Combating Burnout: Self-Care as Professional Practice
Updated: Nov 8
Combating Burnout: Self-Care as Professional Practice
Krista Speicher Sarraf
Teaching Assistant professor of English & SpeakWrite specialist
West Virginia University
As a graduate student, caring for your mental health is key--that includes your “emotional, psychological, and social well-being” (CDC). Prioritizing your health helps ensure your academic survival.
If you feel exhausted, cynical, and inefficient at work, you may be suffering from burnout. In 2021, burnout skyrocketed, as COVID-19 continues to exacerbate workplace stress. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared burnout as an occupational phenomenon in their 2019 revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
Some research suggests that graduate students are burnt out before entering their professional careers. I personally experienced this. When I received my first academic job offer, I felt relieved. However, exhaustion quickly replaced relief. I needed to start a job, move, and defend my dissertation, all within 6 months. Needless to say, this was a stressful time. Dana Driscoll, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Zamin documented similar burnout in their survey of 433 doctoral faculty and students. Survey participants reported that time and money, imposter syndrome, and academic guilt, to name just a few factors, prevented them from engaging in self-care. Yet, self-care is central to our professional practice.
Self-care can help us to prevent and combat burnout. Driscoll, Leigh, and Zamin define self-care as follows:
Physiological: getting enough sleep, seeing the doctor, going grocery shopping
Personal: spending time with loved ones, traveling, watching TV
Professional: saying “no,” taking your email off your phone
Foster a range of self-care activities.
The AAAL’s GSC’s recent social media survey asked you all what you do for self-care. Responses ranged from yoga, to baking, to gratitude journaling, to walking, to hanging out with friends. In my experience, it’s important to foster a range of self-care activities. If you haven’t already, make a list of 15-20 activities that you enjoy. Just be sure to leave off activities that may worsen anxiety and depression.
Also, keep in mind that you don’t need to spend much money to engage in self-care. I love splurging on skin care as much as the next person, but beauty companies have found they can market unnecessary products under the guise of “self-care.” This is problematic for graduate students and junior faculty as, let’s face it, we’re not exactly flush with cash.
Seek out mentors and classmates who prioritize their own mental health.
Driscoll, Leigh, and Zamin recommend that faculty should mentor graduate students by talking about their own self-care strategies. But what if your department faculty are work-a-holics and believe that you need to be one, too? Here, I recommend you seek out classmates who prioritize their mental health. Also, enforce healthy boundaries. Saying “no” is permitted as a graduate student.
Find a writing group.
In How to Write a Lot, Paul Silvia recommends that academic writers find a writing group. Writing groups not only hold us accountable to reach our writing goals, but they also provide camaraderie and fellowship. Just be sure to assign someone the timekeeper role. In my own writing group, we allow 15 minutes for informal conversation at the beginning, then we write for 1 hour, and then we review goals and chat more at the end. Since social connection is important for mental health, taking time to chat and work with friends provides a welcome respite from working alone. And of course, writing groups can meet in person or on Zoom.
Teaching is like a sponge: learn to manage your teaching responsibilities.
I know. This one is tough. But teaching truly will soak up as much time as you give it (hence the sponge analogy). Can you restrict your lesson prep time to 2-4 hours/week? Can you live with simpler PowerPoints? Trust that you’re qualified to teach your classes. Extra prep time doesn’t always translate into student learning.
Take breaks from heavy topics.
If you’re researching difficult topics, like mental health, racism, or sexism, allow yourself to take breaks. I’ve been studying the #MeToo movement since early 2018. To give you a sense of how many breaks I’ve given myself from this research, I collected data in early 2019 and just submitted an article in Spring 2021. Why did I sit on this data for so long? Because reading about #MeToo is emotionally taxing. I believe in the work, but I also need to take care of myself.
I have endless respect for scholars working on topics that speak to their own traumas. We need your scholarship. Just be sure to step away occasionally. Though we cannot fully escape from the systems that harm us, we can create moments of quiet.
Finally, facilitate the flow state, which is essential for enjoying your work. The flow state refers to a state of deep immersion in an activity. According to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, our happiest moments tend to occur when we’re in the flow state. When was the last time you became really immersed in an activity? Does this happen for you when you write? If flow is fleeting, try meditation. Meditation teaches us to focus our attention, and may be helpful for entering the flow state.
About the author
Krista Speicher Sarraf (@Kayrista22) is a teaching assistant professor of English and SpeakWrite specialist at West Virginia University.
Centers for Disease Control. (2021, June 28). About Mental health. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm
Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Driscoll, D.; Leigh, S. R.; & Zamin, N. (2020). Self-Care as Professionalization: A Case for Ethical Doctoral Education in Composition Studies. College Composition and Communication 71(1), p. 453-480.
Kelly, J. (2021, April 5). Indeed study shows that worker burnout is at frighteningly high levels: Here is what you need to do now. Forbes. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2021/04/05/indeed-study-shows-that-worker-burnout-is-at-frighteningly-high-levels-here-is-what-you-need-to-do-now/?sh=2ae133ab23bb.
Silvia, P. (2017). How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. APA LifeTools.
World Health Organization. (2019, May 28). Burn-out an "Occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. Retrieved November 8, 2021.
Sarraf, K. S. (2021, November 11). Combating Burnout: Self-Care as Professional Practice. AAAL Graduate Student Council Blog. https://www.aaal-gsc.org/post/combating-burnout-self-care-as-professional-practice