A Few Tips on Avoiding Burnout in Academic Public Health

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This column presents some considerations and best practices for finding time to produce scholarship in the form of a manuscript or presentation.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

Burnout can affect anyone but can be more common in women and is characterized by chronic fatigue, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, irritability, lack of concentration, and, in the most serious cases, depression. For those working in public health, especially those in salaried positions, burnout can be hard to avoid. There is always more we could be doing, and emergency events can stretch those tasked with responding to their limits. Today, however, I’d like to focus on those in academia, as I think my 13 years of experience in academia makes my advice most salient to those in faculty positions. However, some of my experiences and strategies might aid most folks with a demanding job that feels bigger than them most days.

Bad habits can start early in academic settings, fueled by excessive work expectations for physicians and imposter syndrome for researchers. Both encourage excessively long hours at the office (or hospital) and can set a pattern of work that is destructive and unsustainable, even after the initial motivation (eg, residency, lack of productivity) have faded into memory. While I’m not discounting the need to work hard early in one’s career before external demands begin to mount, balance is something that should be sought early and purposefully. In my time fighting (and occasionally losing to) burnout, I’ve garnered some strategies that have helped me maintain both productivity and recover from/avoid burnout.

  • Set a work schedule and maintain it. I’m fond of saying that the most important work you’ll do, the work that will advance your career, happens in the last ten hours of the work week. This might be hours 50-60 for some folks or 30-40 for others, but it usually happens after you get all the other work done that you have to do, like teaching, committee work, your colleagues’ paper revisions, etc. Regardless of the number of hours you feel comfortable working, put them on the calendar and don’t exceed them if humanly possible. You need to have an end of the day to look forward to so you can focus on other important things (like yourself). That said, you may need to vary the hours you work per week over the year within an acceptable range so that you can accommodate deadlines and busy times of the academic year.
  • Run your own race. I have a career-oriented wife, no kids, and pretty self-sufficient cats. This allows me amazing flexibility in my work and travel schedule while maintaining an active social life (don’t hate me). If you have a partner, children, dogs, friends, or other important beings that require your time, you might not get the same results working my schedule. The good news is that you don’t have to spend your time as I do. This might mean tempering your expectations for your work productivity or social life, but it will allow you to maintain some semblance of balance. Remember, your contribution to the universe will not be solely measured in teaching evaluations, publications, and grant funding.
  • Don’t set your schedule based upon your busiest times of the year. My favorite time of the year is late summer and early fall because of the weather and the start of college football. But it’s not the time of year I work the least due to the third of three National Institutes of Health grant deadlines in early October. I’ll typically work the high end of my work hour range during this time, pushing the limits of my first strategy. However, during the month following the three NIH deadlines, I tend to work on the lower end of the hour spectrum. This allows me to recharge and gives me a time to look forward to during the long-hour periods of the year.
  • Learn to be task-based not time-based. It’s ok to leave work early on occasion. Really. If you set goals based upon your performance expectations for the year, month, and week, you can gauge where you are for the week on a daily basis. If you’re ahead of schedule, go home, or to the gym, or to the park, or wherever you want to. It’s your gift to you for being efficient.
  • Learn that it’s ok to say no. I have a robust sense of self. Early on, I thought that many tasks would not get done if I didn’t do them. Then I slowly started to realize that I’m just a cog in the machine, and those committees will run, manuscripts will get reviewed, and overload classes will get taught with or without me. Much like setting your hours or focusing on tasks, you should determine the teaching/service/research expectations to achieve excellence in your role and meet them. And no more. Let’s face it, the last paper you write in a year, whether it’s the fourth or fourteenth, isn’t the best one and can probably wait for another day.
  • Vary your work location (if possible). I learned early that I cannot write in a coffee shop, but I can review grants or grade papers at one just fine. As such, I would take a few hours per week to drink some coffee and get out of the office. Your situation may vary, but if you can take time in the library, coffee shop, a grassy quad, or other non-office location, consider it. It’s amazing what a change of pace can do for you, even if it simply helps you avoid drop-in students or chatty colleagues.

In the end, you need to have reasonable expectations and a plan for meeting them. Once you work the plan, enjoy the time that you get back by working efficiently (see my other posts for strategies for doing that). It helps to remember that you’re only racing against yourself, so try not to spur yourself too much.

Weigh in: How do you avoid burnout? Leave us a comment below.


Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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