How to Cope With Covid-19 Burnout
Chronicle of Higher Education - "Teaching" newsletter (May 21, 2020)
How to Manage Burnout
Rebecca Pope-Ruark was the kind of professor whom other professors could be forgiven for envying. Hard-working, accomplished, and inventive, she spent years at Elon University happily teaching professional writing and rhetoric. She wrote a book on how to juggle the many responsibilities of being an academic. And when the chance to build a capstone project for juniors and seniors came up, she dove in with enthusiasm. It was a complex challenge, requiring hours every day negotiating with multiple service-learning partners, other faculty members, and students.
Then something strange happened. In the spring of 2018, Pope-Ruark began feeling anxious and depressed. She started having panic attacks. She would find herself standing in a stairwell for half an hour trying to figure out what to eat for lunch. At home, as soon as she began reading journal articles after dinner, she would fall asleep. Perhaps most troubling, she began avoiding her students. “My entire career was dedicated to students,” she recalls. “And suddenly I couldn't stand them.”
She felt ashamed and embarrassed. Professors are supposed to be productive, she thought. Reputation is the coin of the realm. If she admitted something was wrong, wouldn’t that prove she was a fraud or, worse yet, replaceable?
It took well over a year, but eventually Pope-Ruark regained her equilibrium. She began by reading about burnout and recognizing herself in its symptoms, which include emotional and intellectual exhaustion as well as cynicism about the people you’re supposed to care for. She entered therapy. And she told her colleagues, who, she says, were unfailingly supportive. It turns out they had been worrying for a long time about her overextending herself.
As the novel coronavirus has forced thousands of professors to work longer and harder than ever before to do something —teaching remotely — that many find deeply unsatisfying, Pope-Ruark is seeing those same warning signs in others. Instructors are being run ragged. They feel cynical about the experience, a view that extends sometimes to their students. And they wonder whether their extra work is even valued.
Having lived through burnout and come out of it stronger and wiser, Pope-Ruark has been sharing her experience with others, in hopes of offering support and advice for how to deal with teaching during a pandemic. Coping with burnout at this juncture, she says, when remote teaching might last for several more months, is critical to everyone’s mental health.
“People are just exhausted and can’t understand why they can’t do what they used to do,” she says. “We’re not taking the time to celebrate our accomplishments. We’re not taking the time to be open.”
So let go of traditional notions of productivity, she advises. Connect with others. Show compassion, but set boundaries. And find your sense of purpose.
Pope-Ruark, who is writing a book about professor burnout, eventually left Elon and moved into a different kind of academic career. She is now a teaching-and-learning specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she has recently helped to support instructors in the shift to remote teaching.
She let go of ambitions of leadership as part of her career change, she says, and is happily part of a team. She says she recognized that academe’s coin of the realm, productivity, was not working for her anymore, and that she needed to reconfigure her ideas about what a truly meaningful academic life means.
“Who are you if you’re not doing?” she recalled her mind-set at the time. “I spent a lot of time not feeling. Doing was kind of the way I defined myself. And I couldn’t do it anymore.”
In today’s crisis, when faculty members are “stuck in a grief cycle that never ends,” she says, it’s particularly important for academics to remind themselves of why they do what they do in the first place. Although that is central to professional satisfaction, Pope-Ruark says, purpose is often tough to articulate. Yet having those conversations, both individually and collectively, is important.
"For me, teaching was what I loved, ultimately: helping people learn,” she says. “Teaching is still my passion, but in a different way. Now I’m teaching faculty how to better help their students.”
She advises faculty members to go back to that “beginning moment” that got them into academe. Then try to separate what they loved about it from what they’re dealing with now — the pandemic, campus politics, or other stressors.
She knows people who have been able to rekindle their sense of purpose by taking professional-development courses or joining groups that help them focus on that core identity. “That puts them in a position to support their purpose when they come out of this.”
She advises professors who feel burned out to create connections with their peers and show compassion for their students. “The more we isolate, the worse it gets,” she says. “Reach out to people. Let yourself be vulnerable.” For example, she and her office colleagues each lunch together every week via Zoom, where they can talk about anything.
It’s also OK to discuss stress with students, she says, to let them know that, yes, this is a weird time. At the same time, it’s necessary to set boundaries. Don’t just create an open Zoom channel for anyone to hop in. Set up one-on-one and small-group conversations with students. Start a Slack channel, or a text thread. Also, clearly delineate work hours. Build in transition time to your home life.
She also advises people to give themselves a break when it comes to productivity. As long as you’re meeting the learning objectives of your course, even if it's not of the same quality as it would be normally, let go of guilt. “It’s OK to be a little mediocre right now.”
And be sure not to take out your frustration on students. Pope-Ruark has watched with concern some of the complaints playing out on social media with a “hyperfocus” on student cheating. “If you don’t have a language for compassion fatigue, for that exhaustion, for that ‘Why can’t I do what I usually do?’,” she says, “it becomes unhealthy, and it trickles down to our students.”
Pope-Ruark’s advice reminds me of an essay we ran in March, “Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure,” by Aisha S. Ahmad. She, too, suggests that academics stop trying to power through these strange times by being extra-busy and efficient. Ahmad advises embracing the new normal and understanding that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Have you found a way to cope with the feeling of burnout? Perhaps you’ve readjusted your approach to teaching, created a support group with peers or students, or found a new way to reclaim your sense of purpose. If so, write to me at email@example.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.