I was talking to a colleague yesterday and realised, somehow in the fog of the COVID years, I was about to hit 23 years working in higher education.  Apart from one year in research admin, all those roles have been direct people-facing: 1 year at the UNSW School of Psychiatry (now Black Dog Institute), 7.5 years coordinating the UNSW Counselling Service and 13.5 years now at UTS in student learning support.

Something that I realised pretty early on is that it’s easy to lose your compassionate edge, and I think it’s much more of an issue now. Everyone I talk to is tired – tired of COVID, of lockdowns, of face masks, of constantly not knowing which way you are going to be asked to teach or work. So I thought I’d share my tips for not burning out. 

1. Get in touch with your own student experience

I think anyone who’s realistic will remember the panic times in your first or subsequent degrees – those moments where you couldn’t hold onto why you were doing this, or you wanted to give up. I think a lot about 18-year-old Georgina – with an engineering scholarship, living on campus, far from home and supports, in a degree she hated. I try to remember that Georgina a lot. 

2. Take decent breaks

I was talking to a friend the other day who had too much leave and was realising she needed to take it. Don’t make the mistake of piling up your leave – you need to step away. At UNSW Counselling, I used to find that towards the end of semester, when I couldn’t stand to hear another student say “Special consideration”, it was time to take a break. So I try to take a break, even short, every 3 months or so.

3. Keep a folder of the positive feedback

In my early days at UTS, running a big program that was constantly growing, it was really hard to remember how I was helping to change students’ lives. So, at the suggestion of a dear friend, I started a big scrapbook of all the cards and emails giving positive feedback or thanking me for my help. I haven’t touched the scrapbook for years, but I still have an email folder called ‘Keep Good’ where I put feedback that I want to remember, and I keep all the thank you cards I receive as well. On a bad day, they can be a great antidote. 

4. Look for new things to learn and embrace

I love to learn new things, and after 13 years of mainly the same job, it’s easy to think there’s nothing left to learn. So, I’m always looking for new things to learn – well, maybe not at the pace at the start of COVID (when I had to teach 90 student leaders about online facilitation) – but definitely new things. The most recent example for me was doing a 4-day workshop learning how to run Sexual Consent training for students. Conferences can be a good option (if you can find the funds), or you can take advantage of all the Linked-In Learning resources our library has. 

5. Debrief with colleagues

Sometimes dealing with students can be tricky. I really value my colleagues at HELPS when faced with a difficult situation. Working from home has made this more challenging, but I still try to regularly have a Zoom lunch or coffee with colleagues just to be with people I like and trust who understand the hard things we face. 

6. Know when you’re really burnt out and seek professional help

Just before Christmas my assistant said to me: “You’re burnt out”. She was right. I was lucky that I was about to have 3 weeks off, but we have professional support in our EAP service if you can’t get a break, so take advantage of that. There’s no shame in being burnt out and no shame in seeking help. It may even mean stepping away from a role for a while. 

How do you deal with stress and fatigue when it all gets on top you? Comment below if you have any strategies you’d like to share.

  • Wise words Georgina. It’s been a tough couple of years with lots of change thrust upon us. Being kind and gentle to yourself and others has never been more important 🙂

  • Thank you Georgina – I admire your resilience and yr commonsense approach that we often forget to draw on. Covid has given us the opportunity to get to know our own neighbourhoods through before and after work walks. As we return to uni, we are lucky to have interesting places around us for lunchtime walks – Chippendale, Ultimo, Glebe and Darling Harbour.

    • Yes, I am extremely grateful for the vision of the councils and environmental groups around the Cooks River Cycleway – a much needed green space near me.

  • I’m thankful to work in a super supportive Faculty and have a boss who values work-life balance. As an event and program lead, I can often get burnt out after peak periods of events and program milestones. I use my TIL and my ability to sleep (or lack thereof) before a big event as a good marker to take a day or two off after the busy period. It is important to recalibrate, not just for yourself but for your team and your loved ones who have to deal with you at home! Thanks for the thought leadership Georgina, you’ve inspired me to get the jig saw out.

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