This is an opening post for a series on “Burn-out”. The content and reflections I present here are based on a workshop I recently hosted on “Academic mental health and well-being”. In this workshop, we focused on two themes: burn-out and secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But given the depth of the issues we discussed at this event, I will need at least few posts in order to do justice to the subjects.
Bringing to boil
I have, over the years of interacting with PhD students and post-doctoral researchers all over the world, noticed a growing trend of really brilliant researchers just running themselves to the ground with their work. Many do not realise it before it is too late. Many overlook or downplay the warning signals because they are so passionate about what they do and they love their job.
Love is blind and when you’re in love with your job, it’s difficult to see the parts of the relationship that’s killing you.
One thing that became painfully clear in the workshop was that so many researchers think that they are struggling alone and that they, alone, struggle. They feel isolated, unsure of who to talk to, unsure of how to start. Especially in Asian cultures where talking about burn-out is seen as weakness, many of us just tell ourselves the same things our parents and teachers told us for years:
“One must clench your teeth, put in every ounce of effort to overcome, or accept the pain.”
So many of us are so wrong in thinking that there are only two ways this goes: suck it up and carry on, or give up and quit. The shame of the latter is too great for many of us, so we carry on until there’s nothing left to burn and we forget ourselves and why we do what we do.
There are two things I’d like readers to remember as you join me on this series on “Burn-out”. The first is that there are more than two options when you find yourself on the path to burn-out. I will try, in the next few posts, to give you some context to what you are feeling and going through. The second is that you are not alone. There are many among you that are suffering too but too afraid or untrusting to say anything. And that’s fine. Not everyone is your person (if you know that I mean), and not everyone understands what you’re going through.
Each post ends with some tips for how to manage and to carve out a third way for yourself, one that can give you perspective, help you stay grounded and remember what is important to you in life. “Finding your people” whom you can trust with your struggles is also difficult. I will share my experiences with you on how I started my conversations, how I found my flock, and how I learnt to recognise whom I could trust to be vulnerable with.
For now I will give you a short overview of the topics I will be discussing in next few posts. Based on the breakout discussions we had, there are three main contributing factors to burn-out: 1) cultural factors, 2) social and organisational factors, 3) individual factors. I will go in depth into each of these in three separate posts with suggestions for coping mechanisms. I will then close this series with a reflection from the other side with a post on “How to be a supportive PI/Supervisor/Manager and colleague”.
Many of the coping mechanisms and tips are drawn from our expert speakers Dr. Raquel Peel, a Psychologist at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, and Dr. Alisa Hasmoh, a Disaster Sociologist at Prince of Songkla University in Thailand. But I will also draw on my own experiences and the discussions from the workshop. I hope you will find the coming posts useful and up-lifting.