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Burnout and Turnout in the Time of Covid

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By: Heather Martin, Teaching Professor, University Writing Program

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The term burnout was coined in 1973 by American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, when he noticed changes in “mood, attitude, motivation, and personality” among healthcare workers at the busy healthcare clinic where he worked. The concept resonated and exploded into common parlance, quickly coming to “convey a great number of personal and social problems,” as Freudenberger would later complain. 

Seeking to better measure burnout, psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson developed a scale to assess aspects of burnout called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), offering three burnout subscales: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. According to the MBI, emotional exhaustion refers to feeling emotionally overextended and exhausted by work; depersonalization is revealed in unfeeling and impersonal responses toward others; and reduced personal accomplishment occurs when workers evaluate themselves negatively and feel dissatisfied with on-the-job accomplishments. 

I will confess, at the start of the 2020–2021 academic year, I was experiencing all three symptoms, at different times and in different measures. 

It’s difficult to articulate exactly why I was feeling burnt out. The world just felt very heavy. After a lonely summer, work was picking back up. I was facing uncertain teaching conditions, worries over student retention, and a host of new classroom safety processes and procedures—all while trying to keep myself and my daughters safe. My colleagues across campus will agree: it was a lot. 

At the same time, professional development (PD) opportunities sprung up in departments, and across units and programs. PD was offered in short and long formats, synchronous and asynchronously, stipended and voluntary. If one wished to be developed, there was development to be had. 

I dove in, taking roles as learner and facilitator across multiple Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL) and University Writing Program initiatives, and joined the yearlong CCESL Community-Engaged Teaching Faculty Fellows Program. Approaching each new PD workshop, I thought surely turnout would be low. With so many of us—myself included—suffering from diminished “mental bandwidth,” why would my colleagues choose to attend these events? Yet, when I entered the Zoom room, the gallery was full of friendly and new faces from across campus—far more than “the usual suspects.” 

And, as I attended these workshops on top of my own teaching and administrative responsibilities, I noticed they didn’t further deplete my energy; they increased it. 

In the language of human-resource fields, the opposite of burnout is engagement. How was I feeling more engaged in the face of such extreme, burnout-inducing stress? Perhaps it was the contrast between the pandemic isolation and the interactions in these workshops. Perhaps it was the opportunity to meet new people in the virtual environment. Or, perhaps it was a more open and intentional approach to faculty wellbeing. 

While the PD events I attended all delivered useful content, there was a more concerted focus and awareness of faculty wellbeing and the challenges of work during a pandemic. Facilitators asked more questions, allocated more space for sharing. In the Community-Engaged Teaching Fellows meetings, for example, we were encouraged to write reflectively and share what it meant to be a community-engaged teacher in the time of COVID. While they felt strange at first, these activities invited faculty to share authentically about their lives and challenges in ways I don’t recall pre-pandemic. Even from within our infamous DU silos, our instinct was toward community. 

My experience of engagement and community in 2020 was not unique. The 2021 Quantum Workplace report (from creators of the Best Place to Work survey) found that national employment engagement actually improved in 2020. According to their data, at its peak, engagement growth in 2020 represented an 11% jump from 2019. 

As a new academic year dawns, and we face many of the same challenges as 2020–2021 (plus some new ones), I’m feeling tired but hopeful. And I intend to turnout again for my colleagues and myself—asking real questions of my peers and allowing time for their real answers. For me, community is the only meaningful corrective I’ve found to mitigate the burnout sneaking into our professional lives as the COVID moment stretches on.