Burn-out is defined in the International Classification of Disease-11 as an “occupational phenomenon” caused by unmanaged, chronic stress. There are three major symptoms:
- Feeling physically tired
- No longer liking one’s job and/or studies
- Reduction in work quality
It’s no question that the culture in academia is one of overwork. From unspoken expectations to explicit rules, no one is ever going to tell you to work less. I once read — probably from a tweet that’s been lost to time — that we need to stop treating research like we work in an emergency room. Most of us aren’t emergently saving lives. We likely don’t need to work 12-hour days multiple times a week, but until we have a major reform of the academic system, avoiding burnout is something that we must navigate. Here are some strategies I’ve found most helpful to avoid burnout.
- Scheduling my week
I like to schedule my week by first scheduling things I must get done. Then, things I’d like to get done, but could wait. Finally, the superfluous things. Scheduling my week in this way ensures that emergent tasks get done without feeling like I have to work those 12-hour days trying to fit in every task.
- Purposeful nonwork activities
We all know work-life balance is critical, but it can fall by the wayside when things get busy. When you’re making a schedule, include activities that are fun or relaxing on your “have to do” list. For me, that means purposefully making myself rock climb a few times a week or scheduling time with friends.
I acknowledge that this item comes from a place of privilege, as often therapy costs money, and finding a good therapist takes time. But, when possible, having a supportive, unbiased party listen to your problems goes a long way. As school of medicine students, we have access to several mental health resources that are worth checking out.
- Taking time off
I don’t mean “take a day to catch up on reading and answering emails,” but take a week off to reset and to not think about research — as a preventive measure, not after you’re already burned out.
- Getting involved
One of the characteristics of burnout is not liking your job. I’ve found that focusing on aspects of my research that I most enjoy — writing and communication — helps re-spark my love for science when it wanes. For me, that means working in outreach and writing and editing for Johns Hopkins organizations.
Most of these tips probably aren’t new or life-changing to you, but a regular reminder to take care of yourself sometimes is needed. Hopefully some of these tips can be helpful in your own academic journey!