Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

In higher education institutions, faculty of color are professionally and mentally stretched. Dwayne A. Mack provides practical strategies to achieve a better work-life balance and avoid burnout.

March 25, 2016

As a historian, I often reflect on civil rights icons like Fannie Lou Hamer. During her testimony in 1964 before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention, Hamer detailed the injuries that she sustained from law enforcement in a Mississippi jail and the hostility constantly inflicted upon blacks in her state. In reference to her experience with white supremacy, Hamer bluntly said that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Now, in no way can I compare the horrific lived experiences of blacks in the Deep South with that of millennial faculty of color. Academe, however, does operate in a continual cycle of microaggressions and other forms of hostility. These aggressions are remnants of the Jim Crow era and, because of the challenges that faculty of color endure in the academy, some become “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This reality contributes to junior and senior faculty of color struggling to effectively maintain a work-life balance.

Academe is a challenging environment for faculty of color. Depending on the situation, predominantly-white campuses treat faculty of color as though they are invisible, and then, when it is convenient, they become hypervisible. On your journey to tenure, you will find that your contributions are often devalued, marginalized, ignored and, in some cases, appropriated by white faculty. For those failing to adjust to these campus customs, it is often difficult to maintain an effective work-life balance. If you accomplish this balancing act, you will achieve professional success, along with a healthy mind, body and soul.

Because productivity is essential in both worlds, I encourage faculty of color to establish a work balance so that life is lived. In most cases, we are tokenized and called upon to serve on committees to provide the illusion of diversity and inclusion. We are mentors, not only to the majority student population but also to students of color in need of academic and emotional support. The campus demands our time because our cultural capital contributes to the phenomenon known as cultural taxation. Senior faculty members and administrators expect us to invest countless hours on campus, mentoring students of color, fulfilling the racial quotas on committees and, of course, serving as the institution’s racial spokesperson -- all of which threaten work-life balance.

Most millennial faculty of color enter academe with unbridled optimism. You are globally conscious and civic-minded educators who expect transparency, meritocracy, respect, integrity, ethics and academic freedom. However, a tenure-track appointment is quite the opposite. For example, meritocracy is a myth, unethical behavior is common and academic freedom is stifled. In most cases, we enter institutions where faculty of color are professionally and mentally stretched.

Below, I offer four practical strategies for faculty of color to achieve a better work-life balance and to avoid burnout.

Strategy I: Seek Mentorship

Mentoring is important because mentors provide us with the intangibles that we need to advance in our careers. For this reason it is important to create a mentoring team to support various areas of your professional development. Besides understanding the importance of supporting your research and teaching agendas, effective mentors will also understand the importance of work-life balance. They help us navigate in the appropriate professional/tenure-track lane.

Mentors provide junior faculty with teaching and other professional development advice. They can smooth the paths toward tenure and promotion. For example, mentors such as a department chair or program coordinator can recommend high-profile committees on which to serve or avoid. These more desired committee appointments provide junior academics of color with campus visibility and opportunities to network with colleagues. Mentors also share information about committees that they consider time-consuming, excessive or burdensome.

Strategy II: Workplace Efficiency

Time management is also a crucial element to balancing work and life in academe. It is important that you monitor the amount of time that you spend on advising, course preparation, meetings and writing. Because most junior faculty must prepare their courses from scratch, overwork can throw life off balance. Besides adjusting to the work environment and community, early-career academics are now responsible for developing courses, syllabi, lecture notes, writing assignments and exams. These responsibilities must be carefully planned and incorporated into daily work life.

There are several time-management apps that you can use on a smartphone, computer or tablet. These apps serve as a virtual life coach, measuring how much time you devote to each task. Effective time management allows for greater productivity. It also encourages the setting of priorities to achieve a better balance.

Time management also enables us to avoid certain professional traps that inhibit work-life balance. For example, new faculty members must learn to avoid excessive use of technology, even though most of us are inundated with work-related email and phone messages. Designate a time of day to respond to email and phone messages. Although we are expected to respond to students and colleagues immediately, it is impossible to maintain a work-life balance in this way. This strategy contributes to freedom from technology and for more time enjoying life on and off campus.

Another strategy to improve balance in your life revolves around attending to your mind and body. Because higher education is a stressful environment, prioritize making improvements to the quality of your life. I encourage faculty of color to explore campus health and wellness initiatives. Instead of sitting in the office all day, consider participating in a campus-sponsored or individual exercise program.

Strategy III: Separate Work Time and Personal Time

Some department environments in academe resemble reality television shows, where your activities and personal business are under heavy surveillance. Office drama brings baggage. You should make a goal of leaving personal business at home and dissociate yourself from office gossip and excessive joking. Sometimes comments are misconstrued, leading you to spend time defending yourself to campus authorities. Faculty of color should also avoid or limit discussing work at home. Avoiding office drama and leaving work in the office encourages a better balance between work and life.

Strategy IV: Self-Promote

Part of work-life balance also includes promoting yourself through an aggressive publication record and successful grant applications. As you enter academe, it is important to invest energy in research, especially in publish-or-perish research environments. Your brand and credentials come first. Find time on or away from the campus to focus on research and writing. Although a rigorous process, research and writing can be therapy for the soul. Publications build professional respect and can serve as your professional security blanket. The road to tenure becomes much smoother when it is paved with peer-reviewed books, articles and grants.

Part of the self-promotion strategy involves working off campus. Since your campus office can be a revolving door of students and sometimes even of colleagues, a home office space is the best place to advance your scholarly career. Most academics have Internet service at home, allowing us to research scholarly databases and send research queries. Working from home has made it possible for me to self-promote through publishing.

Concluding Thoughts

These strategies placed me on the trajectory to earn tenure and promotion at a small liberal arts college. I was able to remain committed to family responsibilities while maintaining a passion for teaching, mentoring and engaging my campus community. At its core, I share these as practical approaches to promote workplace efficiency and personal enrichment. Within institutional structures, we need creative alternative strategies to find our work-life balance in order to avoid us becoming “sick and tired of being sick and tired” in our professional and personal activities.


Dwayne A. Mack is associate professor of history and Carter G. Woodson Chair of African American History at Berea College. He is the lead editor of multiple academic advice books, including Beginning a Career in Academia: A Guide for Graduate Students of Color (Routledge, 2015) and Mentoring Faculty of Color: Essays on Professional Advancement in Colleges and Universities (McFarland Publishers, 2013). Some parts of this article have been adapted from the author's essay “Practical Strategies for Achieving a Work-Life Balance: Fired Up! Ready to Go!” in Beginning a Career in Academia: A Guide for Graduate Students of Color.


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