Burnout: From Causes Come Solutions

Elizabeth Wilcox, Sr. Consultant for Advising

At the largest Advancing Practice session to date, nearly 130 advisors turned out to hear Professor Christina Maslach talk about the six main causes of burnout and the pernicious impact of burnout to health and job performance. The beauty of understanding causes?  From causes, come solutions! Coping with burnout, as Maslach noted, is not about improving one’s self-care strategies; because the causes are structural, the solutions need also to be structurally based. We’ve compiled the following list of advising specific possible solutions to help you not only prevent but address burnout. The key is to be both constructive and proactive in your mindset and strategies as these are likely to result in both positive and lasting changes in your working life.

Cause: Work overload 

Solution: Case Management

For advisors, managing large caseloads can be very draining. There may simply be too many students to be well managed by an individual advisor, or a mix of individual advising, projects and peak advising periods may converge in ways that impact an individual’s capacity to manage intense student demand.

Appointments vs. Drop-in

Looking at the mix of drop-in vs. scheduled appointments is a good way to start examining your workload and advising peaks. Would a greater mix of scheduled appointments and control over that schedule help you better manage workload? Would adjusting this mix during busy periods make a difference?  You might be surprised at the impact adjustments to your scheduling processes might make on your time, energy and feeling of control.

Technological Solutions

There are a wide range of technological resources that can help tier service in ways that help manage large caseloads. For example, Facebook can be used to advise many students at once, videos can be uploaded to YouTube to address frequently asked questions, Skype advising can help make advising more convenient, and changes to web based information can help you better manage quick question advising. Even a wiki might help you manage updates to training materials and other important shared documents. All are time saving if used well.

Process Analysis

Maybe it’s time to take a look at some of your standard processes; are you spending time processing huge numbers of paper petitions that could be better managed electronically? Are deadline dates conflicting with other important project deadlines? Taking a look at your business processes can help you find bottlenecks and other sources of overload. Simple adjustments may make your life much easier. As we gear us for integration of our student systems, there may be new opportunities for streamlining ineffective and inefficient processes.

Evaluation and Assessment

Assessment can help you better understand student needs and to meaningfully construct advising to best support those needs. What are your students asking for? How could you construct advising to improve service? For example, after evaluating student need, one unit made changes to the way it distributes advisor codes, requiring in person appointments for only its neediest students. This is just one example of the way caseloads can be managed using thoughtful assessment.

Cause: Lack of Control

Solution: Expanding Influence

Your relationship with and to your manager and Dean are very important and your ability to influence their control of resources and decision making authority is important for managing your work.  Constructive open dialogue and communication regarding issues of control are encouraged for dealing with many workplace challenges. If you identify problems, feel empowered to propose possible solutions and changes to workflow that might help you work more effectively. Check out the book Exercising Influence: A Guide for Making Things Happen by B. Kim Barnes for more on this topic. Also, check out the article – Are You a Data Activist? from our archives to learn more about exercising influence over advising resources.

Cause: Insufficient Reward

Solution: Constructing Systems of Positive Reinforcement and Reward

While there are some high profile rewards programs for staff, attention to reward and recognition can vary from one supervisor to the next. If you feel that you are not getting the attention you deserve, think about creating your own system of positive reinforcement. Christopher Hunn keeps a “brag file” or “happy file” which includes all of the many thank you letters and cards he receives from students. He uses this file regularly to remind himself of the huge positive impact he is making on students. You may also want to consider other means of positive reinforcement for a job well done – sign up for a free class or training, buy yourself flowers, take a vacation day, have lunch with a friend, take a field trip…as long as you plan it as an intentional reward and enjoy it as such, it will effectively boost your mood and morale.

Cause: Breakdown of Community

Solution: Strengthening Your Networks

Seek out a professional community where you can share praise, happiness and humor with people you respect and connect with these people often. Creating and sustaining this network of professionals should be a top priority and regular source of support for you.

Cause: Unfairness

Solution: Real Talk

If there is unfairness in your workplace, for example, with regard to workload or responsibility, identify the source of what is troubling you and directly address it. A simple chat with a supervisor may help you unburden and begin to address the source of unfairness together. Be specific and solutions oriented.

Cause: Values Conflict

Solution: Identify Your Priorities and Seek to Create the Environment You Value

In an advising setting, values conflicts can arise when, for example, you value student-centered, holistic advising and your caseload results in mostly transactional work, or you believe in a lenient application of policy and the Dean believes in a “no compromise” approach, or you value relationships and your boss values “outputs”. At some point it will be important for you to identify your own workplace and personal priorities and to find an environment where the two are congruent. You may have heard Susan Hagstrom speak about the list she made in which she imagined her “ideal work environment” – after making her list, she made adjustments to her working life and relationships and voila!, she says she now works in the environment she once only dreamed of.  Being clear about what you want and setting out to create that environment for yourself and others is likely to make your working life significantly more satisfying. Not a chance you can create alignment? Might be time to search for a working environment that better reflects your values.

The key to successfully preventing and addressing burnout is awareness – of the six causes, what resonates with you and what can you do to shift the structure or culture of your environment? You may have more power than you think to make positive changes.

If you have made adjustments and are still feeling exhausted or overwhelmed or if you feel unable to see students it might be a good time to get some help. We urge you to use available campus resources to address workplace stress. For example, the University Health Service offers a wide range of support services and the staff Ombuds office may also be of assistance. Be sure to reach out if feel your ability to do and be your best is in any way compromised.