From Burned-out to Flourishing

Janet Thompson Jackson*

I’m not always okay.

It’s the end of the semester and I’m mentally and emotionally exhausted.  My fuse is a bit shorter than normal and my cynicism is a bit longer.  I’m ready to distance myself from my work and many of my co-workers. 

Does that sound familiar to you?  We label it as burnout or exhaustion.  Burnout is defined as the reaction to chronic stress that often leads to exhaustion, dissatisfaction at work or school, and the difficulty or inability to function well in daily life.  You may not be surprised to know that law faculty are at high risk for burnout.

Certain characteristics put people at higher risk for burnout.  They include:

  • People who identify so strongly with their work that they lack boundaries between their personal and work life
  • Perfectionists and people-pleasers
  • Those who work in helping professions
  • People who have an unmanageable workload or have little control over their work environment
  • Individuals who experience unfair treatment
  • An environment where there is poor communication and support

Law faculty, and perhaps especially clinicians, may see themselves in more than one of these categories.  For BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) faculty members, some of these conditions may have existed long before the pandemic, but have become exacerbated over the past year.  And, while most faculty members have sought to support their students during the especially challenging times of the pandemic, BIPOC faculty often find themselves in the position of having to perform their academic obligations as usual while at the same time supporting BIPOC students and living with their own trauma.  Faculty of color also expend considerable emotional and physical energy responding, on the one hand, to concerned colleagues who want to dialogue about anti-racism and contribute to meaningful change, and on the other hand, to colleagues who insist that all lives matter, thereby discounting BIPOC experiences and grievances.  In addition, non-tenured faculty may feel pressure to remain silent or carefully manage their responses about racial injustice, and specifically about implicit bias among their own faculty, in order to advance in their institutions.

As we move from the end of the semester into summer, how do we also move from feeling burned-out and cynical to purposeful and flourishing?  A helpful place to begin is with awareness.

  •  Awareness of how you are really feeling right now, after you strip away external expectations and internal guilt about how you “should” be feeling.
  • Awareness of what you have accomplished during an extremely challenging time and how you have grown.
  • Awareness of what you could have done better and what you have learned.
  • Awareness of how you spend your time and whether those choices align with your core values and desires.
  • Awareness of how much of your time, if any, is dedicated to self-care.

Integrating self-care into our lives begins with making the daily choice to do so.  Here are just a few strategies to get you started:

  • Radical self-care: Be proactive and unapologetic about taking care of yourself.  Focus on the basics of getting enough sleep, eating and drinking nutritious foods, moving your body, and giving yourself downtime.
  • Connect with Community: Connect with your people.  Tell someone supportive how you are feeling.  It may help just to have someone listen to you.  If you think you may need professional help, don’t hesitate to get it.
  • Retreat from Community:  Sometimes we just need a break.  Without apology or undue explanation, give yourself permission to step back from your community obligations and expectations.
  • Set boundaries: Review your ‘to do’ list and decide what can be delegated or otherwise eliminated.  Learn to say ‘no’ to commitments you don’t need to take on.  Schedule times daily to disconnect from email and social media.
  • Laugh and have fun: Watch a funny move, read a good book, listen to music that makes you happy, laugh with a friend.
  • Practice instant stress-reduction techniques: At any time during the day take one minute (or less or more) to focus on your breath.  Feel your breath going in and out of your body.  Count your breaths if that helps you to keep your focus.  Allow your body to relax while focusing on your breath.  The more you do this during the day, the more your body builds an automatic relaxation response.

I’m not always okay.  But the tools above help me to breathe and re-center myself amidst the stresses of wrapping up the semester and planning for the next one.  It also helps me to remember you — my colleagues in this space — who inspire me, encourage me, and give me a sense of gratitude for being a part of this vital work that we share.   I’m wishing you a wonderful, self-replenishing summer.

For more information and ideas on how to support yourself and your students, take a look at Janet’s upcoming article, Wellness and Law: Reforming Legal Education to Support Student Wellness (forthcoming, 65 Howard Law Journal, 1 (Fall 2021)), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=624225

*Janet Thompson Jackson is a law professor, a leader in law student and lawyer wellness, a certified wellness coach and yoga/meditation instructor, a nonprofit consultant, and an inclusion & belonging collaborator.  Her driving philosophy is that preparing students to be successful in the legal profession means helping them to manage the stresses inherent in law school and practice.  Janet has been a member of the law faculty of Washburn University School of Law since 2004, where she directs the Small Business and Nonprofit Law Clinic, teaches Nonprofit Law, and is helping to lead the law school’s new initiative, Third Year Anywhere™.

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