Burnout syndrome: five ways to keep it together

Science is an extremely intensive endeavor. The erratic hours, the long experiments in the lab, and the repeated streaks of inconsistent or negative data together take a toll. What’s more, science is stressful. Deadlines for grants and various funding applications, committee meetings, project meetings, paper submissions, and endless re-submissions eventually add up. It is therefore hardly surprising that scientists are at high risk for burnout syndrome. Burnout is defined as a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, detachment, as well as feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. While this is often sneered at, burnout syndrome can be highly toxic both to individuals and to science in general. Burnt-out scientists certainly don’t produce their best work and are much more likely to move to a different field after the end of grad school or a postdoc. Here are here are some ways to prevent burnout and alleviate the worst of it.

Recognize the symptoms early

Much like any other physical or psychological condition, burnout syndrome is best addressed when identified early. Being aware of the issue and keeping an eye out for symptoms both in yourself and in your colleagues can make a huge difference. The most common symptom of burnout syndrome is fatigue. Fatigue is very different from being tired: look for tiredness that does not go away by resting or sleeping and that is not proportional to your level of activity. Of course, all of this is subjective to you and your levels of activity, so you are the only one who can make a legitimate call on whether you are fatigued or just tired. Burnout syndrome also comes with increased forgetfulness and impaired concentration. Another very common symptom is anxiety, coupled with difficulties sleeping and eating. As a consequence, if you’re burning out you might get sick more frequently than you are used to, which of course only adds to the overall struggle to keep your head above water. If you recognize any of these symptoms, be sure to act quickly before they develop into more serious issues that can severely impact your physical and mental health.

Seek professional help

As well as being at high risk for burnout syndrome, scientists are also highly prone to developing mental health issues. The symptoms of most of these issues are very similar to those of a simple burnout, so make sure to check in with a professional if you are feeling depressed, overwhelmed, or if you are really struggling to cope. Most, if not all, universities, offer counseling services for their students and staff and there will always be someone to talk to if you need help. If you are an older grad student or postdoc, it might feel uncomfortable to take advantage of these services, especially since they are often marketed mainly to undergraduates. Bear in mind, these resources are here for you to use too and any mental health professional on campus will be happy to talk to you. If for some reason, the university-based resources are not an option for you, don’t be afraid to ask your medical practitioner for advice on where to find the best support. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health and you need to look after it!

Seek help from your peers

As it should be increasingly evident from the ever-growing number of articles discussing burnout and mental health stress in scientists, you are not alone! In fact, chances are that you are not even the only person in your lab to have some type of burnout issue. Of course, it’s very difficult to feel supported by a community if nobody talks about these things, or if there is a stigma against needing help. Take the first bold step and start talking about it! Whether it’s other postdocs or grad students within your university or other members of your lab with varying degrees of experience, open up to somebody. You will be surprised by how much they will be able to relate to you. As well as providing emotional support, your peers might be able to offer some practical help. If you’re overwhelmed with experiments for a common project, a less burnt-out lab member might be willing to help you out for a while until you get back on your feet. If you’re stuck in your project and this is stressing you out even more, your peers might be able to suggest new ideas you can try. Most of all, you’ll feel part of a community that understands you and supports you—and that’s often the first step towards recovery.

Look after your body

As the Romans used to say, mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind needs a healthy body. If you’re burnt-out, chances are you are getting sick more frequently and are struggling to eat and sleep properly. While you might not be able to simply swat the anxiety away, how you look after your body is entirely within your control. After all, you know what’s good for you—you’re a biologist! It cannot come as a surprise that a diet of ramen noodles and peanut butter cups is not the key to a healthy body in which to set your healthy mind. Start investing in fresh fruit and vegetables and force yourself to eat nutritious, full-sized meals three times a day (breakfast is a thing!). Find some type of exercise you can do, even if it’s just a 15-minute fitness Youtube video to do before you shower. Most importantly, get your eight hours of sleep. Even if you believe you do not have the time, if you’re honest with yourself you’ll find you probably do. Cut out some Netflix and get to bed as early as you possibly can. You will feel the benefit a few weeks in.

Work less

It’s as simple as that. The best thing to do if you’re overworked is to cut down on how much work you do. If the prospect horrifies you, bear in mind that cutting down now might save you from having to stop altogether later. If you have the type of relationship with your advisor where you can be open about this type of thing, explain the situation to them – they will be more understanding than you think! After all, every faculty member was a postdoc and a grad student once. If you do not have that type of relationship don’t announce your decision, just do it. Chances are they won’t even notice for a few weeks, which is probably all the time you need anyways. Most scientists have the type of personality where you tend to take on more than is required of you. Just for a few weeks, become that kid in school who does the minimum necessary to pass the class. Leave your side-projects alone for a minute. If you’re working on something and the deadline is months away, take a break from it. Only do the experiments that you need to do right now and free up some time to go home earlier and look after yourself. These may seem like impossible tasks right now, but if you just take a leap of faith and just work less for a few weeks you’ll find that in most cases it is actually not the end of the world. In fact, you will probably be more productive in the long term because you won’t have burned out completely. As you embrace a gentler pace of science, you’ll find your love for what you do will slowly come back and you’ll find yourself being excited about your work again. You will become more focused and do better science, which is ultimately the goal!

Of course, the best thing to do would be to avoid burnout altogether. If you are interested in how to minimize your chances of doing so, check out our previous blog post here.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Gaia obtained her PhD from King's College, London working on melanoma cell plasticity and how it affects metastasis and patient survival. She has since moved to the United States, where she is currently a lecturing fellow at Duke University. Her work focuses on understanding how breast cancer metastasizes to the bone and manipulates the tumor micro-environment. She loves writing about science and communicating her passion for all things biology. You can find more of her writing here: https://time4science.wordpress.com/