On Burnout and Work Ethic in Teaching during Corona

I started my job as lecturer in February 2020. I knew the first two years in my job are going to be tough due to the substantial effort required to prepare my courses. It started quite conventient with a fairly relaxed first semester as my predecessor was still there for his last semester and I was merely supporting him, while preparing some of my upcoming courses the following semester. I accrued around 90 hours of overtime within 6 months and then went 2 weeks on holiday to relax and come back with renewed energies for the following wintersemester which I expected to be hardcore. And indeed it was…

A good deal into this summersemester, around the end of March this year I slowly realised that I am in a state of burnout. I didn’t sleep very well, woke up around 5am just to sit down to prepare teaching stuff. My performance in water polo training was horrendous. This was accompanied by psychological symptoms of serious self doubt, impostor syndrome and some form of depression.

Around mid of April I fully acknowledged that I need to do something about it and decided to halt water polo training and go to friends on the country side to deflate a bit. I had more or less prepared the whole semester and could therefore try to come down, despite still teaching all my courses online - I basically switched my home office to something more relaxing. Of course, as soon as you switch from a state of constant pressure and stress into a state of deflating, your body reacts. For the first time in my life I had a severe migraine attack which would not go away for three days. Ever since then I am in the mode of deflating, feeling exhausted, plagued by infections. I guess it will take until next semester and a proper holiday brake until I have fully recovered.

Recently I read David Graebers excellent book Bullshit Jobs which made me reflect my job as well as me effectively burning out within the first year of my job. Graeber shows that there is an intrinsical link between theology and the work ethics of our times: to work is good, it is a moral obligation - not working makes you a bad person. He specifically calls out Puritanians and Protestants “Work, they taught, was both punishment and redemption. Work was self-mortification and as such had value in itself, even beyond the wealth it produced, which was merely a sign of God’s favor (and not to be enjoyed too much)."

This stroke me as I recognised this to some extent within me during this time of burnout when confronted with depression. At times I just wanted to fall into a dreamless sleep and never wake up so that I finally might find peace. But I knew this peace will not come - actually it would never come as long as we as concious individuals exist in this form, there can never be an end to our journey of constant work (I also see learning as work). Until then we must continue this never ending journey which causes so much pain and sadness as there is no end to it.

How could this have happened? No holiday since beginning of September, accruing 300+ hours of overtime. Taking a break during the Xmas (2 weeks) and semester break (2 weeks) was not possible as I had to prepare the summersemester with a tremendously important Software Engineering course. In the beginning of November I contracted Corona and I did continue to teach, because “Hey whatever… it’s online and although I have a fever and I am not allowed to go outside I seem to be able to teach”.

During the Corona crisis we see that we try to function as usual, even given the tremendously increased overload caused by online teaching. What is worse, we are expected to function the same way even during this crisis - and we employees follow straight. As university lecturers we are equally guilty: we expect exactly the same from our students, if not more. The results are people burning out on both sides. As their lecturer I am guilty of this as well - we did not have any easter break this year, with pronounced effects: the students in this highly important Software Engineering course are burning out. The uni seemed to have realised that their employees are struggling in these times and came up with various things to improve things. One was the installation of a Workplace App and the other a Digital Health Day from 7am-7pm. The irony is remarkable: healing the burnout of online teaching with an overkill of additional online- and screen-time in an app and 12 hours of online feel-good meetings. Why not give everyone 1 week off?

What can we do? As Graeber shows in his book, the current system of work is quite broken. Unfortunately, there is no easy way out, and I am not interested in coming up with a global solution which can only be an unrealistic utopia anyway. The solution is rather on a local scale and has to start with oneself.

  1. We need to adjust our own expectations and standards. Not every single lecture has to be absolutely perfect. There can be gaps - the students won’t notice. We can close them in subsequent iterations.
  2. We need to evade the overkill uni administration comes up with and throws at us. Lecturer’s primary responsibility should still be teaching, not handling administrative overload.
  3. We need to get away from the check-box driven teaching, moving towards curiosity-driven teaching. Although difficult to set up and requiring more freedom for the lecturers, I hypothesise that this is less stressful for both the students and teaching staff.

I am going to push the next year as I am confident that it will substantially less exhausting than this year because I have a very well prepared foundation by now. However, should it not go according to plan, I am very well aware of my position and my luxury: as a highly experienced computer scientist, with this workload I can also get a burnout for a much higher salary somewhere else.