With a glimmer of pre-pandemic "normalcy" returning, how can the higher education IT community continue to combat burnout and prevent it from taking control in the future?
Even though we are still in the COVID-19 pandemic, the last twenty months seem surreal. Converting in-person classes to online overnight? Check. Innovating on the fly to address infrastructure gaps? Check. Moving forward with institutional strategic plan projects with fewer colleagues and less time? Check. Keeping homelife afloat—well, maybe except for the front yard, which really could use some TLC? Check. Managing loss, grief, anger, uncertainty, and every other emotion in the book? Big check.
First, I want to thank each of you for persevering on behalf of your families, teams, students, faculty, and staff. It was not easy—and some days it is still not easy—but this amazing community of IT professionals looked at the impossible and said, "Challenge accepted." We pushed through, doing whatever was necessary and ignoring the signs of burnout because so many around us relied on our special set of skills and expertise. Now that a glimmer of pre-pandemic "normalcy" is returning, I would like to share some of the lessons I learned along the way, as well as some of the tips that I used to combat burnout during these months and, hopefully, prevent it from taking control in the future.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is defined as "exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration."Footnote1 Sound familiar to anyone? Just like the stages of grief, the stages of burnout manifest in different ways for each of us, but the result is typically the same: we need a break. So, how can we keep this exhaustion in check before it gains the upper hand and pushes us to the breaking point? These six lessons have been my go-to techniques since before the pandemic, and they helped me regain the driver's seat for my life, both personally and professionally:
- Set boundaries with yourself.
- Carve out a few minutes each day for reflection.
- Define what "balance" means to you.
- Integrate things that you love to do with things that you have to do every day.
- Give yourself permission to go more slowly at times.
- Work in 5-minute increments during times of chaos.
1. Set Boundaries with Yourself.
When I am asked to select one word to define myself, I often use helper. A problem-solver through and through, I am energized by lending a helping hand to those in need. The downside is that I can easily become overextended when lending a helping hand becomes juggling on a unicycle. In the past, I saw this overextension as something that was done to me, not as something in which I was complicit. All of that changed one afternoon when I was responding to a noncritical request for assistance. The individual who reached out to me did not set a deadline or ask for a specific date; rather, I proposed a deadline that was way too aggressive. While proofing my email before sending it, I was caught by surprise by the deadline. I sat with my words for a moment and felt the weight starting to mount, but then I set a boundary with myself. I decided that I would no longer set an unnecessary or unrealistic deadline for noncritical requests, especially when the requestor has not set one. This may sound like something small, but for me it was a game changer. I instantly felt more at ease and excited about the opportunity to assist my colleague, as opposed to adding "just another brick in the wall."
2. Carve Out a Few Minutes Each Day for Reflection.
Realizing that I needed to set boundaries with myself happened only because I created some space to reflect. Granted, this space came in the form of proofreading an email, but it led to reflection, and this type of reflection has transformed the way I work. As I am sure is the case with many of you, I run from meeting to meeting, project to project, event to event without much time to just think and breathe. I seldom created time for reflection in the past because I "didn't have the time." The beauty is that you do not need a lot of time: by carving out a few minutes each day to reflect on an event, a conversation, how you handled a difficult situation, or myriad other moments, you can create the space that you need to bring some clarity and stillness to a day filled with constant motion.
3. Define What "Balance" Means to You.
How "balance" looks to one person may be very different to another. When stress-relief coloring books for adults became a trend, my thoughtful husband picked up one, thinking it would help me lower my stress and find some balance between work and rest. Unfortunately, I took one look at the first page, complete with hundreds of small spaces that needed to be filled in, and I felt like hyperventilating because there was so much work to do. While this exercise is relaxing for many people, it is stress-inducing for others! The experience made me realize that we each have a different definition for "balance" between work and rest, and it is imperative to reflect on what it means to you. With your newfound definition in hand, you can check yourself—perhaps during your daily reflection—to see whether you are sitting too far on the work side of the teeter-totter.
4. Integrate Things That You Love to Do with Things That You Have to Do Every Day.
As I started to think more about what "balance" meant to me, I realized that incorporating things that I love to do into my workday helped me to be even better at the things that I have to do during my workday. I am an extrovert, and I love connecting with others. I am energized by listening to my friends and colleagues, and the isolation of the last twenty months made me realize how much my energy reserves are filled through these in-person interactions. Before the pandemic, if my schedule felt overwhelming, I would reschedule or cancel a planned lunch or get-together by explaining that I "had work to do." Yet this made me feel even more overwhelmed because now I not only had to reschedule the canceled event but also still "had work to do." During one of my daily reflections, I pondered why I would push off an activity that energized me when energy is what I needed to get through the difficult times and my "have to do" activities. A lightbulb went off, and I finally understood the power that could be gained by integrating these energizing activities into my work routine. Case in point: I recently had lunch with one of my favorite CIOs, and I felt so energized from our hour together that I quickly completed several "have to do" activities upon my return to the office. I encourage you to find those things that you love to do, integrate them into your workday, and ride the energy wave away from potential burnout.
5. Give Yourself Permission to Go More Slowly at Times.
It feels like we have been running the 100-meter dash on repeat for the last twenty months, going faster and faster each time. Just like when we were students and crammed for exams at the end of a term, we are often moving so fast that we are retaining only enough information to get through an immediate moment as opposed to growing from new knowledge and experiences. That certainly sounds like a path toward exhaustion of physical or emotional strength and motivation! My "aha" moment came during the spring of 2021 after I had worked in an interim capacity in two roles on top of my regular VP/CIO position through the end of October 2020. Once my interim assignment ended, I found that a slower pace awaited me after the holidays when we returned to work in January 2021.
The pace was not slow, but it was slower, and that is the key. Movements became more intentional and strategic as opposed to reactionary and tactical. There is a real power in giving yourself—and your teams—permission to go more slowly at times. Doing so brings the world around you back into focus and enables you to identify even better paths forward by creating time to process. Even though you are moving at a slower pace, this does not mean that you have to cancel projects altogether; rather, you can leverage the "didn't do it list" that Liv Gjestvang described in her October 2020 EDUCAUSE "Community Conversation" on burnout. As she explained, the list "creates a sense of permission around not doing everything."Footnote2 This is an innovative way to help you and your team move at a slower pace and give each other permission to admit and acknowledge that some projects cannot be completed right now, all while keeping track of these to-dos on which you can focus in the future because you kept burnout at bay.
6. Work in 5-Minute Increments during Times of Chaos.
The January 2021 EDUCAUSE QuickPoll on stress in the workplace found that 76 percent of respondents felt increased workplace stress since the start of the pandemic and that as a result 60 percent had difficulty concentrating while working on tasks.Footnote3 Moving as fast as we did and with as much uncertainty as we experienced was chaotic and stressful beyond belief! Honestly, some days the chaos reminded me of the first few months with my newborn as I adjusted to life as a new mother. I felt lost at times, uncertain of my steps, scared of making a mistake, and unsure of how to strike a balance between home and work. One day, when I felt I was on the verge of losing my mind, I decided to just get through 5 minutes. Before I knew it, I was through that 5-minute period and on to the next 5-minute period. Just as a swaddle brings a newborn into a more contained and comforting environment, the 5-minute periods brought structure to my world so that I could manage in the chaos, which helped me to not only relax but also regain control. I used that technique a lot when my daughter was a baby, but I had no idea how helpful it would be when the pandemic arrived. When my pandemic world started overloading, I went back to these 5-minute increments to regain control in the moment. This helped me keep burnout at arm's length until I could make my way to calmer waters.
Even when we get to the other side of the pandemic, there will be plenty of stressful, chaotic, exhausting, and overwhelming events that come our way. And even during times of relative calm, things may feel out of control due to the sheer volume of requests. With each new day, we will learn new lessons from which we will adapt and grow. I am excited to see how my six go-to techniques evolve as I grow personally and professionally, and I am eager to learn from you all as we manage together through this crazy thing called life.
- "Definition of burnout," Merriam-Webster, accessed November 15, 2021. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Liv Gjestvang and John O'Brien, "Community Conversations: Liv Gjestvang on Burnout [video]," EDUCAUSE Review, October 15, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Mark McCormack, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Stress in the Workplace," EDUCAUSE Review, January 15, 2021. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
Standish D. Stewart is Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Information Technology Services, at Cuyahoga Community College.
© 2021 Standish D. Stewart. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.