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Confronting the Burnout Culture of Higher Ed in the COVID-19 Era

by Joanne Stirrup, Product Specialist

We are in an emergency. Some of us are going through it on a quiet campus, unnerved by the drastic shift in social life. Some of us are going through it from our homes, carving out a college experience from our childhood bedrooms. And some of us are somewhere in between, finding home in this radical change. But all of us are trying to survive this crisis. And it’s time that our expectations of work and productivity respond accordingly. It’s not "business as usual" anymore.

Higher education has always carried immense stress; however, in the COVID-19 era, the increasing demands that have been placed on our physical and mental health have manifested as a culture of burnout. The worst part is that the blame for this chronic exhaustion along with the responsibility to work through this lands on the student.

But it’s not our fault. Burnout is not about an internal deficit; it is intimately linked to the dire external factors a global public health crisis, an economic recession, political worries that are consuming us. We have to stop pathologizing burnout when it's the expectations on the student that haven’t changed even when the entire world has. It helps me sometimes, so I’m going to tell you: remember that you are doing great and that there is much more to you than your academic performance. You are living through a global crisis and that is more than enough.

It’s also important to remember that it’s okay to ask for help from friends, from coworkers, from bosses and professors. It can be a vulnerable position, but these are terrifying times, and we need each other more than we’d like to admit. As higher education promotes self-care as the key to success in college, it’s clear that we need morewe need to secure what the disability studies community deems “collective care.” Through this collective act of support, we can shatter the myth of independence and recognize that we all have needs that should be met and we can meet these needs together. So, reach out to that professor and ask for that extension. Share those project responsibilities with your coworkers. Ask your friends to help you work through that stress. Just be willing to help them too.

Burnout pushes us to be alone; but collective care shows us a path out of this isolating paradigm. If we all make a commitment to share our needs and help meet each other’s, we can create spaces where we celebrate vulnerability and reject isolation.

We don’t always have to be productive. We don’t have to work every moment of the day. We don’t always have to get the best grade. And once we acknowledge this, we might even begin to challenge the merits of this continual push to be productive and of high-stakes environments of academia and work. Remember that you are surviving through crisis and that is something to be proud of as we push toward collective care to make it through together.


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