As the Covid19 pandemic and related adjustments extended over months and years, conversations about burnout seemed to increase. The additional pressure of the pandemic seems to have pushed several people over the edge.
A client who was already working with me to move a book project forward took a medical leave for burnout about 4 months into the pandemic, while they were on sabbatical. They had already been seeing a therapist, talking to their GP, and seeing an occupational therapist alongside working with me. Their occupational therapist recommended that they stop writing. They were understandably reluctant to do this, but also recognized that they weren’t enjoying it the way they had in the past. They was struggling to motivate themself. They were finding it more difficult. So they took that advice.
The pandemic wasn’t the only thing going on for them. And talking to them about the recommendations other professionals were making and how they related to our work together opened my eyes to some things. This turned out to be extremely useful when I started getting queries from people about my services. I want people to reach out to me when they are struggling with their writing, struggling to manage their workload, finding it hard to concentrate, and/or starting to hate the (parts of the) work they used to love.
But I can’t always help, at least not right away.
One of the people I declined to help reached out via the contact form on my website, which means our conversation is already in writing. They gave me permission to share our correspondence, suitably anonymised. Others have reached out by booking a free consultation. The basic situation looks a bit like this:
I am hoping that you may be able to help me navigate current feelings of complete burnout, being overwhelmed, overstretched, and dealing with loss of creativity, excitement, and ability to produce.
The thought of research and writing, though I love it, makes me shut down immediately. I can’t focus, I can’t write: I am barely able to read for pleasure. I am dealing with a total academic block!
Burnout is more serious than you think.
I note that this person uses the term “burnout”. Their description worried me. Here is part of my reply:
Thank you for reaching out. I am not qualified to diagnose this, but what you describe sounds a lot like what another client experienced and may be clinical burnout. Cognitive fatigue is a major aspect of this. The treatment seems to be radical rest.
I would suggest that you speak to your primary care physician, or a therapist or counsellor, and seriously consider taking sick leave. My other client worked with an occupational therapist which was very helpful. The occupational therapist even suggested that they stop writing (something that they used to find very meaningful and important but were struggling to do) until they’d recovered somewhat. That client is now back to their writing, and back to work, but after 3 months leave.
I’m sorry you are experiencing this. It is frightening. You are not alone. It is not your fault you are in this place. Please seek diagnosis and help for the underlying condition as soon as possible.
You can do this! I hope you are able to get the health-care support you need.
I’m so glad I took the time to write that. Their response made it clear that they hadn’t realised that “burnout” could be an actual medical condition. Just putting the adjective “clinical” in front of the word, shifted something for them.
I cannot thank you enough for your response. I honestly think that it might be life and career-changing. I was not familiar with clinical burnout; thus, I looked it up. I have every single symptom.
I have actually been dealing with every single symptom, and still pushing through with work and writing, since this past summer. [Note: They contacted me in January!]
Reading the literature actually brought me to tears because it was the first time, in a really long time, that I have felt validated and seen.
I met with my doctor yesterday, actually, and am waiting to hear back from one of a few therapists that I reached out to. I am planning to talk some of this over with them to see what they think.[end blockquote]
Identifying the problem.
An important, but often overlooked, step in problem solving is identifying the problem. I say “often overlooked” because you generally think you know what the problem is. Something like:
- Struggling to motivate yourself to write
- Not making progress on your important projects
- Difficulty focusing
You may even recognize underlying issues like an unreasonable workload, or externally imposed changes (like the shift to remote working) making your usual strategies ineffective.
These things might be the problem. They also might be symptoms of a deeper issue.
Here are the red flags I noticed in the request I quoted earlier:
“…loss of creativity, excitement, and ability to produce.”
“I can’t focus, I can’t write: I am barely able to read for pleasure.”
In addition to “clinical burnout”, you might look up “cognitive fatigue” which is the term my client’s occupational therapist used. The Emily & Amelia Nagoski book Burnout focuses on emotional exhaustion and depletion of empathy.
You don’t need to go do a lot of medical research. You hardly have time for your own work, and you are probably struggling to focus. There are other professionals you can consult who have this expertise.
You do need to pay attention to the specifics of what’s going on for you. Start by noticing. Take notes, even if they are incomplete.
- What’s actually happening when this happens?
- How are you feeling when this happens?
- What stories are you telling yourself about what’s happening?
In addition to helping you understand what’s happening, this will help you explain things to whoever you reach out to. Me. Your doctor. A counsellor or therapist. Your pharmacist. A mental health helpline.
You can reach out to more than one of those. Your initial goal is to figure out the nature of the problem and get a sense of what kinds of things might help.
Yes, you can take medical leave.
Burnout is a real medical condition. In my response to some of these queries, I’ve suggested taking sick leave as part of a strategy for recovering. Hopefully you can access appropriate treatment and support to begin your recovery.
Radical rest is definitely part of it, so hopefully your doctor will get you signed off. That’s hard, but remind yourself that if you had cancer or some other illness that made you so sick you couldn’t concentrate, you’d lie in bed being bored.
The person quoted earlier is not alone in being unsure about whether they could take a complete leave on medical grounds right away. This reluctance to believe that sick leave is really an option, prompted me to publish “Yes, you should take sick leave” in May 2021.
Your uncertainty is a symptom of an institutional failure. By law (at least in the UK, Europe, and Canada), you are legally entitled to sick leave. Universities are not very good employers in this regard, and don’t usually have good processes for ensuring your work gets done when you can’t do it. This might be excusable for your research, but your teaching, advising, and service should be replaceable. And policies for how the impact on your research will be taken into account in evaluation processes like promotion, tenure, etc should be clear. It’s probably not. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to sick leave.
Ask for accommodations.
If sick leave is not appropriate or possible, the processes for disability accommodation may help you get relief from some of your responsibilities, or adjustments that make it easier to do some of your essential work. Temporary disability is still a disability. If you broke your leg, you’d need accommodations to enable you to get around until it healed. (This process can be anything from frustrating to enraging. I’ve linked an article in the related posts that will help you understand the underlying logic so you can be prepared.)
Start by asking yourself what would make it possible for you to do your work. You don’t have to do things the hard way. What would make it easier for you? The specifics you noticed will come in handy. Also identify the work that only you can do and think about whether relief from tasks that could be assigned to others would make that easier.
You may or may not have to use the formal processes, so start by asking for what you need.
For example, one person I’ve worked with got extra TA support for their marking to take them to the end of term and then took 6 months sick leave (which their institution could hire cover for). They had already changed most of their assignments because they knew they couldn’t read a paper longer than 2 pages. It was relatively easy for their head of department to hire a TA in the short term, freeing my client to focus on the PhD students who were submitting and being examined.
Figure out who could provide the accommodation you need. In the case of your research, you may be able to request an extension from your funder (It may be called a deferral or a no-cost extension.) You may be able to use some of your research funds to support extra RAs. There may be funds available to hire a copy editor for publications close to submittable. Publication deadlines can probably be renegotiated.
Your high level of autonomy over your workload means you can also just not do a lot of things. You may want the medical paperwork so you can make sure it is taken into account in relation to performance evaluation, contract renewal, tenure, or whatever else.
When I can help: recovery.
At a certain point, you will be recovered enough to start taking up “light duties”. You might be on a phased return to work. You might start experimenting with reading and writing while still officially off so you can do it with minimum pressure.
In my initial reply I was clear about what kind of support I could offer at that point. Having been away from writing due to illness and treatment for illness is a good reason to seek support from me. If you’ve had to fudge your own treatment, you might seek my support when you feel ready to think about trying to bring writing back in.
If/when you think getting back into writing slowly might be a good idea, I would recommend starting by joining the Academic Writing Studio and committing to attending 1 session of A Meeting With Your Writing (MWYW) a week.
Do not set output goals. Pick a project. And do something during the session: read, make notes, write about why you don’t want to write, analyse some data or sources, organise your sources or files, etc.
Your goal is to just become more comfortable with the project and spending time on it.
Think of it like rehab after a physical injury. Start slow. Stop when you hit the edge of discomfort. Keep showing up and allow it to take as long as it takes. (that means if you come to MWYW and only do 15 minutes and then leave, that’s okay!).
Illness can also be a good reason to rethink your work habits. The support I provide for developing sustainable work habits can be helpful as you make these changes. The planning classes and group coaching I offer in the Studio can help you figure that out on an ongoing basis.
You may want more sustained individual support for these changes. Guide for the Journey coaching might be suitable, though it should not be used as an alternative to proper treatment for burnout. Your (occupational) therapist can help you determine when coaching specifically related to your academic work might be helpful. I do have a waiting list, so talk to them about this early and then contact me for a free consultation so we can try to coordinate availability with your readiness.
When I can help: before it’s too late.
You might not be clinically burned out. Yet. There may be clear signs you are on the way there.
Maybe you think you’ve lost the sense of meaning that your job once gave you, but you can still identify what would make it meaningful. It’s just that you never seem to have time and energy to do those parts of the job. That’s different from my client who was regularly devoting time to writing, a part of the job that they had found meaningful (and even enjoyable), but dreading it.
Writing may or may not be the thing for you, but if you know what used to make the job feel meaningful, notice whether you have lost that sense of purpose or whether you just aren’t finding time for it. If you are struggling to focus, notice some specifics.
- Is it that the circumstances have changed and your old strategies don’t work?
- Or are you struggling to focus on anything?
- Is it just intellectually complex things you can’t focus on?
- Or is it almost everything?
Do you feel like you are coping but it’s precarious? Maybe the things you are doing to keep everything under control are not sustainable for this long, or much longer. You haven’t broken down yet, but you don’t want to if you can help it.
That’s something my services can help with. The Academic Writing Studio even has a no questions asked Pay Less option for those who need it.
Don’t be afraid to reach out.
The idea that things might have gone beyond stress, fatigue, and struggling to cope to constitute a diagnosable medical condition is hard to deal with. The pandemic response has revealed just how ableist our culture is and how much illness is seen as weakness. It is understandable that the people contacting me are in denial about how severe their situation really is. No one wants to be burned out.
And maybe it’s not burnout. Maybe you are wondering if you have ADHD, or autism, or some other disability. Maybe you have long-covid or some other post-viral illness. Or all the cortisol and adrenaline your body has been producing in response to everything has started to affect you physically. (Burnout by Emily & Amelia Nagoski will introduce you to the literature on the last one.)
I am not qualified to diagnose any of these things but I have worked with academics who have them. I have a sense of what it looks like. I know it’s not the end of the world, even if it may feel like it.
If reaching out to me is a step you can take, take that step. Depending what’s going on with you, my services might help you make things 5-10% better. That might make pursuing a diagnosis feel more possible. Or, telling me what’s going on — having me ask you some questions and make some suggestions — might help you take the next step towards getting help from someone else.
I also encourage you to look into your employer’s Employee Assistance Plan (or whatever they call it). Some clients have used this for some initial mental health support that has made a huge difference. I used these services myself years ago when I was still working in academia. Usually these are contracted out to a company that maintains your confidentiality. There may be a waiting list but it’s better to be on the waiting list than not.
Or, call a mental health helpline. Call the suicide helpline even if you aren’t sure you are feeling suicidal. Call the telehealth line. Make an appointment to see your doctor, even if you have to wait. You won’t be wasting their time.
I will end this post the way I ended the email I’ve quoted from:
You can do this! I hope you are able to get the health-care support you need.
Related posts & resources:
I recommend this article for an understanding of the ways in which asking for accommodations will be frustrating. Forewarned is forearmed.
Aimée Morrison “(Un)reasonable, (Un)necessary, and (In)appropriate: Biographic Mediation of Neurodivergence in Academic Accommodations.” Biography. Special issue on Biographical Mediation, ed. Ebony Coletu. Vol. 42, no. 3. 2019. DOI: 10.1353/bio.2019.0066