Burning Out and Recovering (slowly)

How I’m recovering from burnout.

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2019-07-03

Last year about this time, I had a meltdown, which is a symptom of burnout. I’d like to explain a little bit about my burnout in the hopes that other people can avoid it.

I want to help people, and I’m a people pleaser. I’m a giver, and sometimes I give too much, to the point I have nothing left. I have to be aware when people exploit this. One collaboration, unfortunately took advantage of my giving nature.

I was on a contracted project where I used some of the time to build an open source project to enable our research. With our collaborators, I showed them my work and they seemed excited. Unfortunately, this “excitement” turned into unreasonable demands. I was literally trying to do a full time development position while balancing the demands of other projects, including teaching. I started feeling like a machine, where each of my collaborators just wanted me to output figures and analyses.

The worst I’ve ever felt is when I have been busting my ass for things I don’t believe in, or have been stretched across too many projects. Unlike a lot of faculty at OHSU, I don’t have my own R01. I am a collaborator, and I work hard at it.

The wake-up call for me was persistent thoughts of suicide. I realized that I didn’t care that much about anything and I knew that things had to change.

Regaining Balance

The past year has been about finding my way back. I’ve been trying to do the following to regain my balance:

  1. Working 4 days/week instead of the usual 5. On my “day off”, I try my best to contribute to open source projects, work on music, and do other things that recharge me. This has enabled me to say no more often.

  2. Understanding my values and restructuring my work to fit it. I’m much more focused on education, outreach, and mentoring these days. If a project comes up, I have to ask myself whether it is in line with my values. I’d like my research to include educational and data exploration components, such as Shiny.

  3. Not putting all my eggs in the work basket. I’m an artist in addition to being a data scientist. I play the cello, compose, and do photography. I make more time for these.

  4. Realizing that excellence does not require self sacrifice. I try to stop working on things obsessively, and only within the time I’m paid.

  5. Mindfulness work. I’ve been using the Calm app to help me reorient me and not immediately react to adversities I encounter.

  6. Giving up on perfection. I’m learning to slowly abandon perfection on projects I don’t care that much about (more on this later), and instead turn my alerts off, or only respond to them within sane business hours.

Am I Recovered?

I’d like to say I’m fully recovered, but I’m not. I’m not sure I’ll ever be 100% recovered, if recovered means the insane productivity levels I was showing before. I have been slowly asking myself whether projects expect insane levels of work for the amount of time I can dedicate to them.

Thankfully, I have had really great support from my department and from the university overall throughout. I have had support from the communities I help manage (BioData Club and Portland R User Group), and all the great people involved in open science that I have met (rOpenSci, Mozilla, The Carpentries).

I would say that this support has been wonderful, and I feel like the journey back from research burnout has been ongoing. I wish there was a magic bullet for burnout, but working one’s way out of mental and emotional exhaustion ultimately takes a lot of time.

Resources

If you are burned out, please seek mental health assistance if you need help.