Continuing the Conversation: Stress and Burnout

By Neil Baum and Anne Figert

Editor’s Note: Conversations Magazine invites our readers to continue the conversation on Jesuit higher education both in person and online. As part of our online-exclusive content, we have invited Anne Figert and Neil Baum to model one way they continued the conversation on a recent article via email. How might you reach out to Conversations writers and continue the conversation over phone or email?

On Thursday November 8, 2018, Anne Figert received the following email:  

Thu 11/8/2018 8:43 PM
From: Neil Baum
Subject: Read your recent article, Anxiety, in Conversations 

I am a retired physician and a student at the Loyola University in New Orleans.  I am in the business school and have written extensively on burnout and balance in a person's personal and professional life.

Would you be interested in collaborating on an article for Conversations on "balance"?

I am attaching one of the articles I have written on this topic as well as my C.V.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Neil H. Baum, MD

This email started an email and phone conversation about life, work and stress. So, how did we get here?

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 Anne : I am currently a Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Loyola University Chicago. I am very concerned about the issues of mental health of our students both as a professor and a parent. I wrote the article about Anxiety and the Post-Modern Student to reflect that concern. I was surprised that I received many favorable responses to the article, more than many of my previous scholarly articles and books.

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Neil : I am a retired physician and enrolled as a student in the business school at Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana.  I was visiting my advisor and happened to pick up a copy of Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education (Fall 2018).  I read an article, “Anxiety and the Post-Modern Student”  by Professor Figert, Chair of the Department of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago. Her article touched a hot spot in my previous career as a physician as well as in my new life as a college student. 

Anne : From the initial contact email, Neil and I started our own email chain and then phone conversations about topics that came out of this article such as work/life balance and stress in our occupations as professor and physician.  We proposed a series of email conversations to the editors of Conversations in Jesuit Education, on mental health related topics. This is the first in a series of topics/conversations. We are starting with Stress and Burnout.

Neil : Since I have a new life as a student, I reached out to Professor Figert and suggested a collaboration on stress management, burnout, and putting balance or equilibrium in the student’s life.

We decided to take our backgrounds and our experiences and share them with the Jesuit College communities.  We plan to write a periodic web column on the issues that are impacting college students, and yes some of the concerns that faculty members face as they are challenged to meet the expectations of their students and yet further their academic careers.  We will be starting with topics on stress management, the myth of multitasking, listing the signs and symptoms of burnout and where to turn for help.  We want this to be a useful column and welcome your feedback and suggestions.

Neil and Anne :  This collaboration demonstrates to both of us how people from different backgrounds, different training, living in different geographic locations, and are of different genders can work together and combine their experiences and share them with others to make the college experience better for both students and for faculty.

First Topic: Stress and Burnout

Neil : The topic of Stress and burnout particularly interests me as a doctor because doctors have high rates of burnout and stress.

As a medical doctor I was surrounded by colleagues suffering from burnout.   I wasn’t shocked to read the statistics that nearly 50% of all medical doctors are suffering from burnout.  The physicians are complaining of disappoint in their choice of a medical career. Many physicians are retiring early and leaving the practice of medicine because of the burdens of excessive paperwork, the intrusion of the electronic medical record, the fear of litigation or the sword of Damocles, the trend of leaving solo or small group practices and forced out by economic necessity to join large group practices or becoming a hospital employed physician.  The latter situation, employment, is a source of loss of autonomy for physicians and now a source of stress and a big contributor to burn out.

As I transition to a college student, I also witnessed stress and anxiety amongst my fellow college classmates.  There is so much pressure on the contemporary students regarding tests, assignments, social activities (even lack of socialization), concerns about drug and alcohol use and abuse and worrying about finances and the spiraling cost a college education and the mounting debt that so many students are incurring.  These very same sources of anxiety are exactly the same as what many healthcare providers are currently experiencing.  My take home message to the readers of this column, “You are not alone!” As a student and a physician I see stress reaching a boiling point for many students and probably for some faculty.  Dr. Figert and I would like to help you recognize signs and symptoms of stress and burnout and provide you with suggestions for managing stress at the earliest level or at the level of anxiety and then provide you with suggestions for managing this problem that affects nearly every student and every member of the faculty.  Let us hear from you and give us your thoughts and suggestions for future discussions.

Aerial shot of  Loyola University Chicago .

Aerial shot of Loyola University Chicago.

Anne :  As a professor, I see stress and burnout at so many levels. Our undergraduate students are burned out and stressed before they even get to college. Many of them arrive to campus already tired from the efforts of getting through high school and the pressures to get into the college of their choice. They have taken unpaid internships, AP classes and SAT/ACT prep which are all designed to get you into the college of your choice. This is all related to the biggest stress our students face ...the issue of paying for their education is felt very deeply. Taking classes for a personal interest or even because it sounds interesting  is not on their radar screen. Taking classes that will help them graduate on time, prepare them for some future career and is “useful” is on their minds because it is on their parents’ minds. There is no “joy” in learning for many of our students. Joy is something that rich students get to experience not the majority of our students.  The current emphasis on being a  STEM major and anything Pre-med is shaping the undergraduate experience today. I read every day about small liberal arts colleges in financial trouble and other universities closing humanities and social science majors. We are failing our students when this happens.  Our staff are overwhelmed by the increasing mental health needs of the students but at the same time asked to do more work without more resources. Our faculty are stressed and burned out because we are also being asked by administrators to do more with less -- teach more students in bigger classes, teach more classes, advise more students and to make our courses “relevant” for future careers and occupations. We are working in the neoliberal economy and it is having a deleterious effect. Students are burned out, staff are burned out and faculty are burned out. The one major benefit of life in the neoliberal university is the semester/quarter system in which there are scheduled and systematic re-sets. For our loved ones working in non-university settings, this is their daily life with few breaks.  My message to people reading this column, take more mental health days and breaks to recharge your batteries.

Anne Figert is a professor and chair of the sociology department at Loyola University Chicago. Neil Baum is  retired physician and current student at Loyola University New Orleans.

The cover photo is featured courtesy of Pexel.