Early Career Psychologist Column

Burnout in academia

Stop the crash and burn (out): Ways to recognize and prevent academic burnout.
By Elizabeth Holly, PhD

What is burnout? At one point (or more) in their career most academics have tangoed with burnout. Much of the research on burnout in academia and beyond comes from the occupational health field, which defines burnout as a prolonged state of chronic stress that leads to symptoms in three dimensions: emotional and physical exhaustion, cynicism/detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness/inefficiency and lack of accomplishment1. Regardless of career stage, academics self-report high levels of stress, with more than 70 percent of higher education staff reporting high or very high levels of stress2 and more than 25 percent of university faculty report experiencing burnout often or very often3. So, if you're experiencing burnout, you are not alone; this is a normal part of high stress careers like academia — odds are that many of the successful academics you look up to have gone through it too and would tell you that it passes.

So, what can we do to combat burnout?

  • Recognize the symptoms early. Like many conditions, burnout is easiest to address if it is identified early. When you start to feel the symptoms described earlier, intervene quickly. These symptoms are often coupled with changes in sleep and appetite, which potentiates the cycle and can profoundly impact overall physical and mental health.
  • Rely on your support system. We are not alone. Given the high prevalence of researchers reporting stress and burnout, it is very likely at least one of your peers has previously experienced or is currently experiencing the same thing. In addition to valuable emotional support, your peers may be able to provide some practical help as well. If you are a postdoc, it may be difficult to talk to your principal investigator directly, but another external faculty mentor could also provide advice and support.
  • Take care of your body and mind. During periods of high stress, we often stop taking care of ourselves, sleeping less and eating unhealthily (or not eating at all), all of which can cause us to get sick more often, which of course makes matters worse. Schedule yourself time to eat healthy, balanced meals — yes, plural, as in three a day. Your brain cannot work efficiently if you aren't giving it fuel. If you're having trouble sleeping, think twice about whether you really need that afternoon or evening coffee. And get active. Aerobic exercise has significant cognitive and emotional benefits4. Meditation also has stress reducing effects5, so consider finding a group or class and starting a practice.
  • Adjust your work/life balance. And by that, I mean work less, at least temporarily. Give yourself a break; unplug for a night or weekend (tip: go camping with no cell signal so you can't work even if you try). The key is to give yourself space from work when you are not at work; research shows that more hours spent with family and leisure activities are associated with reduced burnout3.
  • Seek professional help. Academics are up to two times more likely to experience mental health issues than the average population, so don't hesitate to seek professional help if your burnout leads to increased anxiety or depression.

1 Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E., Leiter, M.P. (1996). Maslach burnout inventory manual (3 rd ed pp.), Palo Alto, California: Consulting Psychologist Press.

2 Kinman, G., Wray, S. (2013). Higher Stress: A survey of stress and well-being among staff in higher education. University and College Union.

3 Padilla, M.A., Thompson, J.N. (2016). Burning out at doctoral research universities. Stress Health, 32, 551-558.

4 Hillman, C.H., Erickson, K.I., Kramer, A.F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: Exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 58-65.

5 Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57 , 35-43.