If you are experiencing burnout and you’re having difficulty finding your way out, ask for help and seek professional treatment.
Mental health at work has become a real societal problem that can’t be ignored anymore. According to the World Health Organization, burnout syndrome is related to long-term, unresolved, work-related stress . This sickness affects people of any age, gender, origin and field, and it often manifests itself with clear symptoms such as loss of appetite, loss of weight, sleeping disorder, hostility, paranoia, alcohol/drug abuse, loss of interest, sadness, isolation. Despite these common symptoms, sometimes it is very hard to identify these health problems.
Mental health is a destructive process that could push someone to suicide if no solution and help is provided. The origin of this syndrome could be multiple, associated with the workplace such as open space, difficulty to integrate and communicate with other co-workers, interaction with supervisor(s)/advisor(s), difficulty to manage deadlines, over-estimation of the skills of the students and the time required to accomplish certain tasks from the supervisors.
How is the psychological condition of early-career scientists (ECS)?
A recent study shows that more than one-third of graduate students are depressed and that postgraduate students (PhD and Master level) have a rate of depression and anxiety six times higher than the general public .
Added stress from meetings, the lack of supervision or hard deadlines to finish on time are often not beneficial for the student. In this framework, supervisors and the University can play a key role for the mental health of graduate and postgraduate students.
Recently, some effort to address the problem of mental health among students and ECS has been observed on different levels in academia. Universities use their webpages to encourage ‘health and well-being’ practices ; they organize meet-up events for writing the PhD manuscripts with other PhD students and provide access to psychologists on campus . Furthermore, mental health begins to be a big topic in conferences. As a matter of fact, the topic of this year’s ECS Great Debate was: ”How can Early Career Scientists prioritise their mental wellbeing?” . The increasing need to tackle the problem of mental health in academia also lead to the organization of “The International Conference of the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers” in May 2018 .
To better understand the current situation, we decided to interview an ECS who is willing to answer some questions on the topic.
<< Can you recover from burnout in few days? Probably not. It would most likely take weeks, months, or even years. But the first step you can move to begin the process of healing is to recognize the signs your body and mind give you.
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
- Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
- Do you lack the energy to be productive?
- Do you find it hard to concentrate?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
- Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
- Have your sleep habits changed?
- Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?
<< To clearly identify you’re suffering from burnout is not easy. I didn’t really notice what was happening to me until certain symptoms appeared. It all started with having sleep disorders. At that time, I was enrolled in my second year of PhD and I didn’t really worry too much, because I assumed having troubles sleeping was normal while pursuing a PhD.
<< Days used to pass by, one similar to the previous one and to the next one. I was very stressed: I realized fundamental research was not my career ambition, I was overwhelmed by the amount of work to do, I was working all week-days, week-ends included. I had no time off. I used to feel very tired, I didn’t have the energy to go out with friends or to do some sport, because I already had too much work into my daily life. I really couldn’t find it funny, to be out with friends. I just wanted to be alone and have some rest, I kind of knew that my brain and my body needed that.
I was experiencing alienation at work
<< One day, I put my favourite jeans on and I could literally dance in it: I had lost two sizes without even being aware of that. The problem with burnout is this one: it happens so gradually at first that you don’t notice your mind and body are going through tremendous changes and challenges. ‘What is happening to me?’
I was surrounded by people I didn’t appreciate
<< ‘Well, I’m probably not ok, there’s something wrong here’ and I immediately sought for help. I went to see a psychologist and started therapy. I got burnout without even knowing that it was happening to me. My therapist first helped me realize the things that weren’t going right. I was experiencing alienation at work: my PhD project didn’t interest me and at the same time it was increasingly becoming stressful and frustrating. I was surrounded by people I didn’t appreciate and who only used to talk about their research projects, the publications they had to write, the conferences they had to attend, the results they had to obtain. I was surrounded by stressed people. I found myself thinking: ‘Hey, I don’t belong here’. The more I stepped into recognizing I was struggling with ‘work-related stress’, the more unproductive I was becoming. I was tired and lacked energy to get my work done. My performance reduced. I couldn’t recognize myself anymore. That was not the person I thought I was when I started my PhD.
I don’t belong here
<< My advice for early-career scientists facing mental health issues is: ask for help. If you can have their support, reach out to your parents, brothers and sisters. They love you. Go see your friends, talk to them. If they live in another city, call them, write to them. They care about you. Do not waste time: seek for professional help. Ask your contacts about a therapist. Ask your doctor about a therapist. Just ask ANYONE for help. The temptation to turn in upon themselves is huge. Do not give in: don’t be alone. >>
The temptation to turn in upon themselves is huge. Do not give in: don’t be alone!
Summary Table of the five main causes of burnout
According to a 2018 report by Gallup , an analytics and advice firm, five main causes could potentially lead to a burnout:
Unreasonable time pressure. Employees who say they have enough time to do their work are 70 percent less likely to experience high burnout. Individuals who are not able to gain more time are at a higher risk of burnout.
Lack of communication and support from a manager. Manager support offers a psychological buffer against stress. Employees who feel strongly supported by their manager are 70 percent less likely to experience burnout.
Lack of role clarity. Only 60 percent of workers know what is expected of them. When expectations are like moving targets, employees may become exhausted simply by trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing.
Unmanageable workload. When a workload feels unmanageable, even the most optimistic employees will feel hopeless. Feeling overwhelmed can quickly lead to burnout.
Unfair treatment. Employees who feel they are treated unfairly at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout. Unfair treatment may include things such as favouritism, unfair compensation and mistreatment from a co-worker.
A way out of stressful circumstances at work can be sought through a positive practice.
The advice in this blog post should be seen as a complement, not an alternative, to seeking professional help.
- Seek support.
- Take a break.
- Redefine your own values and goals.
- Be kind with yourself: “It’s okay if all you did today was survive”
- Set boundaries between your work and your personal life.
- Again, seek support!
Further readings and resources on mental health in academia and the solutions to overcome it at:
¤ ‘What to do to improve postgraduate mental health’ – Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05074-4
¤ ‘Mind Your Head’ blog series of the EGU-TS division: https://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/ts/2018/05/30/mind-your-head-1-lets-talk-about-mental-health-in-academia/
¤ ‘Sharing & talking isn’t enough – we need a change in culture around mental illness’ on GeoLog: https://blogs.egu.eu/geolog/2019/06/12/sharing-talking-isnt-enough-we-need-a-change-in-culture-around-mental-illness/
This post was written by Walid Ben Mansour and Marina Corradini
with revisions from Michaela Wenner