Her View From Work: One Professor’s Thoughts on Burnout and Questions of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Juliane Schicker (Carleton College)
During the 2022 winter term at my home institution, Carleton College, the hallways were filled with an atmosphere of a particularly tough exhaustion. The majority of faculty, students, and staff seemed tired, overwhelmed, and on edge. As an academic who is also a mother of a young child, I felt the same, and was also painfully aware that the current global situation has been weighing on a lot of people heavier than usually. Carleton’s inhabitants are no strangers to intense stress, but the last months have made it all a lot harder, at least for me: we are dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its ramifications for especially female caregivers and People of Color, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, legislation that endangers the rights of trans children and pregnant women, and the ongoing “racism pandemic” with another act of “hate-filled domestic terrorism” in Buffalo, NY, last week.
In my search for ways to combat my stressful situation, and as a result of my research into and teaching about the lives of working women in German-speaking countries from around 1900 until today, I want to focus in this post on the growing culture of overwhelm and overwork especially at institutions of higher learning. I will share my own experiences with burnout and that of some of my students to draw attention to the intersection of burnout and questions of inclusion, diversity, and equity. With this reflection, I hope to contribute to a critical and systematic approach to combating burnout and its detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of faculty and students.
The Jewish German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger was one of the first to describe cases of physical or mental collapse that were a result of overwork. Through his research, the concept of burnout entered the realm of psychological diagnoses in 1974. One step beyond the feeling of temporary exhaustion, burnout robs the person of the freeing feeling that accomplishments provide, and traps them in a cycle of being chronically overwhelmed. Potential symptoms one may experience include fatigue and loss of joy, but also resentment and the inability to hand over work to others. Dean Spade, Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law, assembled an informative list of feelings and symptoms one may experience when burned out in a post he published on his blog in 2019.
Even though we have been aware of burnout for a while now, this illness is not included in the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, which means that getting medical help tailored to one’s struggles with burnout becomes much harder, if not impossible. Eve Ettinger, writer and educator in D.C., questions the terminology of burnout and suggests exploring how what we experience especially now sounds much more like complex post-traumatic stress disorder (or CPTSD, which is a medical condition in the DSM-5). This concept was defined in 1988 by the American psychiatrist Judith Herman and expresses the continuing exposure to certain traumatic experiences. As someone who has suffered from PTSD because of domestic violence, I see the connections between stress and trauma clearly.
I believe that we must share individual and collective experiences of the symptoms these possible diagnoses entail, so that people do not struggle in silence on their own, but can enter a shared space to seek and offer support. I am a white, female tenure-track professor at Carleton, in what is considered to be one of the better positions in academia, which seems to suggest that I should be more in control over my well-being. I spend around 190 hours in an average year in the classroom, which is less than many other academics report, and I get paid a better salary for it. I have a continuing contract with the prospect of earning tenure at a college that has an endowment of over 1 billion dollars and can meet 100 percent of every student’s demonstrated financial need after they are accepted. We have a sufficient budget for student workers who help organize events, grade homework, and can support us with research. My home department is as supportive as can be, and my immediate colleagues (and almost everyone I have encountered so far on campus) are the best I can wish for. I have huge freedoms to determine my own teaching hours and course topics, and I also receive resourceful support for my teaching and research.
In this seemingly ideal environment for the profession I chose, I have faced many of the feelings described in the literature on burnout—before and after I became a mother two years ago. I have pushed myself more and more into the direction of being constantly overwhelmed despite or precisely because of my life-long passion and enthusiasm for teaching and researching. Most of my evenings and weekends have been used for catching up on work that I was unable to get done during the traditional work week, and free-time activities are now devoted to very rewarding but also sometimes challenging “in-home childcare” of a young toddler. Pandemic parenting and pandemic care-giving in general contain a particularly tricky angst, as I never know whether my child’s daycare will be available tomorrow or whether my back-up babysitters are willing to come in when my kid is too sick for daycare but not too sick to hang out with someone else than me (and fortunately tested negative for Covid). Family support is not available for emergency situations, as is the case for so many academics who have had to move away for graduate school and academic positions. The headline of Amil Niazi’s article about pandemic parenting expresses my current feelings in this context perfectly: “Omicron Means Parents Are Doing It All Again, Except This Time Dead Inside.” My daughter is still too young to get vaccinated, so after so much hope for a “new normal,” seeing the rest of the world move on feels dreadful. But I must move on if I want to keep up. A primal scream of sheer mental and physical exhaustion is often what I do quietly inside--others scream loudly in communion.
Normal toddler-parenting already saddles parents with a lot of uncertainties, among other reasons because young kids get sick a lot before they can develop an immune system that doesn’t keep them home every other week for a few days or longer. A household with two full-time working parents is a privilege, and also makes this situation often quite challenging. My partner and I love our jobs, though, and affording basic childcare in this country requires both of our salaries (and possibly a third). In addition, we are also commuting an hour to work in different directions, which takes longer and is more stressful during the winter because the snowy road conditions are often dangerous. One could argue that I could just increase the amount of childcare my daughter receives from other care-givers so I can work more, but I want to actually spend time with her, too! I don’t buy into the notion that’s floating around in some of my friends’ circles that it’s “normal” for working parents to see their child(ren) only for brief breakfasts and dinners during the week. My mother would remind me that we are “lucky” nowadays as there were even weekly daycares in the German Democratic Republic, the country I grew up in, that catered especially to single working mothers employed in shift work during the first few decades of the country’s existence. Seeing his daughter for only an hour or so on most workdays is actually the case for my partner, but I believe that parents who want to spend more time with their children while they also hold a job should be able do so without guilt or shame. So, I try.
In addition to being a good parent and partner, I also want to be an engaged teacher-scholar. My personal image of my profession comes partly from my background of having grown up in a family of teachers and university professors. From a very young age, I have witnessed my parents’ deep and time-consuming commitment to their students, which included working long hours and intertwining family life with their jobs. My current home institution and North American academia in general also expect me to be a particular kind of educator: Students at Carleton can “talk with [professors] outside of class, mingle with them at campus events, and attend informal gatherings in their homes.” As a “respected scholar” who exemplifies this behavior, I should also encourage students to take part in my research and offer them enthusiastic learning opportunities. Some of these opportunities, such as senior thesis (or “comps”) presentations happen on the weekend for some departments on campus. Of course, I want my students to learn and enjoy their time in the classroom, which both helps their personal and professional development and also justifies the existence of our small German program, and, with that, my job and that of my colleagues. I still believe that I can change the lives of my students (and maybe the world?) with the material we discuss. So, I make myself available as best as I can, follow the research, give and receive feedback, stay up-to-date on the news and social movements, and am currently in the process of tenure-review—a moment of justification and evaluation that is rewarding but stressful. In addition, I provide service to the college and the profession, which entails administrative duties, and my involvement with certain initiatives, such as the Critical German Blog on our German program website. These commitments include more education on my part, particularly when it comes to anti-racism measures and equitable classroom practices. I must and want to contribute to the profession, my own interests, and also the interests of society at large if I hope to continue on my professional path. So, I try.
Especially in the last weeks of the winter term here at Carleton, however, I have come to the realization that I cannot just try to survive each day and week, precisely because I want to have a long and fulfilling working life at my institution. The whirlwind of Carleton’s ten-week terms is something students endure for four years, but faculty do it in groundhog-like repetition. The rather short break between winter and spring term (seven days and two weekends) adds to the pressures of the final stretch of the winter term and makes me anxious about my ability to prepare my spring class(es) in time. Could I dare to schedule a “true break” into these days as well?
I have been overstretching myself in my professional life for a while now but particularly during the last two years, which has reduced my patience, frustration tolerance, creativity, and ability to produce quality work. In my private life, I have had a hard time switching into “recharge” mode because work has creeped into my free time more than usual. The gnawing feeling of overwhelm at work has been joined by somewhat “underwhelming” opportunities for leisure activities in the past years. Enjoying my free-time could offset the negative experiences I have with burnout, but this has become hard work as well. Currently, I thrive from my daughter’s funny personality and from the energy I get in the classroom: Exhilarating discussions about a primary text, the “aha” moment that students share when we successfully digest a particularly difficult passage from a research paper, and the casual conversations I have at weekly lunch tables or after class that tell me more about the worlds I don’t know. I have two wonderful colleagues who support me in any way they can (giving me feedback on this blog post, for example), and—not a given in today’s college landscape—my administration has helped me as well when they, for example, reduced my committee load for a year.
My experiences of overwork and overwhelm seem to echo many of those that students at Carleton describe to me not only in student hours, but also in their assignments, especially after the pandemic complicated their lives. In my courses, I often read about their families, their friends, their free-time activities (or lack thereof) and have the privilege to also witness the production of creative texts that lay open their profound hardships and burdens. They have described their emotions becoming flatter, their enthusiasm decreasing. Their willingness and/or ability to actually do something—for class or leisure—let alone with other people, has waned for some to the unrecognizable in the last two years. While they are often unable to meet all the expectations their classes put on them to their satisfaction, they are also unable to relax from these expectations. They have had a hard time finding the creativity to engage in something they enjoy. Since coming to Carleton around seven years ago, I have often heard students say that they succumbed to the strategy of “just surviving until break”—a strategy I have adopted as well.
Before my students arrived at Carleton, many had already tried for a long time to stand out from the crowd to get into a prestigious college (and later into grad school or into a fulfilling job). Students have been working to “get an edge,” which often entailed taking harder classes and/or more extracurriculars than others, hoping to amass social and human capital that can be used to get into the “right” groups of people, to have the “correct” number of prerequisites to get into certain classes, or to simply be able to academically and emotionally survive at Carleton. Here, the ominous deadline of four years of college, divided into twelve terms of often awfully quickly passing ten-week terms is ever present, particularly during advising days when professors may ask about students’ ideas for a major, their wishes to go on an Off-Campus Study program, or their future plans in general. In the background loom other, more general but not less influential stressors, such as financial burdens, academic expectations of certain classes and one’s own preparation for them, mental health challenges, experiences with discrimination off and on campus, and troubles at home and in the world. I have often heard a student tell me they have to reduce their sleep significantly because of an assignment in one of their classes. Carleton’s campus has so much to do and so that free-time, too, can become a chore and students not only have to decide between finishing a paper and sleeping one more hour, but also between sleep and social commitments that can increase their social and cultural capital but could also allow them to unplug and relax. To all of this, life adds the search for the “perfect job,” one you love so much that work becomes play. But then you have to be careful that you don’t end up working too much in that job, too. All of this pressure turns into anxieties about the future that pile onto the anxieties of the present.
While burnout can affect any person, how it ultimately plays out is a matter of a person’s positionality in society, as described, for example, in the CRIAW / ICREF’s Intersectionality Wheel: Specified for women and girls, the Intersectionality Wheel expresses how people experience different forms of oppression and inequality that effect their position in certain systems, institutions, structures, and socio-economic and political practices. Seen through this lens, burnout is a question of equity, diversity, and inclusion. For socio-economic practices, Ettinger puts it so aptly: “Who gets to call in as burned out seems to be correlated to a person’s class-based access to resources”—if you are not “rich” in resources, you cannot just stop what you are doing to combat burnout, you have to put food on the table under the roof you hopefully have, now or for the prospect of a richer future. I am able to write this post because I am allocating some of my (paid) research time to this type of public scholarship since it intersects with what I have been researching in the past. Others are impoverished when it comes to resources such as time, access to financial capital, institutional support, a care network, a flexible work schedule, networking opportunities, or that roof over their heads. This lack of resources often hits Black, Brown, and Indigenous members of our society as well as women, especially women of color, the hardest.
Many of my students at Carleton are time impoverished, which leads to 61.8% of students getting adequate sleep only three or fewer days a week (only 6.1% get adequate sleep 6-7 days a week), as the Boynton Health Report found in 2018 (10). Dealing with anxiety and depression, the two most frequently reported mental health diagnoses on campus, becomes harder without adequate sleep (6). Available data for Carleton was not listed in racial categories, which is not uncommonas the majority of knowledge about mental health on campuses is derived primarily from non-Hispanic white students (NHW). Kodish et al. found that Latinx and Multiracial students were “significantly more likely to be in a more severe depression category, relative to NHW students, and Black/African American students were marginally significantly more likely to be in a more severe depression category” (273). Similar findings were reported for anxiety and suicidality. Stress also arises because of discrimination, which happens at Carleton because of race to 37.3% of male and 27.2% of female students (31). As a predominantly white campus, Carleton is home to 59.6% white students (non-Hispanic), which the Fall Student Enrollment Profile shows that is compiled each year by Carleton’s Institutional Research and Assessment team. As a point of reference, undergraduates nationwide who say they are not white represent 46.2% of all students (10). In 2018/19, Carleton had 4.8% Black students, 8.2% American Indian or Alaskan Native, 8.2% Asian, 8% Hispanic, no Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, and 6.9% students with two or more races (1). Besides discrimination based on race or skin color, Boynton Health Report also found that roughly 16.5% of all students have experienced discrimination because of their education or income level (10). In the educational context, some students have been able to front-load their career with AP or other pre-college courses, which allowed them to skip over some classes, but those who did not have the chance to take these classes have less freedom to explore the curriculum and may feel they stand out as lacking knowledge and skills. Many students take on a campus job to meet the requirements of their financial aid package. Students deal with these time-consuming aspects of their college experience here while also trying to figure out how college actually works.
Fitting our work as faculty and students into the traditional 40-hour work week seems impossible, and this number has already been questioned a lot. The increased burnout of workers and students has only been one factor for businesses, scholars, and many others to rethink their commitment to overwork. Ironically, the needs of capitalism have also inspired this quest: 8% of the national healthcare outlays is spent on the effects of burnout. Companies without provisions against burnout have higher turnover, lower productivity, higher healthcare costs (sometimes 50% higher) than organizations that offer a lower-pressure environment. It seems to become clearer that it can’t be the person themselves who needs to “do more self-care,” “take a few days off,” “take care of their health,” “learn to set boundaries,” or “not overcommit” as seen in posts such as Kathleen Curtis’s “Beating Burnout: An Online Survival Guide for College Students.” More and more people advocate that the system itself must be held accountable for fostering a burnout culture.
In this context of systemic problems in need of systemic solutions, I want to more closely consider the connections between burnout and faculty and students from disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds. Lack of time, emotional support, financial means, exposure to discriminations and mental health issues among other aspects affect the ability of people to combat personal stressors so they can counter a culture where it seems to count as a badge of honor to have slept the fewest hours among your peers. People experiencing burnout cannot just “stop whining” and “fix” themselves so they can “fit in” with the people around them, as I heard some people talk about burnt-out members of our campus community. Getting out of burnout currently requires people to find a way to gain access to already scarce resources. Intersectionality plays a crucial role here: Those who experience racism, ableism, sexism, classicism, and other forms of discrimination are likely already running low on resources and are at an increased risk of burnout through their place of work or study, which, by its nature, exposes people to more discriminations.
While companies—and, by extension, universities—can retain their workers and students when they provide an environment that supports an anti-burnout culture, many work places struggle with a systemic solution to burnout. With the help of my colleagues as well as some support from my administration, I have taken some steps to combat my burnout and that of my students, and I hope that these changes can rise to small but impactful systemic solutions to the problem. Considering our program’s goals, I have aimed my efforts at 1) balancing my work and life, 2) making my campus experience and that of my colleagues and students a positive one, 3) retaining students, faculty, and staff, and 4) taking the onus of working against burnout a little away from the individual and putting it more on the institution. Implementing changes like the following has, honestly, temporarily increased my faculty workload, which sounds, and is indeed, counter-productive. However, I did not know how else to proceed to slowly feel small but impactful effects on my well-being while I am writing this post. For a list of references from which I received inspiration, see below.
In my workplace,
In my private life,
With this, I hope to keep creating a climate where we want to work toward the goal of improving each other’s lives with the skills we have to offer; and where, for all our goals, we more closely consider how systemic problems need systemic solutions, particularly when it comes to the connections between burnout and students and faculty from disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds.
Bernstein, Amy, Amy Gallo, and Emily Caulfield. Harvard Business Review’s Women at Work, podcast audio, 2018–2022, https://hbr.org/2018/01/podcast-women-at-work.
Boynton Health, University of Minnesota. “Carleton College 2018 College Student Health Survey Report.” Carleton College, 2018, https://d31kydh6n6r5j5.cloudfront.net/uploads/sites/292/2020/03/Carleton___College_Student_Health_Survey_Summary_2018.pdf.
Burnett, Bill and Dave Evans. Designing Your Life: How To Build A Well-Lived, Joyful Life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
“Course Workload Estimator 2.0.” Wake Forest University, not dated, https://cat.wfu.edu/resources/tools/estimator2/.
“Critical German Studies.” Carleton College, 2022, https://www.carleton.edu/german/critical-german-studies/.
Curtis, Kathleen. “Beating Burnout: An Online Survival Guide for College Students.” EDUMED, 12 July 2021, https://www.edumed.org/resources/college-student-burnout-survival/.
Ettinger, Eve. “Have We Been Thinking About Burnout All Wrong.” Bustle, 7 March 2022, https://www.bustle.com/wellness/burnout-definition-what-we-get-wrong?fbclid=IwAR0kpOKB4N9tJBJmeTq5BlBc98nMObTEpmYhjthIReJe8wEHPi-ntdW1QlU.
Evans, Elrena and Caroline Grant (eds.). Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life. New Brunswick, NJ, et al.: Rutgers University Press, 2009.
Feldman, Joe. Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, And How It Can Transform Schools And Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE Company, 2019.
“Feminist Intersectionality and GBA+.” Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, no date, https://www.criaw-icref.ca/our-work/feminist-intersectionality-and-gba/.
Hartley, Gemma. Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2018.
Institutional Research and Assessment. “Fall Student Enrollment Profile.” Carleton College, 22 April 2019. https://d31kydh6n6r5j5.cloudfront.net/uploads/sites/292/2020/02/CDS_Web_Summary_Trends_2018_19.pdf, p. 1.
Kodish, Tamar et al. “Enhancing Racial/Ethnic Equity in College Student Mental Health Through Innovative Screening and Treatment.” Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, vol. 49 (2022): 267–282. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34505211/.
Kurtz, Adam. “Do what you love [...].” Twitter, 6 March 2019, https://twitter.com/adamjk/status/1103367035650797569?lang=en.
Lederman, Doug. “Turnover, Burnout and Demoralization in Higher Ed.” Inside Higher Ed, 4 May 2022, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/05/04/turnover-burnout-and-demoralization-higher-ed.
Margolis, Jaclyn. “Should We End the 40-Hour Workweek?” Psychology Today, 11 Oct. 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shifting-workplace-dynamics/202110/should-we-end-the-40-hour-workweek.
Martin, Douglas. “Herbert Freudenberger, 73, Coiner of ‘Burnout,’ Is Dead.” New York Times, 5 Dec. 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/12/05/nyregion/herbert-freudenberger-73-coiner-of-burnout-is-dead.html.
Mills, Kim I. “‘We Are Living in a Racism Pandemic,‘ Says APA President.” American Psychological Association, 29 May, 2020. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/05/racism-pandemic.
Moss, Jennifer. “Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People.” Harvard Business Review, 11 Dec. 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people.
Nagoski, Emily and Amelia Nagoski. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2019.
Niazi, Amil. “Omicron Means Parents Are Doing It All Again, Except This Time Dead Inside.” Romper, 7 Jan. 2022, https://www.romper.com/parenting/here-we-go-again-omicron-edition.
Rainey, Malik. “Gunman Kills 10 at Buffalo Supermarket in Racist Attack.” New York Times, 14 May, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/05/14/nyregion/buffalo-shooting?smid=url-share.
Robinson, Bryan E. #Chill: Turn Off Your Job and Turn On Your Life. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2019.
Spade, Dean. “Burnout: What It Is and Some Ways to Address It In Ourselves and In Organizations.” Dean Spade, 25 Sept. 2019, http://www.deanspade.net/2019/09/25/burnout-what-it-is-and-some-ways-to-address-it-in-ourselves-and-in-organizations/.
“Standout Faculty.” Carleton College, 2022, https://www.carleton.edu/admissions/explore/education/faculty/.
Blum, Susan D. and Alfie Kohn (ed.). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (And What To Do Instead). Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2020.
Santos, Laurie. The Happiness Lab, podcast audio, 2022–2022. https://www.happinesslab.fm/.
Wenner Moyer, Melinda. “COVID Parenting Has Passed the Point of Absurdity.” The Atlantic, 20 Jan. 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2022/01/covid-parenting-challenges-stress/621322/.
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