How to avoid, spot, and deal with academic burnout

An academic discusses her experience with this often hidden issue.
By Dawn Wotapka

Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Ph.D., who holds a doctorate in rhetoric and professional communication, should have felt like she was at the top of her game. She was a tenured professor at North Carolina's Elon University, respected for both her teaching of professional writing and rhetoric and her research. But she was hiding a mental and physical battle that culminated in a medical leave of absence. The issue? Burnout.

Professors are often praised for going above and beyond for students, but as Pope-Ruark learned the hard way, that can take a toll. She recently wrote about her experience in her book Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal.

Pope-Ruark, who now serves as the first director of faculty professional development at Georgia Tech, chatted with Academic Update about her journey, how men and women deal with burnout differently, and the importance of advocating for change.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Pope-Ruark: The book is a product of my own burnout experience. I was a tenured faculty member at a wonderful teaching-focused institution but, after a series of difficult professional experiences, found myself withdrawn, sick all the time, depressed, and very anxious, unable to do even the most basic aspects of my job. I think I hid it well, but I was a mess, and I felt a lot of shame about suddenly being "weak" and "unable to hack it" in higher ed.

After a medical professional helped connect me with a therapist and I started to get support for what I was going through, I was diagnosed with burnout, which had exacerbated my natural inclinations to depression and anxiety. Ultimately, it was so bad I ended up on medical leave for a semester to figure out how to take care of myself and move forward. Once I started sharing my story, I found that nearly everyone I knew had their own burnout story or knew someone who had one. The time seemed right for the wider conversation.

How do you define academic burnout?

Pope-Ruark: The World Health Organization defines burnout as a "syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy." So, burnout is specific to work and workplace-driven stress. In our case, the culture of higher education and our institutions cause faculty burnout.

How does the culture of higher education lead to burnout?

Pope-Ruark: Higher education values discovery, learning, and growth, but for faculty, it also demands constant productivity, competition, and striving that can be unrelenting and exhausting, the constant pressure to publish in high-ranking journals, present at prestigious conferences, earn valuable grant funding, all while often teaching and engaging in required service. That stress is even worse for over-exploited contingent faculty and for women and BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) faculty who do significantly more invisible labor with students and in terms of service requests. 

Higher ed also faces many serious challenges, ranging from the upcoming demographic cliff to widespread social and political unrest to depleted government funding and public faith in our institutions. We are constantly asked to do more with less, to "get back to normal" in these late stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to justify every aspect of our work. These aren't healthy conditions to work under.

What are some of the signs to know you're starting to experience burnout?

Pope-Ruark: Those three dimensions of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of reduced professional efficacy. So, I recommend being on the lookout for these signs. And these are symptoms that get worse over time. It's not just end-of-the-term tiredness but mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion, for example. With the feelings of reduced professional efficacy, it may feel like nothing you do ever matters or makes a difference, which can exacerbate feelings of depression.

Looking back, for me, the first obvious sign of my burnout was how my feelings about my students changed. I was someone who cared more about teaching and students than research, and I thought I was happy at my teaching-focused institution. But as I slipped into burnout, I began to resent students, their needs, and the care I needed to take with them. It felt like they were all out to get me and take more from me than I had to offer. So that was a key sign that I was burned out, along with the constant exhaustion I couldn't seem to get over.

You note that women experience burnout in a different way than males. How so? 

Pope-Ruark: The research shows that women tend to experience higher levels of exhaustion as the primary symptom of burnout, while men tend more toward cynicism and depersonalization, meaning that they pull away from work and the people they work with. It's not a huge difference but more a reaction to the stress and how we handle the stress.

What can faculty do to prevent burnout or to cope with if it they see it happening to them?

Pope-Ruark: Workplace cultures and environments create the conditions for burnout. In higher ed, many of us become faculty because we feel called to a life of learning and discovery. When you think of your occupation as a calling rather than a job, it becomes easier to get swept up in the competition and productivity culture of academia, to let work become all-consuming.

I think one early step to taking care of yourself is recognizing that work is not your entire life, no matter what messages you are getting from higher ed. Margaret Sallee [associate professor of educational leadership and policy, University of Buffalo] said in a panel I was on, "You can't self-care your way out of burnout," and I think that's true. But managing stress does mean taking care of yourself by eating well, moving your body regularly, and getting good sleep. It also means that if you see yourself in this discussion of burnout, you might benefit from working with a coach or therapist to learn how to set boundaries, disengage identity from work, and advocate for yourself.

But on a wider scale, we have to start advocating for cultural changes at our institutions, and that is much harder work. The more we have conversations with colleagues about our experiences of burnout, the more we open the door to some collective organizing that can be used to make change. We also need leadership willing to recognize the damage unrelenting stress has on faculty and, therefore, the missions of our institutions and to work with faculty for culture change.

 Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at

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