It’s 2018, before COVID-19 both exacerbated faculty burnout and forced widespread—and necessary—conversations about it. Rebecca Pope-Ruark, who literally wrote a book on faculty productivity, can’t concentrate on anything and she doesn’t know why. She’s also tired and worn-out, but she attributes that to a difficult year as a professor and a recent health scare (which thankfully turned out to be just that). She obliges her worried husband by going to a therapist, whom she asks, repeatedly, for attention deficit disorder medication. Pope-Ruark has never been diagnosed with such a disorder before, but late-onset ADD is her only possible explanation for what she’s experiencing. Her therapist has a different diagnosis: burnout, a severe case of it.
Pope-Ruark, then an associate professor of English at Elon University, is startled and more than a little ashamed. What does she have to complain about? After all, she has her dream job. But after sitting with the burnout diagnosis for a time, it makes sense: always an enthusiastic teacher, she now finds students emotionally exhausting; usually an enthusiastic colleague, she now avoids fellow faculty members and meetings whenever possible; a writer by trade and choice, she hasn’t written anything for months. She’s sick all the time. Going to campus evokes dread.
Ever an academic, Pope-Ruark throws herself into researching burnout, including the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a leading measure of occupational burnout. Taking the inventory herself, she’s almost off the scales for the classic dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or cynicism, and reduced sense of personal accomplishment or efficacy. Something has to change. As her therapist tells her, if she keeps running from this problem, she might not make it back.
Today, Pope-Ruark is in a very different place. Her outlook and health have improved. She’s now the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she’s teaching professors instead of undergraduates. She’s also celebrating the release later this month of her new book, Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins University Press), about her and other women’s experiences with and thoughts on burnout in academe. The book aims to help faculty members understand and build resilience to burnout around the four pillars of purpose, compassion, connection and balance—without normalizing the academic culture that promotes burnout.
Pope-Ruark’s road back from burnout wasn’t direct or easy. It involved raw conversations with senior colleagues, taking a medical leave and ultimately changing jobs. But her retelling of that journey, and what she learned along the way, is an essential read for faculty members who may be struggling and the administrators who care about them. It’s also a warning to institutions that value or appear to value faculty productivity over faculty well-being.
Pope-Ruark spoke with Inside Higher Ed about her book. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: This book is powerful in part because it’s so personal. How did you decide how honest you wanted to get about your experiences?
A: Those first pieces of my story were prewriting for myself, to start dealing with it. Just getting it down on paper. I mean, I’m a writer by nature, so it was helpful just to kind of see its shape as a story. And honestly, it’s funny, because I didn’t get worried about putting myself out there until it was already almost published.
What’s also funny is the idea for the book came to me in therapy, when it was kind of most ironic, because my psychiatrist and my therapist had been preaching, “You have to take things off your plate. You’ve got so much going on. You’ve got to deal with this.” And I kept thinking that there’s a book here. I’d also been at a conference, and I would just tell people there, “I’m on medical leave for burnout.” And so many people had stories to tell—either their own experiences or experiences of a colleague close to them or someone in their family, regardless of kind of what industry they were in. But, definitely, the higher ed people almost always had a story.
Q: We have a much better cultural understanding now about what burnout is than in 2018. How long did it take you to realize, “This diagnosis is real,” and what were your first steps toward addressing it?
A: Well, even getting to the therapist was a challenge. My husband basically drove me there. And my general practitioner had said I really needed to go, because I thought it was just depression and anxiety, and maybe some late-onset ADD that needed some medication, because my entire world was my work. So for that to be the problem was identity-changing.
The first thing I did when my therapist said those words in that first session was go to the research. I went through the organizational workplace psychology literature. I found the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which is the most validated research instrument for it. When I took the inventory, I was so far to the ends of the scale that I was almost off the charts with it, so I was like, “OK, this is happening. Now what do we do?” Then your problem-solving brain kicks in. Because this is my life. This is my identity wrapped up completely in this, and if I don’t take care of myself, I’m not going to be that person at all anymore.
Q: I found it interesting in the book when you said—and this is something that I’ve heard before from other faculty members suffering from burnout—that you started to find students emotionally draining. How can faculty burnout bleed over into the student experience?
A: There are three characteristics of burnout. That second one is cynicism and depersonalization, which basically mean pulling back, pulling away from the people that you work with. For teachers, that is students. And that was one of the key signs for me that something was wrong, because I had always been a teacher’s teacher. I knew I belonged in the classroom. And suddenly I can’t stand my students? What is happening to me all of a sudden? I was having feelings for them that were just not me at all. I wanted them to go away, like, “I just can’t process, I can’t deal with you right now. I’ve got too much going on in my head for me to be a good mentor right now.” That was really hard.
Q: I’m sure that added to the identity crisis aspect of this for you. And I think it’s important to point out that burnout is not only devastating to the faculty member but also has ripple effects within the institution. So how did your symptoms overlap with what you now know to be the hallmarks of burnout? Would you consider yourself a quote-unquote “classic case”?
A: The World Health Organization definition of burnout is the one that we mostly use … because it’s the closest one to a clinical definition that we that we have. It’s a syndrome caused by chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. The syndrome piece of it means that it’s a collection of symptoms, not a full-blown mental illness. And I hate that last part of it—the inability to manage—because it makes it sound like it’s your fault, when it’s really this compounding chronic stress that you can’t get away from.
Then there are three characteristics of what burnout looks like. The first one is exhaustion. The second one is the cynicism and depersonalization, and the third one is feelings of reduced professional efficacy. So that feeling of, “What’s the point? Why am I doing this? You know, I’m not making a difference. Who really cares about what I’m doing? I’m not going to cure cancer. Why am I here?” I was really, really high on all of those. I was trying to work through the depersonalization, but my symptoms were pretty classic and then exacerbated past instances of depression and anxiety disorder that I’ve been living with. So it just turned those back on.
Q: Are faculty members particularly vulnerable to burnout and, if so, what about faculty work makes that the case?
A: A lot of the original studies for burnout look at caregivers: medical personnel, teachers, people who are emotionally linked to the people that they work with. Social workers are kind of the classic case. With faculty, you have the three legs of the stool: you’ve got your teaching, you’ve got your research going on and you’ve got service, and all those things are mixed together. But it’s a constant culture of free labor, with the committee work and advising students and additional things we’re expected to do. You have to be in service to your discipline, to your professional organizations, and you should be writing. And many of us are on nine-month contracts, so you spend all summer trying to catch up on your writing because you’ve been teaching or whatever it is. That ongoing workplace stress doesn’t really go away. And if you’re contingent, that’s a whole other ball of wax—the hope labor associated with being a contingent faculty member and the way you’re kind of abused by the system.
Q: You actually wrote a previous book that thinks through some of these structural problems and suggests that faculty members navigate the frenzied productivity culture by prioritizing meaningful work and productivity. Why is that not enough to stave off burnout?
A: Because no amount of productivity will ever be enough. The culture will continue to push you. There’s this constant escalation agenda: you did one thing, now you have to do the next step, right? You’ve gotten published. Now you need to get published in the best journals. You’ve gotten published in the best journal? Now you need a book. You’ve written a book? Where’s your next book? There’s never this feeling that you can step back. And I think that is especially true for women faculty and faculty of color, who feel like we always have to be proving something.
The hope is that you can manage what you have, achieve some sort of balance in your life and think about what is actually important. Because when you get to the point where everything is important, then nothing is important. Knowing who you are, your worth, what you value and what’s important can help you make decisions about your own health, how you do your work, where you do your work and what you actually do. Being able to think through those things is empowering.
Q: How much of this work is about creating boundaries, and how do you stick to that in a culture that rewards work with more work?
A: My book has a lot of individual coping methods and strategies for that … We do need to figure out how to set boundaries, and that’s hard. And I think we need to be crowdsourcing what’s working and what’s not working for people, because that’s going to vary so widely. Some of it may be quote-unquote “easy stuff,” like setting boundaries for when you check your email, blocking time [for specific tasks and goals], and things like that. Start there and work your way up.
But burnout is, by definition, a workplace problem that impacts individuals, not an individual-person problem that impacts institutions, so we have to start looking at the culture. The conversation is open now for individuals talking about burnout. But I think we need to be looking at institutional approaches. You know, last year I did 14 or 15 burnout workshops for institutions, but in only two of those visits was I invited to talk to senior leadership. And they were very interested, but the conversation was still “How do we help the faculty,” not “How do we help the culture?” The culture change is way harder.
Q: How does COVID-19 relate to faculty burnout?
A: Unfortunately, faculty, especially faculty whose primary duty is teaching and faculty who are on a 12-month contract, have not had a break during COVID. They have been going since it started, and they’re still dealing with outbreaks and questions like whether or not to record their lectures and how to manage it all. Because it puts so much additional work on faculty members to be responsible for so much more in terms of teaching modes and how students learn. And there are still health concerns. It hasn’t gone away, even though we kind of seem to be pretending that it has now. We lost a lot of people [to resignations] because of that stress, especially women with children, young children in particular.
COVID also made visible the burnout epidemic that we weren’t comfortable talking about, and we’re learning more about it now.
Q: You dramatically changed your professional life following your burnout diagnosis. Is that necessary?
A: I hope not. If you catch it early and you’re willing to do the work, then I think you can bounce back. Not everyone has to change jobs completely.
Q: This is such an important topic. But I tend to see bigger conversations around some of the other hive of issues that institutions are dealing with right now, such as student mental health. How hopeful are you that faculty burnout also gets the institutional attention it merits?
A: I am hopeful because a lot more people are having the conversation. People are talking about it. They’re talking openly about their own experiences. So there is the groundswell that we need to be able to start looking at institutional cultures. The Catch-22 part is that people are still exhausted from the ongoing trauma of the pandemic that hasn’t really gone away.
Now’s the time we should be having a conversation, because we are still in this bit of limbo between what it looked like when we were pandemic-driven and what it looked like before that. I think people might be more open to some cultural changes because we’ve already had this giant whack at the culture.