox)


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