Achieving Work-Life Balance in an Era of Burnout
Issue 102: Many solutions to work stress fail because they wrongly believe burnout is an individual problem, rather than a collective one. We offer a solution.
Do you feel a lack of energy or exhaustion? Are you struggling to keep up at work? Do you feel an increased sense of distance from your job? Are you more negative or cynical about your employer than you used to be? If so, you may be experiencing burnout.
Professional burnout results when chronic workplace stress is left unmanaged. This is painful to individuals, and costly to organizations. Workplace stress amounts to over $500 billion dollars and more than 550 million work days per year. An APA report further found that burned-out employees are over two times more likely to look for other work, 63% more likely to call in sick, and 23% more likely to need an emergency room visit. In short, it sucks.
Global levels of stress and burnout in the workplace have been on the rise for more than a decade–and hit a record high–according to a Gallup survey on the state of the global workplace in 116 countries. 61% of workers say they feel exhausted at the end of each. day. The recent peak is, in part, due to the huge spike in stress and uncertainty, evaporated childcare, decimated recreational activities, and sickness from COVID-19. And it’s not like workloads decreased.
In 2020, we both locked down with small kids at home. As we struggled to move our research, mentoring, and teaching into an unfamiliar virtual environment, we felt the same wave of stress as everyone else. Indeed, a poll of scientists found that 75% have dialed back their workload after the pandemic—largely to manage burnout. This is a natural consequence of taking on more and more with less bandwidth or support.
The impact of COVID has led to a wave of conversations across society and a struggle to solve the wave of burnout facing people in nearly every profession. Many organizations responded with a variety of ineffective solutions, from free meditation apps and breathing sessions to Yoga and online stress management webinars. These band-aids become the brunt of jokes as workers struggled to keep their heads above water. One survey even found that a majority of workers said they’d leave their current job for another offering better resources to reduce symptoms of burnout.
The reason many of the solutions fail is because they falsely believe burnout is an individual problem, rather than a collective problem. The source of burnout was captured rather elegantly in a survey of 7,500 full-time employees by Gallup, which found the top five reasons for burnout are (1) Unfair treatment at work, (2) Unmanageable workload, (3) Lack of role clarity, (4) Lack of communication and support from their manager, and (5) Unreasonable time pressure.
Notice how none of these problems are remotely addressed by mediation apps or Yoga? Companies are completely missing the mark when it comes to addressing burnout.
Learning when and how to say “No” can help create a manageable workload. And we are fortunate to be in a career where we have at least some control over our workflow—where many workers do not. But saying no only starts to scratch the surface
More comprehensive solutions need to happen through bold leadership, new social norms, and better organizational practices. In this newsletter, we will share our own attempt to prevent burnout by developing our own healthy organizational practices. As professors, we have the responsibility and capacity to create a healthier workplace for our own students, staff, and postdocs. In turn, we benefit from a healthier workplace ourselves.
To take a step in this directly, Jay created a Work-Life Balance Policy for his lab in 2019. You’ll note that it not only addresses the workload, but also provides additional role clarity, clear communication, and reduces unreasonable time pressure. This was created during a full lab meeting, where everyone was able to share their own insights and help craft a policy that worked for a diverse group of people at a variety of career stages. The conversation itself was enlightening since it revealed radically different perceptions about work norms.
For instance, one American graduate student felt a duty to respond to email requests within 2 hours whereas a European postdoc assumed that emails only required a response within 2 weeks. You can imagine, then, how the grad student might feel when their advisor (Jay) would send them an email on the evening or weekend. Creating clear norms about email was one of the first practices we changed.
Below is the full policy Jay created with his lab. He initially created it for the benefit of his lab members, but in the end he benefited as much as anyone. It created a much healthier work culture for everyone in the lab and helped buffer people from the massive stress of the pandemic. Jay honestly doesn’t know how he would have survived that period without it. His lab continues to discuss the policy and it has continually evolved to address new stressors and accommodate different lab members. (For instance, we now shut down our lab for the entire month of August to give people a clear time to unplug from work and enjoy vacation without missing out on any career opportunities).
In the interest of making it even better, we welcome your suggestions. Please share any thoughts our insights you have about the policy in the comments. In the meantime, here is Jay’s lab policy for your consideration:
“We have a shared commitment to ensuring that everyone in the lab is able to flourish in their personal and professional lives. Although our professional identity is often interwoven with other aspects of our lives (e.g., we might have close friendships with lab mates and colleagues), that does not mean we should neglect the other elements of life that give us joy and meaning. This is particularly important in science where a lot is often demanded of us and there are few formal structures or firm boundaries. As such, we have collectively designed a set of policies, practices, and guidelines designed to help every lab member keep their life in balance.
Our first goal is to support all types of professional pathways that students wish to pursue after they graduate. These goals should be shared with your mentor(s) and mentorship should be designed to help you obtain these goals. This requires a culture of mutual support—we should all aim to support other lab members on a personal and professional level. Everyone benefits from a mutually supportive culture in the lab.
Our second goal is to focus on the quality of your work, rather than how much you work, when you work, or where you work. We do not count the hours you work or force you to spend time at the office or in the lab. One of the true perks of academia is the flexibility to design our own work schedule. As such, we encourage you to find a schedule that optimizes your success and happiness. We acknowledge that efficiency matters far more than the sheer volume of work. We ask you not to pressure others to maintain the type of schedule you prefer. (There are notable exceptions (e.g., attending weekly lab meetings, one-on-one meetings, seminars, courses, etc.), but we will try to schedule these events during normal working hours.
Our third goal is to acknowledge that many lab members prefer to have a boundary between their work and personal lives. As such, no one in the lab is expected to respond on the weekends or evenings or meet during these times unless it is mutually agreed upon or a crisis. If something is genuinely urgent, please mark your email as URGENT (Ideally, put this in the subject line.) Otherwise we will assume it is not urgent. If there is a crisis, it is often best to call or text someone as they may not be monitoring their email during off hours. To minimize less urgent email, we recommend using boomerang or Send Later in gmail to have your emails arrive on weekdays (even if you wish to send them outside normal work hours).
Our fourth goal is to minimize distractions and busy work. There is no expectation to respond to emails that do not require a response or a send thanks to someone with an email (if you want to say thanks, please do swing by and say it in person since they will likely appreciate it more). We also encourage people to move informal discussions to Slack and avoid replying all. To make this system work, however, we should aim to respond in a timely fashion to emails about projects (especially emails that require a response and might be holding someone else up). We also value the right to say “no” to new projects or opportunities that might interfere with our core goals and prior commitments.
Our fifth goal is to jointly negotiate deadlines. In academia, we set most of our own timelines. As such, we strongly encourage you to negotiate and agree upon project timelines with your collaborators well in advance of submission. It’s an issue of professionalism and trust that you extend these discussions to people you work with (this excludes hard deadlines). We will also trust that our lab members are working hard and doing their best and do not need to be micromanaged. If collaborators are unable to meet their agreed upon timelines, we will have a group meeting with all collaborators to find a solution.
Our sixth goal is to be understanding of other life commitments. If people are running a few minutes late, that is fine. If you need to miss a lab meeting, no problem. If you want to bring your baby to lab, wonderful. If you have a family emergency, go. If you need to take a personal day or skip work for a few days to take care of yourself, do it. If you want to plan a vacation, you don’t need permission. These are natural parts of life and we will respect that they are bound to come up for everyone at some point.
Our seventh goal is to help one another uphold these values. There are natural power structures in place (e.g., faculty have more power than postdocs, who have more power than grad students, who have more power than undergrads, etc). Yet, we often fail to understand the impact of expectations and requests on others when we are in a position of power. We should be mindful of these dynamics when making requests and instead leverage our power to support one another. For instance, if other faculty members are making unreasonable demands you should tell Jay. He can help protect you from others’ demands or help you navigate delicate professional situations. You should do the same for people under your supervision.
Our eighth goal is to keep science fun. Many of us went into this field because we love it. While we recognize that the competition is fierce for the top jobs (both academic and non-academic), we don’t want to lose sight of why we choose this professional pathway. Academia is not the surest path to fame and fortune, but it can be incredibly enriching and meaningful if done right. This is why we will aim to keep our work as joyful and fulfilling as possible. This means treating each other with respect, planning regular social activities, doing research on topics we find intrinsically important, changing the practices and institutions within our control, and disengaging from the elements of academia we do not enjoy.
Our final goal is to revisit these goals annually and update them as our work evolves and we discover better ways of maintaining a strong work-life balance. And also keep in mind that there are many important elements for maintaining your wellness in academia and in life, more generally:”
If you like this policy, we invite you to adapt it for your own lab or workplace. Or, better yet, treat it as a conversation starter and develop your own policies that reflect the wishes and needs of your research team.
One concern people have about implementing these types of policies is that they will undercut the effectiveness of the team or organization. However, Jay has found that to be the exact opposite. His lab is more effective than ever, with more publications, grants, student awards, and citations in the past five years than ever before. In fact, the comparison is not even close. This is a policy that works—it helps everyone flourish.
If you are still skeptical, the best strategy is to try it out for 6 months or a year and measure the impact on everyone on your team. Treat it as your own experiment. If it is making people happier, healthier, or more effective, then you should keep it going and consider scaling it to the rest of the organization. It is only through scaling these norms and organization practices that we can create a healthier workplace for everyone.
Let us know if you try it out and how it goes!
News and Updates
If you know someone who wrote a book published in 2022, 2023, or 2024 on the field of general psychology, encourage them to submit their book for the William James Book Award . We won the award last year and know that a number of great authors read this newsletter. We wrote about winning the award here if you want to learn more. Please put your name in the hat for the award!
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Catch up on the last one…
In last week’s newsletter, a fun story about behavioral contagion at a workshop that Jay hosted, and tips on how to wield the power of social norms in your own groups.