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Academic Burnout is Real And Cost Me My Job. Here’s How I Survived

If you think you might be burned out, diagnose yourself with these steps and get immediate relief to reclaim your life

Academic burnout is real.

Especially for women.

Women do more pastoral care and admin work in Universities. They carry more of the family obligations (a.k.a. unpaid work) at home, and earn less than men for their work.

No wonder academic women burn out.

And it happened to me, too.

Burnout cost me my job as a tenured assistant professor.

And it took a long time to recover physically and mentally.

Now, as a coach, I see my story repeated in countless academic women.

I have to hold back my own anger when I see how the toxic system soaks up intelligent, inspiring and creative women — only to spit them out exhausted and disillusioned.

This article is for you if you’re an academic woman and you’ve:

  • given academia all you’ve got, but it never feels enough
  • you work evenings, weekends, and holidays, feeling like you’ll never catch up on your teaching, admin and research
  • you’re constantly getting sick and need to re-set your health and mental health

I’ve written about my burnout before. The panic attacks, the inability to sleep, and quitting my job.

This is the first time I’m recapping my recovery, retracing all steps, to give you a system to heal yourself and reclaim your health in academia before it’s too late.

Do you have burnout?

Which of these challenges apply to you?

  • I’m in the hamster wheel and can’t see a way out
  • I have too many meetings and never get time to think
  • I can’t focus on writing anymore, I’m constantly distracted
  • I help too many other people and find it hard to say “no”
  • I schedule breaks, but then I can’t relax during this time (or I skip my breaks)
  • I don’t know how peace of mind feels anymore
  • I sometimes wish I’d get ill so I can finally take time off without having to answer to millions of requests

How many of these boxes are you ticking? Download this free Anti-Burnout Planner for a longer checklist of symptoms.

Also, how many more issues trouble you? Be honest, and write them all down. This is the moment of truth.

When I had burnout, didn’t see it.

I remember how I went to a writing retreat in Scotland to finally get some work done just before term start.

The group was full of brilliant women of different ages and academic career stages. Most of the time over dinner we vented about our difficulties. And one of them said to me, “It sounds like you need to watch out for burnout.”

I didn’t want to believe it.

But on the train home, something must have clicked in my subconscious.

And it didn’t feel good.

My heart started racing, I felt nausea and wanted to get off the train immediately. That day, I had a 5-hour long panic attack.

Back at home, after speaking to my doctor, I realised that I ticked all of the boxes above. It took me another few days to accept that I was in burnout. My body had told me.

Don’t try to solve the “problem”

Once you know you’re at risk or already in burnout, pause. Before trying to “solve” the big problem, calm your nervous system.

Otherwise, you’re just patching things up superficially, or get into a cycle of worry-thoughts that won’t help you.

My first reflex was to try and decide if I should leave academia or not. And I kept going in circles because I was in alarm state, and unable to think clearly.

I had to give up that idea I can outthink my burnout. I took a pause.

Here are suggestions that worked for me:

  • hot bath or shower
  • breath work (try this double-inhale breathing)
  • meditation or yoga nidra/non-sleep deep rest meditations (try this one by Paul Sheppard)
  • nature immersion in the form of a walk, or putting bare feet on the grass, walking by a river
  • practicing presence with the thought you might have to change your life; just surrender to this moment of difficulty (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle helped me)

I did all these things, and I realised I have to practice them and build them into my day, even years after burnout.

A calm nervous system was what I needed.

Once I reached a calmer state, I could make a clear, confident decision to leave academia.

I didn’t leave out of fear.

I left empowered, knowing I wanted to build my own business and work in my ‘genius zone’ outside of the container of academia.

Make sure you decide to stay or leave, or change your work patterns, from a calm state.

Plan your days differently

Going forward, it helps to use a new planning system. No matter if you now work outside academia, go part-time, or stay in your job with adjustments.

I made it this planner for myself to remember that I need rest during my day.

Here’s how your new planning system might look like:

  • You plan your top 3 tasks for the week.
  • Then you plan breaks for each day.
  • Crucially, you plan what you’ll do in your break. This way, you take decision fatigue out of the picture. E.g. you’ll do yoga after lunch and meditate for 5min to reset before you head home.
  • Check in with yourself once a month if you’re at risk of burnout again.

My final tip: Reclaim your story

Talk to someone.

  • a friend
  • a colleague, perhaps not in your own department
  • your yoga teacher
  • a coach
  • your family (you might need more support and a relief from caring obligations, too)

Telling my own burnout stories helped me to validate my feelings and feel seen. I talked to my coaches and in coaching groups. I told friends and colleagues. I talked so much that there was no chance shame could overtake my mindset.

For example, I’ve been on several podcasts to discuss my burnout, and with each one I felt better about myself.

Instead of feeling like a failure, I saw the difficult journey I’d been through, and I honoured my decision to leave.

You can follow how I talk about my burnout over time, gaining more and more confidence and owning my story.

  • I started talking to Danielle De La Mare on the Self-Compassionate Professor Podcast. Back then, my biggest fear was that someone from my old Department might hear it. But once the episode was out, I sent it to a few colleagues and they supported me (that felt amazing!)
  • I recently even talked on video about my burnout and the subsequent anxiety with Paul Sheppard. It’s my most vulnerable account of burnout and anxiety yet, but also the most authentic version of me. I’m reclaiming my narrative.

I have a whole Spotify playlist of podcast episodes, and I try to be open and share even the ugly bits of my journey to help others get through burnout.

Where to go from here

If you’re an academic woman who’s struggling, know this:

Burnout is survivable.

Burnout is preventable.

You don’t have to quit your job, but you need to act now if you think you’re at risk.

The above lists help you to diagnose yourself, take action to calm your nervous system, make small changes to your day and find support.

Academia is not going to improve for you.

You need to empower yourself, honour yourself, and set boundaries so you can thrive in the long run.

Sadly, I didn’t have any of the tools above, and I decided to leave.

But luckily, now I know so much more about my body and mind, and I get to serve and help hundreds of academic women, too.

It all worked out well in the end — I’m content with having had burnout.

A final request: Send this article to academic women you know. And send it to decision makers, funders, unions and staff in universities. This is a systematic problem, not a women’s problem!

Download this Anti-Burnout Planner to check if you’re at risk.

Photo: Canva with Licensed Permission

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