Burnout! A Chat with Rebecca Pope-Ruark
TAPP Radio Episode 91
Episode | Quick Take
Burnout is a serious issue that can affect your health, relationships, and job performance. It’s important to know the signs of burnout so you can take steps to prevent it from happening in the first place. But if you do experience burnout, don’t panic! There are ways for you to get back on track and feel good again. Listen to this episode of The A&P Professor with Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark about how we can avoid, deal with, or be there for others experiencing burnout! You’ll be glad you did!
- 00:00 | Introduction
- 00:48 | Rebecca Pope-Ruark
- 02:42 | Sponsored by AAA
- 04:08 | Burnout & How to Fix It
- 18:41 | Sponsored by HAPI
- 19:59 | Reducing Academic Burnout
- 34:42 | Sponsored by HAPS
- 35:59 | Student Burnout
- 41:54 | Staying Connected
Episode | Listen Now
Episode | Show Notes
Connection with peers, rather than competition, can drive our creative energy and help us through difficult times. (Rebecca Pope-Ruark)
Introduction to this episode’s special guest, Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark. She’s an author of the popular book Agile Faculty, host of the Agile Faculty podcast, and an expert in faculty burnout.
- The Agile Faculty Life (Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s website) my-ap.us/3dAYcJB
- Agile Academic (Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s blog) my-ap.us/31MFLfB
- The Agile Academic Podcast (Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s podcast for women in higher ed) my-ap.us/3dysixv
- Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching (book by Rebecca Pope-Ruark) amzn.to/3wrZFKU
Sponsored by AAA
A searchable transcript for this episode, as well as the captioned audiogram of this episode, are sponsored by the American Association for Anatomy (AAA) at anatomy.org.
Don’t forget—HAPS members get a deep discount on AAA membership!
Burnout & How to Fix It
Following up on a recent online HAPS webinar hosted by Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark lays out some of the basics of burnout. What is burnout? Is it different than stress? How can we deal with faculty burnout?
- Keeping the Spark – March 10, 2021. Presentation by Rebecca Pope-Ruark on faculty burnout and how to avoid or recover from it. Sponsored by HAPS and AACA. (recording of presentation) my-ap.us/3rSOsQb
Sponsored by HAPI Online Graduate Program
The Master of Science in Human Anatomy & Physiology Instruction—the MS-HAPI—is a graduate program for A&P teachers, especially for those who already have a graduate/professional degree. A combination of science courses (enough to qualify you to teach at the college level) and courses in contemporary instructional practice, this program helps you be your best in both on-campus and remote teaching. Kevin Patton is a faculty member in this program. Check it out!
Reducing Academic Burnout
Sponsored by HAPS
The Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS) is a sponsor of this podcast. You can help appreciate their support by clicking the link below and checking out the many resources and benefits found there. Watch for virtual town hall meetings and upcoming regional meetings!
Need help accessing resources locked behind a paywall?
Check out this advice from Episode 32 to get what you need!
Episode | Transcript
The A&P Professor podcast (TAPP radio) episodes are made for listening, not reading. This transcript is provided for your convenience, but hey, it’s just not possible to capture the emphasis and dramatic delivery of the audio version. Or the cool theme music. Or laughs and snorts. And because it’s generated by a combo of machine and human transcription, it may not be exactly right. So I strongly recommend listening by clicking the audio player provided.
This searchable transcript is supported by the
American Association for Anatomy.
I'm a member—maybe you should be one, too!
Kevin Patton (00:01):
Rebecca Pope-Ruark, an expert in faculty life, has written, “Connection with peers rather than competition can drive our creative energy and help us through difficult times.”
Welcome to The A&P Professor, a few minutes to focus on teaching human anatomy and physiology with a veteran educator and teaching mentor, your host, Kevin Patton.
Kevin Patton (00:33):
In this episode, I have a conversation with Rebecca Pope-Ruark about faculty and student burnout.
Kevin Patton (00:48):
Whatever day or time or month or year that you’re listening to this episode, I hope you’re doing okay or even better than okay. But if you’re feeling some burnout, then, well, you made a wise choice when you hit the play button. That’s because this episode features a conversation with Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark, who is an expert on burnout…
Kevin Patton (01:21):
She’s currently a faculty teaching and learning specialist at Georgia Institute of Technology and was previously a tenure professor with 17 years of experience teaching undergraduates. She’s the author of several books, including Agile Faculty, Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service and Teaching. She’s currently working on a new book called Professor Burnout: Strategies for Identifying, Addressing, and De-stigmatizing Burnout in Higher Education.
Kevin Patton (02:00):
Dr. Pope-Ruark is very active, speaking and coaching and facilitating workshops. She has a podcast called The Agile Academic, and it has a website called The Agile Faculty Life that I have linked in the show notes and the episode page at theAPprofessor.org/91, and where you can find out all kinds of other fascinating things about her. I recently had a chance to have a conversation with Rebecca about burnout that you’ll get to here in just a moment.
Sponsored by AAA
Kevin Patton (02:42):
You’re probably listening to this episode right now, but maybe not because AAA, the American Association for Anatomy supports the searchable transcript and the captioned audiogram of this episode. You might be reading this episode, maybe that’s your preference, or maybe it’s because you’ve already listened and want to go back and read a passage that resonated with you, or maybe want to find that snippet of advice from our guest that’s going to help you or a colleague.
Kevin Patton (03:17):
In any case, it’s there for you, and AAA is there for you too. It’s one of those professional communities that facilitates forming relationships that can support you at any point in your faculty career. It’s not just for anatomy only faculty, although we love you dearly, AAA recently changed their name to the American Association for Anatomy to emphasize their inclusion of folks who engage with anatomy in any way, including A&P faculty.
Kevin Patton (03:56):
Want to find out more about joining AAA? Well, you can find all the answers at anatomy.org.
Burnout & How to Fix It
Kevin Patton (04:08):
Well, I’m here with Rebecca Pope-Ruark and I’m so glad you can be here with us. I heard her do a workshop in HAPS, one of our town hall meeting type things that we’re been doing regularly and I talk about so much and I was so impressed with what we were talking about and I’m so glad you’re here with us today.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (04:31):
Thank you so much for the invitation and HAPS, it was a great workshop with your folks. So I appreciate being here.
Kevin Patton (04:37):
I think it went really well. So I just wanted to follow up on that because it’s such an important topic. You and I were chatting before this conversation about the fact that all of us in academia are going to be facing burnout at some point, if we haven’t already and if not in us, at least in people around us. So I think it’s a very important topic for us to talk about.
Kevin Patton (05:01):
So before we get too far into it, can you explain really what burnout is and how that relates to the idea of stress? Is it the same as stress or is stress a part of burnout or what are we talking about here?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (05:17):
They’re definitely related. The definition that the World Health Organization provides for burnout is chronic unrelenting stress from the workplace, it’s workplace-based and that stress is not being managed well, and that comes from it being unrelenting, not necessarily because a person can’t manage it themselves. So it’s that chronic unrelenting stress in the workplace and there are three key features of burnout that you can notice in yourself and in others, in your colleagues, and we’re also seeing them in students. So it’s a good idea to keep these in the back of your head.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (05:50):
First characteristic is exhaustion, and that can be any form of exhaustion, mental, physical, emotional. Usually it’s wrapped up together, especially for women. So you’re looking for that level of exhaustion and this goes beyond your typical, end-of-a-semester, I’m tired exhaustion, which is totally legitimate and valid.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (06:09):
Again, this is a chronic unrelenting exhaustion related to the workplace. The second characteristic is defined in a couple of different ways. It could be cynicism about the job, depersonalization, where you start to see colleagues or your students, especially as not really people anymore. They’re kind of a group of things that are coming at you and you start to really step away, remove yourself from those people who might need care. Teachers provide a lot of care. So that might make us step back.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (06:41):
Then the last one is this idea of lack of accomplishment or purpose. So you start to wonder really dramatically, is what I’m doing making any sense whatsoever? Does it matter to anyone? What’s the purpose? Why am I here? So it’s those three combinations of exhaustion, cynicism, and feeling a lack of accomplishment that are the characteristics that we look for, and all of those are stress driven.
Kevin Patton (07:11):
That sounds stressful, just hearing about it. Having experienced burnout myself, I’ve experienced those things and the words and descriptions are one thing, but the feeling in that moment is another. What you’re talking about, I recognize having gone through that more than once in my career and that’s partly why I’m doing a podcast. That was one of the things I did to pull myself out of what I was doing at the time that was causing the burnout and focusing on something different and that seemed to help me.
Kevin Patton (07:53):
I was recognizing burnout and partly because some people were telling me that I was maybe … You might want to think about this, Kevin. Maybe you’re having some burnout there, but here I am, a person who’s teaching anatomy and physiology wherever, and I’m starting to feel some unrelenting stress. How do I know that that’s what’s happening to me, that I’m having burnout and it’s not just a bad week or whatever? Is it something that extends longer than a week? What are some other signs that I can tell that I have burnout?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (08:36):
It’s definitely chronic. So it happens over time. It can get worse over time. It is all also cyclical. So if you don’t deal with it, you may come out of it and go back into it over a period of time, if you don’t deal with it. Because some people feel like if I just change my context, if I just get a new job or if I just do this, then I’ll be fine and that’s not necessarily dealing with the stress itself.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (08:59):
We know that the body will hold on to that stress unless that stress response is addressed. So looking for those things over time and looking for changes in your own behavior. Burnout can resemble depression, it can resemble anxiety and if you’re already prone to those particular conditions, it will exacerbate them. It doesn’t necessarily cause them in people, but it will exacerbate them if you’re prone to those already.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (09:27):
So looking for those signs of maybe things that remind you of your past depression or your past struggles with anxiety and panic are important. I really advocate for looking for changes in behavior. If you are someone like me, who was the consummate teacher, my students were everything. I cared deeply about my students. When I started to pull away from them, when I started to hide from them, when I started to not be on campus as much as possible to avoid everyone, and I was working at a very engaged, active institution, liberal arts institution.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (10:02):
So we were just one big family and to really pull back from that, that was something that was clearly not the way I would usually behave. So if you’re questioning every morning when you get out of bed, if you should really get out of bed, do I really have to go?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (10:18):
What would happen if I didn’t go? Would anybody notice? So you’re looking for those key changes in your behavior and if it is exhaustion, really interrogating that a little bit to see, okay, is this just the time of the year, thinking about your usual patterns? We’re all exhausted from our COVID year, obviously.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (10:38):
We finally see potentially some light at the end of the tunnel. So maybe that might be helping a little bit, but a lot of us aren’t getting spring break. So we are feeling that exhaustion in longer periods than we might have, but from what I’m hearing, there’s a large population of faculty around the country who are burned out right now and need that time off and need potentially to talk to a coach or a therapist to help them deal with that stress.
Kevin Patton (11:07):
Well, that leads into another question that I had coming into this and that is, once I realized that I might be experiencing burnout, what are the best steps to take then? Okay, I have burnout. Now what?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (11:24):
Obviously that depends on the person recognizing it as usual is kind of the first step, and that’s why I like to be really clear about what the definition and the characteristics are because we don’t necessarily have language for it. It’s not something we talk about in academia or we haven’t to now because you don’t show any kind of weakness, “weakness” and having burnout, depression, anxiety, we know that is not a weakness, and we know that those are cultural.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (11:52):
Burnout specifically is cultural. It’s caused by the cultural conditions in the workplace that cause that syndrome. Burnout is not a mental illness. Let me just clarify that too. It is a syndrome that is caused by unrelenting stress at the workplace. So things that you can do once you recognize it are, look for things that you might be able to step away from for a while, if that’s possible. What can you do to take better care of yourself?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (12:20):
At the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, are you eating well? Are you exercising? Are you sleeping? Those kinds of things can just be your baseline and making sure that those are in order, and then you can start going up the ladder. For some folks, for me, specifically therapy was necessary. Some folks, because I am prone to depression and anxiety. So therapy and working with a psychiatrist were absolutely necessary to my personal wellbeing.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (12:47):
It might not go that far for folks but if you see it as something that is chronic, that’s not really letting up and is potentially getting worse over time, I would seek out either a coach or a therapist to help you work through it and talk about it. I think that’s the other thing. Now I feel like people are much more comfortable talking about mental health because we were all struggling during the pandemic.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (13:14):
We were all struggling with mental health. So it’s easier to talk about now and it’s less shameful and the more people I talk to, and you said the same thing, the more people I talk to you, the more we hear people who have had it, who have experienced it, or know someone close to them who has, but now we have language for it. Now we can talk about it openly and we can’t extinguish burnout until we change the culture. We can do individual interventions and help people feel better, but we also need to think about how we’re going to change the culture.
Kevin Patton (13:45):
That’s a great point that you make about the culture of academia being a little different than it was even just 10 years ago. I see that in the A&P teaching community, especially. Within our organizations such as HAPS and AAA and so on, but just on social media and that too. I see more and more of my colleagues and friends who were teaching anatomy and physiology sharing their day, their week, their month and their feelings and in a way that number one, we probably didn’t have a mechanism for that kind of communication before recently.
Kevin Patton (14:24):
But also people are less, I don’t want to say resistant to, or even less afraid, but maybe it’s just a more welcoming environment that at least many of ourselves find ourselves in among our professional colleagues, and that is that they welcome hearing about our feelings about things and are willing to support us. A lot of times, I feel like I don’t have the right words to say to someone.
Kevin Patton (14:53):
So if I have a friend, a colleague who is experiencing burnout, is it appropriate for me to say, “Have you considered that you might be experiencing burnout?”
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (15:05):
I think that’s probably the softest way you could say it. You’re not necessarily trying to give that person therapy when we’re not qualified to do that but you can say, “I’ve gone through this and I’ve noticed some of the same kind of characteristics in you and do you think you might be going through some burnout?” That opens the discussion. When I was in the heart of my burnout before I had really admitted that’s what I was dealing with, I wasn’t willing to talk to anybody about it.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (15:38):
After the fact people told me they were worried about me. Senior faculty, and my chair told me they were worried about me, but no one said anything because I might not have been in a place where I would have listened and I seemed like I had it all together as much as possible. I think when you start to notice it in people, just bringing it up briefly, not harping on it, but mentioning it and that it is a thing, it’s not a shameful thing to be going through, that it seems like we all go through it at some point.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (16:10):
In some folks, it’s just more severe than others depending on conditions but I think just mentioning it exactly the way you framed it, I think can be really helpful because then you can talk about it. Someone has words now for what you might be going through.
Kevin Patton (16:26):
Do you think it’s helpful at all? I guess it would depend on the situation and reading the room with who you’re speaking to. Is it helpful to share things that have helped you? For example, you just shared some of the things that helped you get through your burnout such as therapy and so on what. I had a set of things that I feel probably helped me get through it. Is that something that I should share or should I wait for them to ask me how I got through it, or is it something I should even just come right out and say, “Listen, I’ve experienced burnout. If there’s anything that I can do for you, let me know,” and leave it up to them or should … I hesitate to insert myself and say, “Well, here’s my advice.”
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (17:17):
I think that’s a really great point which is why I really like how you framed it earlier. I’ve noticed some things I’ve gone through it and I’ve noticed that you might be going through burnout. Are you okay? Might be the best way to do it and you might then be able to say, “I’ve gone through it. I’ve struggled with it. I came out of it my own. I have some strategies that helped me,” but just allow them to then talk to you if they want to talk to you. Because just the relief of talking to someone can be a huge step forward.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (17:47):
Then that person may have questions, but they also do some research and find some different things in different places. I don’t think it’s our job when we’re not trained psychologists or psychiatrists to offer that kind of information unless it’s been offered to us. So for example, whenever I give information about what worked for me, I try to be really clear that I’m not a therapist. I’m not a clinician, and those are things that worked for me that might not work for everyone else.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (18:14):
For example, I made the choice to change jobs. I changed jobs, I moved cities and I ran to something instead of away from something, when I finally did make that decision and it was the right decision for me, but it’s not the right decision for everyone,
Kevin Patton (18:31):
I’ll be back with more of my conversation with Rebecca Pope-Ruark about burnout after this.
Sponsored by HAPI
Kevin Patton (18:41):
Rebecca just mentioned that one of the things she did to help her with burnout was to move towards something new. That was what turned out to be the best for her at that time in her life. About 10 years ago, I did something like that.
Kevin Patton (19:00):
I was feeling some burnout and wondering what my options were when I got an invitation to be among the first faculty members in a new online graduate program for A&P faculty. The master of science in human anatomy and physiology instruction. You know, the HAPI degree. I also want to remind you that it’s the HAPI program that pays for the monthly fee for hosting and syndicating this podcast.
Kevin Patton (19:32):
Are you looking for something to get your mind off things, something that will engage you in a supportive, peer-driven environment, check out this online graduate program at nycc.edu/hapi. That’s H-A-P-I or click the link in the show notes or episode page.
Reducing Academic Burnout
Kevin Patton (19:59):
So are there things that I can do as a colleague? Let’s say I’m working in an academic department and I want to do my part in being a good citizen in the department and making sure the environment there is not conducive to burnout and is supportive of people who might be starting to feel some burnout.
Kevin Patton (20:27):
Are there any specific things I can do proactively or in a preventative way to help my colleagues in that way, either as a regular department member or maybe even in the leadership of a department?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (20:42):
I think that’s an awesome question. I think that’s a really great way to start thinking about it. How do we build environments in certain spaces? Because we can’t change the culture all at once, but we can start working on the culture in our own environments. So I would think that, and I honestly … This question hasn’t been put to me before, so it’s an interesting way to think about it. I would say in some ways, just taking 10 minutes in a department meeting and talking a little bit about it. Here’s some things, if you feel like this is an issue for you, here’s a couple of resources. I know it’s a stressful time. I know we’re going through things. I learned about burnout. This is what I learned. I’m here to talk if you want.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (21:25):
I think as department chairs, we need to be very aware of what our colleagues are doing in terms of service loads and emotional labor loads and ways that we can support our colleagues to make sure that things are equitable across the different areas of our work and our lives. Really thinking about people’s lives. One thing that I also think has come out of the pandemic is that it’s much easier to share humanity with others than it may have in the past.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (21:56):
Our private lives are very public there. You’re looking into my room right now. You’re looking into my home office. So my cat might jump up on me at some point. You never know.
Kevin Patton (22:09):
My cat is nearby too. So it proves your point.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (22:15):
So recognizing that those boundaries have been eliminated for a while and figuring out … I think setting boundaries is one of additional important piece of self-care. I know when we hear the word self-care, we often think of getting a massage or a manicure or taking a day off and self-care goes so much more deeply than that. We already talked about eating well and exercising and sleeping. Those are really important keys to dealing with your thoughts and your emotions, and just finding people to talk to, I think in a department could be really, really powerful for folks that they know they’re not alone.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (22:54):
That’s one of the things that when I talk to people about burnout in a variety of different contexts, they just want to know that they’re not alone for the most part and they’re not going through something that makes them weak or perceived as weak. They’re great faculty members, they care deeply about students or about research or both. They’re just caught in this stress and what can we do to equitably distribute that stress among folks to create better cultures.
Kevin Patton (23:26):
Something that you said in there really resonated with me, especially and that is the respecting of boundaries and establishing boundaries. So I guess that’s something that’s been difficult for me because I like my work. So when people ask me to do something new and different or more, I’m usually willing to do it because number one, I want to serve and number two, I enjoy the work, but it can get to a point where it’s just too much. So I need to say no, but I find it hard to say no.
Kevin Patton (24:06):
Then you do that more than once, even just once, sometimes is enough to get you into that space where you have this unrelenting stress. So I’ve been working on that in myself and trying to establish those boundaries and not be afraid of hurting other people by saying no, but I’m also working on, and maybe this is something we can do as colleagues, is work on respecting other people’s boundaries.
Kevin Patton (24:38):
So that if I’m asking people to step up for something extra then they say, “I just can’t,” that I don’t push them further say, “Oh, come on.” Maybe a little bit of that is okay, but not really push them and do respect their boundaries. I would think if I was in a leadership position, which I’ve been in before, not in academic leadership right now, but I would like to think that I would get better and better at respecting some of those boundaries in other people. I would think that would help prevent burnout and for people who are really experiencing burnout, maybe that would help ease that a little bit or at least not make it worse.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (25:21):
I think that’s definitely possible. You have to create a culture where it’s okay to say no, and that can be especially challenging for women faculty and faculty of color. So something to think about in terms of how women and faculty of color experience academia in higher ed. I think when you get to a certain point in your career as well saying yes but, can work or yes, however. Yes, I can do this, but I’m going to not do this then. Is it more important to you that I do X or Y because I cannot do both right now and help make those decisions. That’s one way of holding your boundaries. I know how much work I can take on, and I love my work. This is great, but I can only do so much.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (26:02):
So which of these is the priority because I’m only going to do one of them, can be really helpful. I have a junior colleague at another institution who just amazed me at one point because they asked her to take a programming coordinator role as a junior faculty and she said, yes, but. She said, “Yes, I’ll do it, but I want to shadow this person for a year. I want administrative support,” those kinds of things.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (26:29):
She asked for what she needed to be successful and to avoid burnout and she got that. She was able to get those things that most people might not think about even asking for. So thinking about what you need to be successful in the roles that you say yes to, I think is really important. That yes, but can be really empowering.
Kevin Patton (26:52):
Something I’m hearing in what you just said is that maybe it would be helpful for me, at least maybe for some others to when I’m asked to do something extra, not answer right away and take a moment because those kinds of things that you mentioned with your colleague, those are things that may not occur to me in the moment. Then I’ve already said yes, and I’m not in a position to say yes, but, because the yes is already done and signed.
Kevin Patton (27:26):
So maybe that’s a strategy that we can use when we can to say, “Let me think about that,” and then come back and say, “Well, I’m leaning that way, but here’s what I need to be able to be successful.” So I think that’s excellent advice and that was a great thing that your colleague did.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (27:46):
Just take a beat. You don’t have to respond to something immediately and that’s a piece of my burnout too, was that I was saying yes to everything because I felt that if I didn’t, that no one would ever ask me to do anything again. It would ruin my career to say no, and that’s not true. It’s just not true. I can’t say that for junior faculty necessarily, and there are obviously conditions of privilege that allowed me to say that. But asking for what you need is self care and taking a minute to say, “Can I do this?”
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (28:19):
Even listing out, these are the other things that I’m working on. I see what I’m doing. How does this fit into my purpose or my goals or my values, and if it doesn’t, maybe that’s something you say no to, or if it really does, is there something that can come off that list as well?
Kevin Patton (28:37):
That’s a really good point. A question just occurred to me that is there any … Okay, so I’ve been very fortunate in my academic career, which has spanned decades to work for some really good administrative leaders, but there’s always a mix of people. Some academic leaders have weaknesses, among them being asking way too much of faculty that are under their care. So is there anything I can do, again, as a supportive colleague. Let’s say I’m not experiencing burnout myself, but I see the potential for it, given the style of a particular academic leader, given the fact that they’re asking too much and asking more and then more, and then more in ways that they need not necessarily do that.
Kevin Patton (29:35):
Now, sometimes things are handed to them that they maybe have fought against, and that’s just the way it is and that, but are there things that I can do at the lowest rung of academia in a faculty role? Is there anything I can do to communicate up the chain to make it known that this is potentially burnout-causing for me and my colleagues? Have you seen any strategies that seem to have an impact or that could have the potential at least of helping out there?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (30:12):
It’s interesting. My worlds are colliding a little bit as you asked that question. I also have a certification in a project management strategy that one of the roles in the way of this particular structure is, is that there is a role, a facilitator role between the “worker,” and the administrator or the manager, and that person between them, their job is to run interference. Their job is to say, “Okay, Mr. Administrator, if that’s what you need or that’s what you want, we can do it at this time, or we need to take something off our plate if we’re going to do that as well.”
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (30:50):
So I think being that person who people know they can talk to about it allows you to then be able to take that to administration, that you do have a good relationship with and say, “I’m hearing from my colleagues that this is a challenge. How do we address that?” Or you put together a group of folks, especially senior faculty. If you have a group of senior faculty who can advocate for junior faculty or mid career faculty, I think that’s really important.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (31:15):
They have the gravitas to be able to talk to the administration in ways that more junior faculty don’t necessarily have. So I think there’s an element of yes, being a good colleague, using some of that gravitas to talk to your administrators. I actually, last month talked to a group of administrators from a large state institution, and they were deeply concerned about making sure that their faculty were well and not experiencing burnout and they had amazing questions.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (31:45):
So I do think that administrators probably know that this is an issue. They may just not know how to talk about it or who to talk about with it. So I think as senior faculty members, as people with some sort of gravitas, you may be the ones that can be talking to the administration, could be talking to department chairs about these things and educating them.
Kevin Patton (32:05):
I think a couple of times in this conversation, you’ve brought up that, I guess I can call it a power differential among the faculty that junior faculty, people of color, women sometimes don’t have, not sometimes. They usually don’t have the power that old white guys like me have, and I think that’s an important thing that having that privilege, if you want to call it that, maybe it’s my responsibility to actually be proactive and think about that and be that supportive voice and not only to my colleagues, but up the chain as you just advise.
Kevin Patton (32:48):
I think that’s really excellent advice and I think I try to do that, but I’m committed now. I’m really going to try and do that. Although I’m now just part-time at two different institutions. So I have a little less power than I had before, actually, sometimes a lot less power than I had before being an adjunct faculty. That’s been a good experience for me to see how life changes when you don’t have that voice that you used to have.
Kevin Patton (33:21):
Then you can see those power differentials and how that can impact burnout, because if you feel like you have less power than that’s going to just add to the unrelenting stress that you talked about.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (33:38):
I’m glad you brought up adjunct faculty because I think that is a group of people who are ripe for burnout when they’re trying to string a life together across institutions, or not knowing if they’ll have a job year to year. Those are folks who are in probably the worst area of our culture. The exploitation, the way that higher ed exploits these people is unacceptable. These are wonderful colleagues who oftentimes teach our core courses and do amazing jobs with our earliest students.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (34:11):
So they also do not necessarily have a privileged place to be able to talk, and they probably have the least amount of power. Those with power in the institution at faculty levels should be engaging with those folks and doing what we can culturally to make their lives and their careers sustainable.
Kevin Patton (34:32):
In about one minute, I’ll be back with more of my conversation with Rebecca Pope-Ruark about burnout.
Sponsored by HAPS
Kevin Patton (34:43):
As I already mentioned, I first encountered Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s work in stress during an online event, hosted by HAPS, the Human Anatomy & Physiology Society. If you’re looking for a supportive community of A&P faculty who regularly get together, whether face-to-face or virtually to talk shop, engage with the experts of all kinds like Rebecca, who came to talk to us about burnout and learn how to be the best educators, the best professionals, and even the best people that we can be, well, then HAPS may be the best place for you. I joined long ago at the meeting where we voted to officially incorporated as a society and I’ll tell you what, it’s one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
Kevin Patton (35:39):
As you may know, marketing support for this podcast is provided by HAPS. After this episode, why not take a moment to visit HAPS at theAPprofessor.org/haps. That’s H-A-P-S.
Kevin Patton (35:59):
Are there things that academics especially, should be wary of in terms of burnout-causing conditions or culture or events or whatever?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (36:12):
I think I’ve been really interested lately in the concept of academic capitalism and how things like productivity have become the currency and the worth of a person. We’re always competing with each other, because every stage of your career and everything that you do is essentially judged by your peers. Peer review of articles, your promotion in tenure cases, your promotions if you’re not on the tenure track. So many of those things are judged by others that it’s difficult not to get into the habit of competing or difficult to not see your worth as a faculty member, as part of your productivity. That that is the arbiter of a good faculty member.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (36:55):
So I think looking for things like where you feel like you’re competing in ways that are not healthy or ways that hinder your wellbeing, if you start seeing your productivity as taking over your life, that can be a challenge. I think imposter syndrome really rears its head in that competitive environment. So I think being on the lookout for some of those things in yourself and potentially in others can be really valuable,
Kevin Patton (37:25):
Our job as academics, I see, primarily, of course, there’s a lot of people doing scholarship and research and so on. So there’s that angle, but looking at it from the teaching angle, which I see as the central role of faculty, at least in my mind, that’s the case. What about student burnout? What can we do as faculty to create a course culture that minimizes the possibility of student burnout? That’s one part of the question. Then another part of the question is, no matter what we do, it’s going to happen. I think in many cases, what can we do as faculty to prevent or assist in that?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (38:15):
I think that we have learned a lot of lessons in the last year in the move to emergency remote instruction, in thinking about how we’re doing hybrid learning. Most places are doing hybrid learning, if they’re not fully remote. I think we’ve learned a lot about flexibility. I think we’ve learned a lot about rigor not hinging on things that we may have hinged it on before, that you can be rigorous without only having two exams this semester. You can be rigorous while still supporting your students with formative feedback.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (38:47):
You can still be rigorous with getting to know your students as people and joking with them a little bit and letting them ask questions and asking questions yourself, those active learning techniques. I think we’re on a trajectory where faculty really see their students and their colleagues as human beings. That it’s easy to get out of that as this is a student, this is a professor, those kinds of things, but that shared humanity becomes really important.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (39:14):
I think what we’re also seeing as being really powerful is faculty members during the pandemic or during racial injustice, violence are saying to their students at the beginning of class, “This is really hard. This is hard to deal with. Let’s take a minute and sit with it. Let’s take a minute and have a conversation about it and then we can move on.” It’s the acknowledging of those things, acknowledging it’s getting near the end of the semester. I’m a little burned out. I hope you’re okay. You can talk to me if you need to.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (39:44):
So I think creating that open conversation option, I think being flexible with deadlines, allowing people to redo some things, if necessary, offering smaller assignments as opposed to the giant test as the arbiter. I think all of those things help create environments where students trust the faculty member and they’re also probably going to learn more because we know that those strategies definitely impact student learning in ways that curve grading or the two exam kind of structure does.
Kevin Patton (40:18):
Maybe that is a silver lining in what has happened with this sudden move to remote teaching. Well, I really appreciate you coming and talking to us about burnout. Burnout is something that is one of those things that maybe sometimes it brings up some unpleasant feelings. So maybe we sometimes don’t want to talk about it, but it’s also one of those things that we have to talk about and we need to recognize, because it does affect us.
Kevin Patton (40:45):
It affects other people around us and it can cause serious harm. So the more we can do to recognize it, the more we can do to learn how to deal with it, the more we can do to actually do the work of dealing with it, the better, I think we’re all going to be. I understand you’re working on a book that it’s going to help us understand burnout a little bit more. So that’s still in its draft stage, I understand, but good luck with that.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (41:11):
Working on it. Thank you.
Kevin Patton (41:13):
Don’t let it burn you out.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (41:15):
No, it’s such a strange catch. I’m dealing with my burnout by writing a book about burnout.
Kevin Patton (41:23):
Well, there you go. That’s a good thing. What has helped me with some of my burnout is just find something different to do pull me out of that funky feeling that I’m having with this other part of my profession or career. Again, thank you very much for spending time with us and teaching us a little bit about burnout and good luck with your book.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark (41:49):
Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Kevin Patton (41:54):
If you don’t see the links to Rebecca’s website and other resources in your podcast player, well then go to the show notes at the episode page at theAPprofessor.org/91, where you’ll see the whole list. While you’re there, you can claim your digital credential for listening to this episode and you’re always encouraged to call in with your questions, comments, and ideas at the podcast hotline. That’s 1-833-LION-DEN or +1 833-546-6336, or send a recording our written message to podcast@theAPprofessor.org.
Kevin Patton (42:40):
If you’re looking for an online group of supportive faculty, you’re invited to join my private A&P teaching community at theAPprofessor.org/community, where you can join our weekly virtual happy hours, chat with me one-on-one or share ideas and well, a whole lot more. This episode on burnout is a great one to share with a colleague. Simply go to theAPprofessor.org/refer to get a personalized share link, that will not only get your friend all set up in a podcast player of their choice, it’ll also get you on your way to earning a cash reward. I’ll see you down the road.
The A&P professor is hosted by Dr. Kevin Patton, an award-winning professor and textbook author in human anatomy and physiology.
Kevin Patton (43:50):
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