School starts back this week or next week or, in my case, after Labor Day, so the drum beat of readings, homework, quizzes and tests is about to begin once again. For a lot of you, so will the career-based extra-curricular activities you have come to love, such as student publications, student broadcast or student professional groups. Even though a lot of us could really do with another month of summer, we tend to feel refreshed and ready to go once again, diving into these things with vigor and a backpack full of new office supplies.
The hard part comes about six weeks later when tests come crashing down, the paper that was “so far away” is due tomorrow and everything at the student media outlets is spinning out of control. The stress, the anxiety and, yes, the burnout begins.
The Columbia Journalism Review looked at this from a professional perspective recently, with writer Bailey Dick outlining how professionals in journalism tended to blow off stress and such until self-destructive behaviors kicked in. A good friend of mine, Scott Reinardy from the University of Kansas, has published a wide array of studies that have outlined and supported these concerns in all sorts of journalists. His book on “Journalism’s Lost Generation” showcases how burnout has created serious problems in our field.
What’s important to understand is that burnout isn’t something that happens overnight or something that is inevitable. It’s like when the “oil change” light comes on in your car. It means, “Hey, you might want to look at this…” If you get things handled right then and there, you’ll probably be OK. If you wait 50,000 miles to look into this situation, it should come as no surprise to you if your engine explodes and your car becomes useful only as a 3,000-pound paperweight. The build starts now (or even earlier) in the field. You need to look at what is happening to you and how you can work through it.
Fighting it starts with the understanding of what you can handle, what you can’t handle and how best to react when facing either of those situations. It starts by acknowledging your strengths and limitations. It also helps to examine what you want to prioritize and what can wait for another day. It forces you to see how certain things are affecting you and pushing you toward unhealthy changes and coping strategies.
The problem with burnout is that we only tend to see it when it hits and hits hard. It’s like that oil change example: Suddenly your engine’s on fire while you’re driving 70 mph on the freeway and you start to think, “Oh crap, NOW I have to deal with this.” It often takes a breakdown for us to come to grips with the idea that we have a problem. We talk about disaster in the past tense, not as something we’re building toward that could be avoided.
With that in mind, consider this post as a plea of sorts. Start monitoring yourself now at the beginning of the term for the early signs of burnout. If you’re wondering what they are, Scott’s got some great thoughts in here as well as in some of his other research. Give yourself that baseline from which you can figure out how you’re actually doing along the way.
As for me, I’m taking the official summer break now. I’ll be back with the regular daily (Monday-Thursday ish) schedule starting after Labor Day when my classes resume.
Thanks for reading,
(a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)