Author: Ethan Kim
Work-life balance is really hard to achieve – it's like a myth. Something you hear about, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster – but never seem to actually see in real life. In undergrad, I struggled with burnout often. So, when I entered grad school and into an unfamiliar field of study, I wanted to go in with a plan: balance my life between work, my side-hustle, and my personal life.
If there's anything my undergrad taught me, you have to do your research before you plan out an experiment. So, I did some research on what burnout is and why exactly it's corrosive to our physical and mental health. I also started to experiment with some self-care, and I'll share three tips that I've personally found really helpful!
What is burnout?
Not a lot of people knew what burnout exactly was when I asked them. To be fair, I only vaguely knew what it was until I felt it in undergrad. But once I started researching burnout to write this post, I went down a deep, deep rabbit hole (as you do when you search up a topic at 3 AM in the wee nights of dawn) and found some rather not-so-great statistics from a few key studies.
So, what exactly is burnout? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as an "occupational phenomenon" in their International Classification of Diseases, meaning that it isn't a medical condition – yet. I have a strong suspicion that soon enough, it will be considered a medical diagnosis, similar to how the WHO declared stress as the health epidemic of the 21st century. The WHO defines burnout as: "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." They characterize it in three ways:
Interestingly, burnout is specifically defined as "chronic workplace stress" - but I've felt it from just studying and taking exams. Maybe that gives more credence to the idea that studying and doing exams are work?
Impact of burnout on the economy and health
I'll highlight two studies that I thought were the most disturbing for our health and the economy. The first is a study conducted at Harvard in 2015, concluding that workplace stress contributes to at least 120 thousand deaths a year in the States. To put that into perspective, workplace stress would've been at number 6 in the top 10 list of the causes of death in the States in 2015. The other 5? Heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, accidents, and stroke. Mind you, they defined ten workplace stressors, and some of these aren't things you would experience directly at work, like unemployment. But, stressors such as high job demands and long working hours experienced by many fresh grads in their first job, whether that's as a graduate student or outside of academia. "That's wild," I thought, and I went further down the rabbit hole.
The WHO published an information sheet about workplace stress in May of 2019, and one point was staggering to read. Depression and anxiety cost the world an estimated $1 TRILLION (US) dollars in 2019. There were some work-related risk factors identified in this information sheet, some of which included:
It's unbelievable to me that despite the negative consequences of overworking and the resulting stress, grad students and employees are often working way more than 8 hours a day. In my undergrad, I felt that it might be the culture – "if you're sleeping, you're falling behind" was a running joke in our friend group, but at times, it felt true. I could be doing another problem set, or reviewing my notes, or reading another paper. Sleeping felt guilty at times – but I learned much later that sleeping was helping me learn, which is a bit counterintuitive. So, here's a couple of things I've started that help me achieve a bit of that mythical work-life balance. Hopefully, you'll find them useful!
Meticulously plan out your week.
I was determined to have my weekends (relatively) free. So, to make the most out of my weekdays, I started to plan out my day almost by the hour. I found that by being intentional with my time, I stuck to my plan better and was doing more than I thought I could ever do in a week. While it hasn't been perfect, I've definitely had freer weekends to destress and sleep-in. On the other hand, my time at my lab has been packed (although, as of writing this, COVID-19 is on the horizon and, I may end up working from home). While it's been busy, taking breaks every 30 minutes to rest my eyes and let my brain relax for a bit has been super helpful!
Sleep. Like, properly sleep.
Sleep is amazing, and so are the benefits that you get from sleeping the recommended 7-8 hours.Better working memory, helping you retain and synthesize things you learned throughout the day, and cleaning the brain of harmful waste products are all benefits of sleep. There are tons of studies linking the lack of sleep to host of health problems. While the occasional all-nighter isn't the worst thing in the world, chronic sleep loss leads to irritated moods, mental health issues, memory problems, and cardiovascular problems. But sleep a regular 7-8 hours a day, and you'll get benefits like better working memory, more energy throughout the day, and better brain health. What I mean by that is your brain gets to clean itself - yeah, you heard me. Clean itself. Your brain alone uses almost 20% of your energy per day, so it produces a lot of waste as a by-product of energy use. These harmful by-products are related to diseases like Alzheimer's and other brain-related diseases. So, by sleeping, you allow your body to get rid of those waste products and, in turn, help you be ready and healthy.
Take up a hobby!
Research shows thatthose who have a hobby can be more creative and productive outside of work. While it's weird to say, I've taken up coding as a somewhat necessary hobby. I know it's a bit hypocritical, but instead of coding for my research project, I'm learning how to code to expand my skill set and create side-projects that might be interesting. Also, gaming with friends really seems to help me enjoy my time off from work. I'd get asked if I had a life outside of work before, and I couldn't answer "yes" as I'd go home from class, study, eat, study… and rinse and repeat. Now, I can confidently say "yes" and be happy that I do stuff outside from reading papers and doing research!
So to cap it all off, here's the TL;DR (too lazy, didn't read):
Burnout is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, negativity and cynicism towards your job, and reduced efficacy at work. It's caused by poorly managed workplace stress, which can have catastrophic effects on our economy and health, being deadly enough to place it in the top 10 causes of death in the states. Things you can do (for free!) to help you combat burnout and be more productive at work are planning out your days, sleeping the recommended 7-8 hours, and taking up a hobby.
I learned a great deal about burnout and productivity – maybe give a search on Google and see what you can learn outside of what my summary details!