I recently made a hard decision.
I'm taking a break from some of my duties at Yale.
Amongst my several jobs, I’m the head of Silliman, one of the university’s residential colleges. It’s something I adore, and it surrounds me with a community of people I care for and admire. It also allows me to take on important and rewarding tasks that give me ‘flow’ – that amazing feeling of being fully engaged with an enjoyable challenge.
But even though being HoC Santos (NB. HoC is what Yalies call a Head of College) is a privilege, that role has also taken a toll on my finite supplies of time and emotional energy – I’m also a busy scientist, teacher, podcaster… and I write articles and give talks too. After a lot of soul searching, I decided that I’d become over-committed and needed to take a break.
The announcement that I was stepping back came out as I was sitting down for an interview with the New York Times.
“If the happiness professor is feeling burned out,” the paper’s David Marchese asked me. “What hope is there for the rest of us?”
Burnout is a topic I think about often – it’s also a concept that people have a lot of misconceptions and judgments I really want to see challenged.
So I told David that I wasn't "burned out"... yet. That was why it was so important that I should a break. I was seeing a host of worrying signs that I needed to heed before it was too late. I understand the research well enough to know that if you don’t address burnout early, it often gets much worse.
So what was going on? What subtle signs was I noticing?
If you read my article about “languishing”, you’ll know that I’ve recently been noticing some changes in my behaviors. I admitted to feeling so “meh” lately that I ended up watching more and more trashy TV. I started binging season three of Jersey Shore, finished it, and then went right back to re-watching it again. Not a normal Tuesday night behavior for me.
I was also getting frustrated with my colleagues more easily. A student would send me an email with a completely reasonable request, and I’d notice a twinge of unjustified frustration.
And I was exhausted all the time. I’d wake up from a great night of sleep and do an endorphin-pumping workout, but still feel emotionally drained by dinner time.
But the biggest change was that I feeling more ineffective at work. Especially with the uncertainty of COVID, it was getting harder and harder to plan events for my students. I had the nagging feeling that I wasn’t able to give them the college experience they deserved. Even though it wasn’t totally my fault, I felt like I was doing my job badly.
The science says these seemingly minor signs are often the first steps towards becoming completely burned out. So I decided I should check myself out on the Maslach Burnout Inventory.
The inventory has twenty-two questions intended to identify three interlinked components of burnout: occupational exhaustion; depersonalisation or loss of empathy; and a decrease in feelings of personal accomplishment.
Occupational exhaustion is when your work has simply drained you dry – you are exhausted in a way that not even a good night’s sleep can shake. The Maslach Burnout Inventory asks you to consider statement such as:
- I feel tired as soon as I get up in the morning and see a new working day stretched out in front of me.
- I feel worn out at the end of a working day.
- I feel as if I’m at my wits‘ end.
Depersonalisation is another key indicator of burnout. As work grinds us down, we become less thoughtful and compassionate to those around us. We may even become cynical in our dealings with the people we care about most - our co-workers and the people we serve in our roles. So the Maslach Inventory asks you how much these statements apply to you:
- I’m not really interested in what is going on with many of my colleagues.
- I get the feeling that I treat some clients/colleagues impersonally, as if they were objects.
- I’m afraid that my work makes me emotionally harder.
Personal accomplishment is the last bit of the burnout jigsaw puzzle and relates to how well you feel you are performing at work. Feeling competent and successful can help balance out less promising feelings of exhaustion and depersonalisation. But the inventory warns that if you’re pessimistic about the quality of the work you do, then you are firmly on the path to burnout. So be warned if you answer “never” to statements such as:
- I have achieved many rewarding objectives in my work.
- I feel that I influence other people positively through my work.
I’d certainly noticed some of these signs of burnout – and so I completed the Maslach Burnout Inventory with trepidation. I added up my score. Luckily, I hadn’t fully crossed the line into burnout territory, but I was definitely on the path.
Seeing that score was a warning that I couldn’t just carry on like I was. Since becoming more deeply involved in the science of happiness, I’ve come to treat my wellbeing like any other health issue. If my blood pressure was soaring, I’d take action. With these psychological symptoms piling up, I needed to do the same thing.
So to prevent burnout I reluctantly handed over the reins of my beloved residential college (temporarily) to an excellent colleague.
It was one of the most painful decisions I’ve ever made, and it’s brought its own set of anxieties and stresses. But it was the right move for me and ultimately for the people I care about.
I also hope it sends the right message to all my students - both at Yale and beyond. After all, I can’t be cautioning them to take a break if they need one... when I’m not doing that myself.
I’m hoping that my decision came in time. And that I’ll see my growing signs of burnout abate. But I want to continue this conversation about burnout - since I know this is a problem many of us are suffering from.
So in my next article I’ll introduce you to someone who felt the full effects of career exhaustion – and discuss the path he followed back to happiness.
Until then, stay safe and stay happy,
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