Part of healing from burnout is learning to set boundaries. Making time for what’s important (yourself. family. friends. fun. community. yourself again) other than your work.
Easier said than done. Really easily said. “Set boundaries.” Unless you have a cute little hint of a lisp the way John F. Kennedy, Jr. had. Then it’s a little harder to say.
Pretty hard to do.
But those of us who’ve emerged from the Pretty Good Depression still employed find ourselves picking up the slack left behind when people were laid off, or not replaced, or carrying a heavier load in terms of student enrollment, juggling new initiatives, etc. etc.
It is just so easy to do too much for too long and end up having your soul scrape up against your to do list like bone-on-bone-bad arthritis.
In the long run, as I mentioned to my boss’s boss’s boss last Valentine’s Day (ahem), a system that is structured to rely on people burning themselves out LIKE OURS is not sustainable. (It also doesn’t get the best work out of people, even in the relative short-run–but that’s the subject of yet another blog yet to be written. Stay tuned.)
For me, the urge to work too much (and the actuality of working too much and the guilt of perhaps not working enough) mixes with my long-term tendencies toward depression and anxiety into a toxic burnout brew that makes me less of everything I want to be (loving, enthusiastic, effective) and more of everything I’d rather not be (chronically irritated, cynical, spastically ineffective).
I’m still learning, but I’m making progress.
If you click on “burnout” in my blog categories, you’ll see it’s something I write about a lot. (cf: fixate upon.)
In Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Parts I, II, and III,
It is all too easy to come across as whining, and something like “I had to spend an hour on the phone getting my insurance coverage worked out today” can come across as ingratitude, a classic First World Problem….it is a luxury to consider what changes we could make to improve our lot. But you know what? A lot of us in academia do have that luxury, especially those of us with tenure.
You can raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.
I celebrate myself, I sing myself:
I don’t work too hard. I work hard enough.
Here’s how good I am at setting boundaries. I got folks pounding on one of the walls I built hollering at me like they’re possessed by the spirit of Chico Marx: “You no work enough.”
Here’s the contested boundary of the month:
In response to Scott Walker’s 2011 budget bombs (which resulted in less take home pay for my family), I looked around to find ways to save money. We love Culver’s just as much as we always did, but we don’t go as much as we used to. INSERT LOTS AND LOTS OF OTHER EXAMPLES OF BUDGET TRIMMING HERE. And then, to save money on gas, I started working from Spring Green some Tuesdays (my teaching schedule is MWF). That enabled me to volunteer in my son’s classroom now and then. That turned into a regular gig. That turned into a commitment. Which turned into a column in the Voice of the River Valley.
I do a lot of work on Tuesdays, and I check email a lot during the day. I’m considering setting up virtual office hours to make sure students and advisees remember that I am available on Tuesdays, just not in person in my office on my campus. And as I mentioned in one of the three prior posts in this series, I average more than 40 hours a week during the 9-month contract. Since I try to take a week off between semesters, and two days off at Thanksgiving, and two or three days off during spring break, and maybe Labor Day if I’ve got my course syllabi ready, that means I typically average 45 hours during an actual teaching week. (I don’t count how many hours I work in the summer, but it probably averages to about 20. )
I don’t see why it’s anyone’s beeswax, if I’m accessible to students, if I’m doing my job well (I have official recognition of that), and if I’m doing my share for service (and I do), WHY it matters how many of those hours are in my office or on campus or in my kitchen or at a coffee shop or wherever.
But there are people for whom dedication to campus life is measured in hours worked (more hours = more dedication) and hours on campus (more = more). I don’t agree. I hope the issue goes away. If it doesn’t–well, gracious. You won’t like me when I’m angry.
Take this one boundary skirmish as a warning, all ye who dare to dream of work life balance. Sometimes when you set a boundary, you have to defend it. But a lot of times, people don’t even notice.
If you’re brave enough, if you’re tired enough, if you’re burned out enough, tune in next time when I share my Top List of Ways to Work Less. (Remember: if you’re on salary, you can raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours. The hilarious irony is that the quality of your work will actually go up, and in some cases, the quantity too–because you have more energy to focus on the things you’re still doing. Shh. Don’t tell.)
Meanwhile, Joshua blew the trumpet at Jericho and the walls came a-tumblin down.
This is what a system structured on burnout looks like. Eventually.
(photo from flickr, Creative Commons, by Babak Farrokhi, entitled “Office Under Construction.” So it’s not really about sustainable systems OR Jericho.)