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In the past few months, nearly all my conversations have focused on burnout. One friend is running on fumes, another wonders how to keep teaching when her body says no and still another rattles off a near-endless list of what’s not getting done. Such stories are nearly endless, too. The recent Inside Higher Ed opinion piece “Academe, Hear Me. I Am Crying Uncle” captures the experiences of many people I know.
Though conversation after conversation focuses on burnout, and though the World Health Organization recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon, we still treat it primarily as an individual matter. And in many ways, burnout can feel very isolating and lonely. This was the case for me in the years before tenure, when I was deciding to leave my faculty position, and in the months that followed, when I fell into an even messier chrysalis period.
Despite being personally experienced, burnout is collectively constructed through dehumanizing systems. It cumulates as institutions and interactions signal disregard and disrespect. Truly, burnout is rooted in and related to the systems of oppression meant to undermine humanity and wholeness. So, for those of us committed to justice, how might we honor ourselves and each other through experiences of burnout? How might we honor our shared humanity and act in ways that are rehumanizing?
I seek answers to these questions with humility, as a white cisgender woman with a lot to learn and unlearn as well as a lot of relative power to name and rename, to heal and counter burnout. The answers to these questions include, for me, reframing how we understand burnout and seeking collective—not only individual—responses. If we can imagine collective actions, such as blocking harm through saying no, then we can better honor ourselves and each other.
Renaming and Reframing Burnout
How we name an experience determines, in no small part, how we can acknowledge, interpret and make meaning of it. When I first recognized my own burnout, I wanted to resist naming it, because doing so felt like a personal failing, as if I should have been able to catch myself before being burned.
By the time I could say, “I’m experiencing burnout,” I was well into it—so deeply exhausted that despite being an avid reader, I could barely read. My mind couldn’t take in new information. What once had given me joy now drained the little energy I had. This recognition, along with others, let me know that something was wrong.
Even once I recognized burnout, I resisted and wanted to reframe the language. Rather than naming myself as “burned out,” I was feeling “burned up.” I was carrying years of the trauma of graduate education and persistent epistemic injustice—both experienced firsthand and witnessed through friends, mentors, colleagues, students and research participants. I was beyond angry about everyday microaggressions and feeling blocked by efforts to make change within my department, university and discipline. I was raging about the Black tax, presumed incompetence and characteristics of white supremacy culture running throughout higher education. I kept repeating that I was exhausted and weary. Only recently, through reading Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, have I learned that women often say we are tired when we are really angry.
The term “burnout” just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t that my flame had gone out on its own. It was that I didn’t have the necessary fuel or breathing room to keep it alight. Recognizing that I needed to tend to my fire—to rekindle it and keep it burning brightly—meant getting curious about what had put the fire out in the first place. And what would reignite it?
I begin here because how we name a phenomenon shapes not only the questions we ask but also the possible practices and interventions we imagine. What happens if instead of saying, “We’re burned out,” we look to what, how, who, when, where and why we are being burned up—used up, taken for granted, overworked, devalued, enraged and enflamed? If burnout is a sign of dishonoring, then how do we instead honor ourselves and each other? How can we better acknowledge, provide support and bear witness to others’ burnout?
Recognizing Burnout as Requiring Collective Action
To begin, we can recognize burnout as more than an individual experience.
We have many reasons to feel burned out or up. Especially now—within the ongoing pandemic—we’re collectively living in a mass trauma event and experiencing ever-deepening denial, grief, rage and distrust. For many of us, workplace burnout is rooted in an inequitable infrastructure that puts the most labor and least credit on those conditionally accepted. For many, that added labor is accompanied by extensive caretaking responsibilities, if not also caretaker burnout.
People who work in higher education face constant pressure to go, go, go—so much so that end-of-year exhaustion is more than a seasonal rhythm. The demands are both nearly endless and inequitably distributed. Further, the pandemic has magnified systemic oppression, ableism, capitalist productivity pressures and the wide-reaching consequences of institutional whiteness and white supremacist violence—all of which are structural and not just individual.
Structural violence ripples outward, making numerous personal and collective impacts. Personally, we are seeking support for navigating those conditions, while collectively, it’s hard to find and afford mental health counseling. Personally, we are making decisions to change positions or leave higher education, while collectively, we are in the midst of the great resignation. Personally, we are seeking deep rest and connection, while collectively, everyday life normalizes “overworking, overdoing and underliving,” to cite Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing (one of the best books I’ve read on burnout).
Speaking truth—naming those and other conditions—is a starting point toward recognizing how widespread burnout truly is.
So, to honor ourselves and each other through burnout:
- Could we be more truthful about who is burned out and why? Because even as a collective experience, burnout has differential consequences and entails differential risks.
- Could we collectively resist urgency and other pressures that exert power over others? Because these pressures are undercutting our humanity.
- Could we collectively ask what we’re for? Because a commitment to education can’t involve sacrificing educators.
These questions, I hope, guide us toward more than an individual framework, because burnout is more than an individual problem. Moving toward action, we must keep asking not only about ourselves but also about each other. The possible interventions are sure to be numerous, but here is one illustrative case.
So many articles on burnout advise individuals experiencing burnout to reset expectations, draw boundaries and ultimately do less and say no. This advice is aligned with research on caring for the whole person: body, mind, emotion and spirit. It is one effort toward reconnecting with our humanity. But how do we make this advice more than individual?
“No” is an incredibly powerful action, one of the most radical statements we can make. It can block harm and assert boundaries. It can also create space and opportunities for what we want to build and whom we want to be. It is key to healing burnout. And it is also an assertion predicated on agency, power and control—the very things undermined by systemic oppression and in disempowering work situations. Even the Mayo Clinic’s page on burnout highlights “lack of control”—along with “unclear job expectations” and “dysfunctional workplace dynamics”—as a core contributor to burnout.
To follow the advice for burnout and say no, we need to get clear on to whom, and, more important, with whom and for whom, we can say no. Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed explains, “If your position is precarious, you might not be able to afford no. You might say yes if you cannot afford to say no, which means you can say yes whilst disagreeing with something. This is why the less precarious might have a political obligation to say no on behalf of or alongside those who are more precarious.” Ahmed alerts us not only to the stakes and differential risks involved in saying no but also how saying no can be more than an individual act.
For those of us with more power and less precarity, the questions include: Are we saying no to block harm and counter injustice? Are we normalizing no as an everyday and collective, not only personal, response? Are we making it possible for others to say no? Are we saying no to also say yes—that is, toward what our commitments are asking of us?
Imagining Other Possibilities
When the advice on countering burnout focuses on individuals and individual responses, then we may fail to consider how we contribute to others’ burnout, even while acknowledging our own. Consider, for example, when we rightly take time to answer emails but expect other people to respond to our emails right away. Or when we scale back our workloads but won’t allow others to cancel the program, dissolve the committee or botch the report. How many times do we push past the point of depletion and expect others to do the same? What if instead of twirling plates, we allow them to break? What if we open to ruptures and detach from the way things are done?
The answers to such questions may mean significant, not slight, changes.
For so long—in the years leading up to and through burnout—I minimized my own physical symptoms of work-related stress. I pushed through back pain and manifested multiple illnesses. When I finally recognized burnout, I was faced with recognizing patterns of harm to myself and to others—and repairing that harm when possible. Such recognition involved time for grieving and feeling emotions, for reflecting and journaling, and for communicating differently (lots of writing and revising for myself and for other people).
This deep self-work involved understanding that my actions impact others. If I want to create space for my own healing, I need to create space for others’ healing as well.
To give myself grace means giving others grace. To need a slower pace means imagining that others need a slower pace. To break autopilot means inviting others to break autopilot.
My final semester of classroom teaching—deep in burnout—I taught Contemplative Writing, with a focus on body-based practices, guided meditations and careful reading of a single text, Alice Walker’s Living by the Word. I observed students lingering over each essay, so unlike typical assigned reading. Students not only read with care; they also showed up for each other and their writing with care. I was actively learning how lowering the stakes and stress of the semester created more relational investment and self-directed learning.
This is only one of the ways I realized burnout offers opportunities of learning and unlearning. Because of burnout, I had to clarify my commitments and identify where I was out of alignment with them. I had to distinguish my strong yes from my hell no. I had to review my actions, asking which were draining and which were fueling me. In other words, because of burnout, I had to change myself. I couldn’t stay in patterns that weren’t serving me or others. And that seems to be a real offering of burnout: it alerts us that things aren’t right and need to change.
As someone still learning about burnout—although in a very different place, with the energy to read again and my back well tended—I hope we will continue to hold questions about how we can honor ourselves and each other through burnout. May we continue to rename and reframe burnout, recognizing it as a collective experience. And may we imagine many potential interventions into injustice—saying no being one of many.