We live in a fast-paced society that often glorifies “hustle culture.” This pressure to accomplish and perform exists alongside advances in technology that keep us perpetually dialed into an awareness of things to do, information to process, or the sense that we “miss out by unplugging.” For collegiate staff and students, this experience can be heightened due to the interplay of some unique aspects of higher education and/or student needs. These factors combined can contribute to burnout, a state of work-related exhaustion that may include difficult physical, emotional, and psychological impacts.
The entirety of how our culture operates can contribute to burnout, as noted above. However, some aspects of higher education can make this even more challenging. As an example, the compact scheduling of semesters marks a clear beginning and end to the “work” of the school year. However, because they are delineated so formally, it can tempt students and staff alike to operate as though work is the focus during the semester and rest is the focus during summer and holiday breaks. It is rare for most other professions to experience this intense dichotomy for those extended periods of time.
Additionally, the workload from semester to semester, year to year for both students and staff can change drastically. It is often tempting in higher ed, either due to shortages, opportunities, or a desire to hurry through course requirements, to take on more preps or courses than is healthy for an individual’s well-being. Many staff and students can be heard saying, “I’ll just do a little more this semester and go back to a healthy load another semester.” For some, they follow through. For others, they simply push themselves to the limit again.
Lastly, many areas of higher education enjoy being on the cutting edge of technology, communication, educational strategy, etc. The interconnectedness of social media, the internet, continual news feeds, etc. is already difficult for many to balance. However, when in a collegiate environment, the professional and/or social pressure or requirements to be engaged with these ever-present stimulations can be even higher.
Higher education is not the only experience where burnout is prevalent. In fact, the recognition that professors benefit from occasional sabbaticals suggests that there is an awareness of the need for respite. In addition, working for or attending an institution of higher education is a highlight in many people’s personal and professional journeys. So, what are some ways to enjoy this distinct privilege while avoiding a difficult season(s) of burnout?
- Treat each semester like a season of life, not work. Rather than working intensely and only resting when a formal break comes, recognize that each semester is a season of life where work requirements are higher, and so should be the strategy for restoration. Filling out your planner or syllabus each semester should take into account not only what needs to get done during those approximately sixteen weeks, but also how to come out on the other end physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy.
- Similarly, because a higher education career or even a degree is typically a multi-year experience, consider what choices of workload will let you endure that time in a healthy way. It can be tempting to take on “just a bit more” each semester. However, operating at the edge of our margins on a consistent basis is a significant contributor to burnout. Because, while technically someone can do what they may have taken on, that leaves no room to manage when life happens (i.e., illness, family issues, relationship conflict, daily mishaps, etc.). It can help to leave slightly more room than needed to account for this.
- Finally, it can help to intentionally consider one’s relationship with information and stimulation. While everyone’s tolerance is different, disconnection from social media, technology, notifications, etc. is an occasional beneficiary detox for nearly everyone. And, especially if disconnection causes a sense of fear, that anxiety can contribute to burnout. If the requirements for your higher education career or degree require additional time “connected” it can help to find other ways to disconnect to gain balance.
Higher education is a distinct privilege. However, the pace and culture have left far too many students and staff at risk for burnout. Intentionally approaching this experience in these different ways may just let both staff and students enjoy, and remain longer in a state of wellness, in these institutions.
January 23, 2023. By Anne Rulo, Author, Speaker, Therapist. www.annerulo.com. FB/IG/Twitter @annemrulo