In my last post, I mentioned that there are three main contributing factors to burn-out: cultural, social and organisational, and individual. These are not neat boxes that can provide specific explanations for your particular burn-out experiences. They are intersecting, sometimes one amplifying the other, and often difficult to tell apart. But I don’t want to get too bogged down with the conceptual distinctions here. I use these rather arbitrary categories as an initial organisation of my observations from the workshop and interactions with early-career researchers.
What is Burn-out?
But first, let me start with an important definition: “Burn-out”. According to the WHO, burn-out is:
A syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Here’s the thing. Not every time you feel tired or negative about your work means that you are having a burn-out. Also, we all have bad days and unproductive days where we really just want to veg out on a couch. But burn-out is all of these and more…on another level. And I want to name them because it is important that you know the early warning signals so you can take action sooner.
There are some studies that explore the topic of stress and academic burn-out. I’ve copied their references at the end of this post (taken from Dr. Peel‘s presentation). But I want to focus on the symptoms that came up in our workshop discussions. One of the most striking observations was how similar the symptoms were across all the breakout groups:
- Feeling like you’ve lost yourself
- not being able to do what you used to be able to do, forgetting why you’re doing what you do
- Feeling like something is broken
- Feeling empty & immense loneliness
- Cycle of alienation
- pulling away from friends because you feel shitty compared to them. This makes you feel alienated from them, in turn, making you want to isolate yourself even more from them and others
- Lost passion
- distance and cynicism about what you’re doing
- Constant exhaustion
- physical and mental
Additional symptoms identified by Dr. Peel’s presentation include:
- Not going to work or not getting out of bed
- Losing interest in the work that used to be exciting and interesting
- Not meeting basic needs — e.g., eating, exercise, and family time
- Making more mistakes than usual at work
- Everyday tasks such as answering emails become a chore
- Inability to concentrate on numerical analyses or reading
- Being short, intolerant, or overly sensitive with colleagues
- Catching illnesses more often
- Not sleeping well
- Feelings of low confidence
These symptoms often feed off each other, leading to a spiral down the burn-out tunnel.
How do some of us get to this stage? In this post, I will start with some individual circumstances and propose strategies for managing in each section.
Not taking breaks
One of the common factors that came up in the different breakout discussions was that some of us never had a break between our studies. I know this from my own experience — and maybe this is an Asian thing (or not) — but I was constantly feeling guilty about how much money I was costing my parents for my studies. So I was always making sure that I already had a job lined up way before I graduated.
But there’s also a cultural element to this. Many Asian companies, organisations, and bosses frown upon “gaps” between your studies and finding work or between jobs. Saying you to took a gap year or a one-month break between jobs is sign of weakness, a lack of maturity, and a lack of steel or focus.
Family and relatives also contribute to this. Some of us would be familiar with the family dinner gossip of so-and-so’s son/daughter who refused to get a job after graduating and instead went off to travel. Where’s his sense of duty? He doesn’t want to grow up. He’s not ready to face reality. This is what you get for the “Softy Generation”.
We are made to feel guilty about needing rest.
So many of us go straight from graduating to a job or from one job to another without taking time off for our brain to decompress, for our mind to reset. Especially in research where the work from the last project never ends when your contract ends, this leads to a feeling like you’re on an endless treadmill of running more and more projects at the same time.
And as some of you might know, in research, the longer a project drags on, the harder it is to finish because the data gets old, you forget the theoretical discourse and you lose interest in the subject as other new projects begin. So what can you do about this?
Take your breaks. Whether it is between your studies and getting a job or between jobs, take that break — however long you need, because not only do you deserve it, your body needs it. I was always told that a PhD is a marathon. And I get that. But what I didn’t quite realise was that the race didn’t end when I got my PhD. That was just the first 5km. So buckle up. Take your breaks because if you want to be in the long game, you’re gonna need to recharge and there’s absolutely no shame in that.
Wrap it up. One of the common self-saboteur personality traits of researchers is perfectionism. We never feel like our data is good enough. We never feel like our findings are significant enough. Especially for qualitative researchers, we tend to under-value our data and our findings. But here’s a reality check for you:
Your data will never be complete. It will never be perfect.
But you know what, so is everyone else’s data (including the quants!). Even the most famous academics didn’t start out with the most perfect data set. They took some time to get there. But they didn’t wait around for the perfect moment to run their analysis or present their findings.
So just wrap it up. Stop collecting more data and start trying to make sense of what you already have, and…write, write, write. You can build on it later on. Whether it is a journal submission, or report, or thesis, etc., don’t wait for the right moment to start your analysis or start writing. The right moment is when you start.
Feeling insecure about your data? Everyone is. Just be transparent about the boundaries/limitations of your work, but use that as a “to be continued” conclusion for future research directions. You will be surprised at how much you’ve actually accomplished by the time you’ve come to the end of that report or thesis. And you’ll be surprised at how empathetic reviewers can be. Don’t forget, they’ve been where you are and they’ve gone through the same challenges.
Increasingly, graduate funding is insufficient for PhD students to be able to afford the fees, housing and cost of living. So many PhD students have to take up one or even two part-time jobs to supplement their income. This sometimes causes their PhD to drag out because, let’s face it, work is tiring and a PhD is not something you can do on the side. Sometimes it takes an entire week of reading on just one topic for you to get to the right headspace to write a single section of a chapter. So if you’re taking on work that is going to set you back on your own research, then you might want to re-evaluate the costs and benefits of doing that.
This is a really difficult one to balance. Financial pressure is a key factor affecting PhD performance and, I wager, dropout rates. So my suggestion would be that if you have to work on the side, plan your finances, start saving early, and negotiate with your manager such that when you’re close to 50% of writing up your thesis, ask for a 6-month break so that you can focus on getting your head stuck in the writing space and smash out that remaining 50%. It can be done. It has been done.
How to talk about it?
But what do you do when you’ve already gotten to the burn-out bridge? How do we ask for help?
So many participants at the workshop, regardless of nationality and culture, said they struggled with starting the conversation about burn-out. Many of us do not know how to talk to our friends, family, supervisors, etc, about needing a break or feeling burnt out. We know the words to describe what we are feeling, but we lack the courage to say it because we fear that we will be judged, laughed at, or have our experiences trivialised.
Number one, find friends or colleagues whom you know genuinely care about your well-being. It doesn’t have to be many. That one or two friends is already plenty.
Starting a conversation about burn-out doesn’t have to start with heavy words like “burnt-out” or “down” or “depressed”. You can start with your symptoms like “I don’t know why but I’m always feeling so tired these days”, or “been feeling kind of stuck recently”. Sometimes starting with a question also a good opener like “Have you ever felt like…”
If your friend’s answer is “No”, then you know he/she is maybe not the right person to talk to. But real friends anyway will often check in, ask how you’re doing, notice that you’re looking tired and ask if you’re ok.
Number two, be the first to ask “are you ok?”. Be that friend or colleague who cares about other people’s well-being. I’ve found that when I’m stuck in a rut, me starting the conversation by asking my colleagues and friends how they were doing didn’t just help me get the conversation going. It made me realise I’m not the only one struggling. It also opened the conversational pathway for reciprocity. When people open themselves up to you and you reciprocate, you create trust and you start a cycle of mutual support, empathy and community. This is a really powerful process and leads to strong friendships.
Number three, don’t wait for someone to save you. Take the initiative, start your own support group or a lunch group with colleagues or a small group of friends whom you can look forward to meeting every Wednesday or every two weeks to checking in on each other.
I want to end with a really nice quote by the author of GRIT, Dr. Angela Duckworth.
I have thought about throwing in the towel so many times. But then I thought, at the end of the day, what kind of person do I want to be? “I get knocked down, but then I get up again” was always one of my favourite song lyrics by Chumawamba.
It’s cliché, but it’s true. The best measure of my character is what I do when things fall apart, including when I’m on the brink of a burn-out and I think I can’t go any further. There may be a time when walking away is the right thing to do. But if there’s a possibility that I just need to shift some of the ways I’m doing things, take a break, get some perspective, then I need to stick it out. I don’t want to look back one day and say I gave up too early.
I’ve been knocked down so many times that when things do go my way, I value it so much more and am filled with new energy to kickass with the opportunity I’ve been given and be ready for the next time I get knocked down but be more ready to dodge and get up faster.
With this rather long post, I leave you once again with a recap of the key takeaways. If I’ve missed anything, or if you’d like me to address any particular issue or topic, please leave a comment or send me a PM.
- Take your breaks
- Moderate your expectations of your data
- Don’t be a perfectionist; you know more than you think you do
- Manage your finances and save for the final dash if you have to
- Find trusted friends
- Check in with each other
Literature on burn-out from Dr. Peel’s presentation
Halkos, G. & Bousinakis, D. (2010). The effect of stress and satisfaction on productivity. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 59, 415-431. doi: 10.1108/17410401011052869
Byron, K., Khazanchi, S. & Nazarian, D. J.(2010). The relationship between stressors and creativity: A meta-analysis examining competing theoretical models. Journal of Applied Psychology,95, 201-212. doi: 10.1037/a0017868
Allen, H. K, Barrall, A. l., Vincent, K. B., & Arria, A. M. (2021). Stress and Burnout Among Graduate Students: Moderation by Sleep Duration and Quality. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine , 28:21–28
Erickson, M; Hanna, P; & Walker, C. (2020). The UK higher education senior management survey: A statactivist response to managerialist governance. Studies in Higher Education. doi: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1712693
Lin, S-H, & Huang, Y-C. (2014). Life stress and academic burnout. Active Learning in Higher Education, 15(1) 77-90. doi: 10.1177/1469787413514651