Another post on burnout, or A pep talk on cultivating an empathic attitude

I’ve been in this profession long enough to know that it’s often around this time of year that I usually start to feel really burnt out. Looking back through some of my old ACRLog posts, I found one from some time ago where I reflected on this very feeling…and tried to see past it. It makes sense that a transitional period or even a breaking point can follow the pace and workload of the ever-hectic academic year. 

Of course, this wasn’t a typical academic year. The pandemic–and all its related professional and personal stressors and uncertainties–exacerbated the strains we all regularly endure. As a result, I think my sense of end-of-year burnout has been amplified, as well. I’m referring to the sense of fatigue, detachment, lack of motivation, and difficulty focusing that are typical hallmarks. But what strikes me most this time around relates to my capacity for empathy. 

I’ve always considered myself an empathetic person. In recent months, though, I’ve been feeling that my capacity for empathy has diminished. I’m thinking that the course of the last year and a half has made me feel more emotionally strained and, therefore, more emotionally ungenerous or inflexible than I’ve felt in some time. Because I’m closer to my own limits, I feel more emotionally stingy with others.

I’ve generally taken pains to practice empathy and considered it to be a foundational characteristic of my personality and–in my professional sphere–my teaching, leadership, and managerial styles. Empathy fuels my interest in and perspectives on the world: it motivates me, facilitates effective communication, and strengthens collaboration. So to feel diminished in my capacity for empathy feels like a pretty big deal. 

If you’re at all familiar with the research literature, media coverage, or even just the general conversation on burnout, you know that it can show up in different ways or arenas and that strategies to address it may vary accordingly. These range from creating space for breaks and reflection and practicing self-care and compassion to reducing workload and setting and maintaining boundaries and much more. Of course, individual strategies can only take us so far; organizational approaches are needed for wider cultural change. 

While none of these strategies are a surprise, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement or sustain. So as I sit here at more or less the midpoint of the academic summer–lamenting how much of my “break” is already behind me, how much I have to accomplish, and how much of a real break I still need–I’m thinking about how to recharge, assert my agency, and affirm the meaning of my work again, like all the articles say to do. It’s here that I begin to wonder if my symptom might, in fact, also be my solution. Rather than waiting for the stars to align and my capacity to return to me fully restored, I’m thinking instead about how to pursue it–how to intentionally cultivate empathy, even in small ways, and reflect on the value it adds to my outlook, my work, my relationships. If I can re-frame it as a choice to make, a habit to practice, and an attitude to cultivate, then it becomes a path I can follow. Perhaps focusing my attention on taking steps to reclaim my capacity for empathy will be precisely the treatment I need to address my burnout.

How are y’all faring? How do you restore or maintain your capacities when burnout strikes? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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