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How to cope with burnout

Recognizing contributing factors is the first step

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
July 6, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 25


An illustration of a person with their head down on a desk.
Credit: Shutterstock

If you’re still struggling after an exceptionally challenging year, you’re not alone.

You might think you should feel better: new cases of COVID-19 are declining in many locations as vaccination rates rise. For many in academia, classes are finished, grades are submitted, and even the relentless tide of email may be receding. And no matter what sector you work in, hopefully the coming months will offer some time to step back from work and find relaxation and restoration.

So if life seems to be trending toward some version of “normal,” or at least nonpandemic status, why do people still feel burned out?

In a survey of 1,122 US faculty conducted in October by the Chronicle of Higher Education, over 70% of faculty reported that their workload had increased since the start of 2020, with the move to remote teaching playing a significant role. That finding is not surprising, given that this shift required many people to completely restructure their courses or learn how to deliver content in dramatically new ways.

Increased workload is not the only driver of burnout. Let’s take a look at some of the other key factors:

Self-efficacy. Whether balancing work with children at home or adapting to teaching or leading a team remotely, the pandemic introduced new challenges that reduced people’s effectiveness on the job. Additionally, the people you were teaching or leading may have been less excited to be in class or at work, and the increased difficulty of fostering engagement may have undermined your confidence. These challenges are to be expected during a global crisis, but they can still drain the enjoyment from work and accelerate burnout.

Motivation. You may have found that you cared less about the work you were doing. This feeling may come from a loss of personal connection with colleagues or having to set aside long-term goals in favor of immediately essential tasks. Whatever the cause, the events of the past year may have refocused your priorities such that work no longer seemed as important. This shift may lead to a healthier work-life balance in the long term, but in the short term, it may leave you feeling unmotivated and dissatisfied.

The “grueling sameness.” C&EN editor Lisa Jarvis wrote those words on Twitter in February. While she was describing online schooling, her words resonated deeply with my work life as well. The pandemic dramatically changed everyone’s lives, but that changed version is ironically characterized by sameness. Instead of traveling around the world for conferences or even just moving among offices, labs, and meeting rooms, work days may have become a marathon of Zoom calls: talk with the people in boxes on the screen, leave that meeting, find the link to the next meeting, and repeat. Now, shifting meetings back to in person brings a whole new set of challenges as people relearn how to interact with colleagues face to face.

Just as factors beyond longer work hours got us into this, it will take more than lightening the load to get us back out. Recognizing the source of these feelings is a good first step, as it can help prevent you from feeling guilty or blaming yourself for a lack of motivation. Experiencing burnout doesn’t mean you’re not passionate about your work. It just means that you’ve been through a challenging year. Second, keep normalizing the conversation around mental health care. Seeing a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional can be extremely helpful as you work to recover from burnout.

If the pandemic significantly changed your job responsibilities or the priority that you place on your career, you may also need to reframe how you find satisfaction in your work, and this can be a great topic of conversation with one of the mental health professionals listed above. Finally, employers can do their part to ease the burden—for example, by providing emergency benefits, allowing increased flexibility for work schedules and locations, and designating “no video call” days. Some of these steps may pose a challenge because many institutions face significant financial burdens in the wake of the pandemic, but perhaps we can get motivated to find creative solutions together.

Jen Heemstra is a professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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