At Breaking Point: Burnout and its Consequences Post-PhD by Marissa Edwards

As I leaned against the wall of my apartment, tears running down my face, one thought kept circling around and around in my head: “This shouldn’t be happening.”

Indeed, from all outside appearances, my life was pretty good.  I had completed my PhD with no major difficulties, I had a supportive family and a wonderful circle of friends, I had no major health problems, I had a job that I loved and knew I was a strong candidate for a tenure-track position in the near future, and had no significant financial difficulties. I was incredibly privileged and still recognize how lucky I was. So why was I crying so hard, and why couldn’t I leave my apartment?

A Precarious Situation

Looking back, a series of events had brought me to this moment. I am, without question, someone who feels the need to perform to a high standard at work all the time. I am a life-long perfectionist. At this point in my career, the self-imposed pressure and culture of academia meant I was perfectly willing to sacrifice many things that I loved in order to land that elusive tenure-track position. I worked extremely long hours and had been rewarded for it with excellent teaching evaluations, international conference presentations, awards, and had even edited a book while completing my PhD.

It was an additive feedback loop; the more I worked, the more I pushed myself to do more and be more. But the more I ‘succeeded’, the work I worked, and so on. Yet as I found out, pushing yourself to the limit only works for a discrete period of time.

In addition to my excessive work hours, I had faced a series of stressful events in a short period of time that sent me spiralling into uncertainty and fear. I had lost my beloved dog of fourteen years, and the grief was utterly overwhelming. (Anyone who has known and loved a pet will know what this feels like). Less than a month later, a close friend died by suicide. Again, the grief was all-consuming. It was also the beginning of the teaching semester, and prior to this I had agreed to take on a much higher teaching load than ever before, meaning that collectively I was teaching just under 1000 students in several different courses. (At my institution in Australia, we can have up to 600 or more students enrolled in a single course!). And as a casual (adjunct) employee, I was not eligible for paid bereavement leave, though I doubt I would have taken it. In fact, taking any leave didn’t even cross my mind; instead, I decided to work even harder.

The Slow Slide Down

Unsurprisingly, things started to unravel over the next few months and I began to experience symptoms of burnout. The World Health Organization recently defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It has been studied extensively in the work stress literature, and is characterized by symptoms such as emotional exhaustion, cynicism about one’s job, irritability, and a range of physical ailments. In my case, I believe that my job contributed to my burnout, but the intense losses I experienced compounded the situation. 

Almost immediately I stopped sleeping through the night. For me, this was the single worst part of the experience, because it was only when I was sleeping that I felt any respite from the overwhelming fear. Often I would fall asleep and wake up many times during the night; some nights I couldn’t sleep at all. There is compelling evidence that key areas of the brain that help to regulate emotions are sensitive to sleep deprivation, and that missing even one night of sleep can increase anxiety the next day.  This went on for months, and soon I was becoming terrified of everything.

Although I was somehow still performing well at work, I was struggling enormously. My menstrual cycle became completely erratic and after Googling (which is never a good idea) I managed to convince myself I was dying. A series of examinations and blood tests revealed that I wasn’t dying but in fact was experiencing a “flare” of Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune illness associated with insomnia, weight loss and – interestingly – increased anxiety.  I had been diagnosed several months earlier and had assumed that it been treated successfully. Clearly not, and there is evidence that stress may play a role in the development and exacerbation of such conditions.

But I knew that my condition wasn’t only due to the Graves’ Disease. Somehow I was still managing to function effectively at work, but I was sick to my stomach, gradually losing weight, in tears almost daily, and not coping. 

Receiving Support and Seeking Help

At this point, a few friends took me aside and did the most important thing they could do: listen. One friend took me for regular day trips to the beach, even when I didn’t want to leave my apartment. This taught me the importance of “opposite actions”; sometimes, the thing that is best for us is the very thing we don’t want to do. Another friend often invited me for coffee and simply listened to me talk about the constant insomnia, grief, and fear; just expressing how I felt made me feel so much better (momentarily). Yet another friend came to my apartment unannounced and chatted with me while making me dinner and made sure I was eating properly.  These and other friends encouraged me to speak to my GP (primary care doctor), which was the first step in accessing help.

I think it’s important to say here that it took me a long time to admit that I wasn’t coping. It took months of gentle encouragement from others that forced me to (reluctantly) take action. In retrospect, I wish I had sought assistance earlier. I wish that the shame and stigma around mental illness hadn’t prevented me from reaching out for professional help. And I wish that I hadn’t succumbed to the pervasive belief in academia that we are defined by our professional success, and that if we aren’t working constantly, we simply aren’t good enough.

When we support others with mental illness, it is often the case that they have to come to the realisation themselves that they needed help – this was no different for me. And to do that, I had to acknowledge first that I was deserving of help.

From here, the story gets much better. My GP referred me to a number of different health professionals to help with the insomnia and anxiety, and things started to improve slowly. Again, I recognise that I was extremely privileged to have the access and financial means to get help relatively quickly.  If I hadn’t been in that position, I could have been waiting months for assistance, and I am still incredibly grateful. With the help of melatonin and other medication, I began sleeping through the night again. It took around five months for the insomnia to resolve completely, but it was a huge relief and had an immediate impact on my well-being.

The academic year finished, classes ended, and finally I took weeks of recreation leave. For once, I didn’t think about work. I read books. I took naps. Over time, I started to relax and enjoy myself. I went travelling to beautiful places, including the south island of New Zealand. I spent time with friends. Eventually, my family and I rescued a beautiful older dog, Ziggy, who still brings constant joy every day.

Enjoying life again. Photo of Ziggy credit: Phoebe Hofsteede

Lessons Learnt

In closing, this experience taught me many lessons that I would like to share here:

  • If you are struggling, please reach out for help.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be to a psychologist or psychiatrist, but please try to talk to someone. Talking and getting the emotions off your chest alone can help. And vice versa, if you have a friend or colleague who is struggling, offer to listen to them (if they are willing). Listening and validating their experience is so important.
  • Just because you are coping successfully at work does not mean that you are okay. I still remind myself of this constantly. It’s important that we check in on our colleagues and their mental health, even those who look like they have it together.
  • Find a good primary care doctor. They are in the best position to refer you for additional help if needed, which may include medication, therapy, or both. If you don’t like the first doctor you try, keeping looking until you find one you “click” with.  A good doctor will also do bloods to rule out any physical issues, such as low iron, low Vitamin D, etc.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep, nutrition, and exercise.  These are some of the “building blocks” of wellness and can have a significant impact on your mental health. And exercise doesn’t mean that you have to go the gym!  I am not a gym person, but I love taking long walks. If you are out of the house and moving, that’s a good start.

Finally, it’s important to remember that your list of publications and other work achievements won’t be there to hold your hand when you are struggling, but chances are some of your family and friends will.

Conclusion

I have to admit that disengaging from work and taking the time to rest is still a constant struggle for me, even now that I am tenured. In academia, there is always another paper to write, a project to start, a grant to apply for, etc. I agree strongly with those who have argued that cultural change is needed in academia. This will take time and will likely be a process of small, incremental changes. In the meantime, there are still steps we can take to look after our mental health.

When we face extremely distressing life events, turning to work as a coping mechanism is unlikely to be effective. Talking to others and reaching out for support are among the best things you can ever do for yourself.

We also have to recognise we are not machines, and physiologically and psychologically we are not designed to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  We are human beings, deserving of rest, support and compassion. Ultimately, please be kind to yourself: you are worth it.  

Marissa Edwards

Marissa Edwards is an Education-Focused lecturer at the UQ Business School at the University of Queensland. Her major research interests are mental health and mental illness in academia, PhD student well-being, and voice and organisational justice. She is currently lead guest editor of a forthcoming Special Issue of the Journal of Management Education focused on mental health and well-being among management students and educators. In her spare time, Marissa loves travelling, seeing live music and spending time with her rescue dog Ziggy.

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