I’ve had a couple of conversations about burnout this week. On the one hand it’s much too early in a normal academic year for so many people on campus to be so worn out. But of course, this is anything but a normal year. What’s a leader to do? I’ve heard of several situations where staff and faculty have resigned, often with very little notice. These resignations leave the rest of the team opening a new year with key positions empty.
I spent some time this past week working with an academic college as they worked to develop a new strategic plan. I pushed them to choose among priorities. The strategic part of this work is to make choices. What will be the key points of focus for the immediate future? Where will you direct resources? And of course, what will you stop doing or do differently to free up resources? Continually adding to our lists and never subtracting anything is a recipe for failure in strategic work. It’s also a recipe for burnout.
In one conversation this week, with a leader who has a number of vacancies in their department, I asked two questions. What can you stop doing? Are there ways to cover essential work that don’t follow the organizational chart? Departments often have different peak times and while the start of an academic year is peak time for most departments, there are some who have a bit more flexibility. We rarely take advantage of that reality. Yes, we often depend on those breaks in a normal year, but we have to stop believing there is only one way to do our work. We need to find ways to do the work in ways that are more humane. We need to make hard decisions about what work is essential and what is optional. We need to have the difficult conversations with senior leaders about the effects of policy on employees and the students they are serving. We need to be clear-eyed about whether there are new ways to design work and the workplace (in person and online) to meet changing needs of both students and employees.
Part of burnout this year is all of the stress, confusion, and fear resulting from a global pandemic. But many people were struggling with exhaustion and burnout before the great disruption of the past year and a half. You all know I believe in taking care of one’s self, but self-care isn’t enough. Now there exists both a good opportunity and a deep need, to stop and engage people in reimagining, redesigning, and letting go of tasks, ways of working, and ideas about what ‘must’ be done. And it starts with each one of us. What can you let go?