Season 1, Episode 4 – Burnout – Transcript
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Tim You are listening to Unity Unmuted, and we’re glad you’re here. Unity Unmuted is an exploration of what it means to conceive of, create, and sustain a union in America today. We share struggles, successes, and personal stories from our membership to share the power of solidarity.
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Amanda I’m Amanda Wade and I’m here with a group of people from the union to discuss burnout.
Dan Hello, everyone. I’m Dan Crocker. I work in the library at Emerson College and I have recommended the article that we’ve based this conversation on about how burnout has been wrongly defined. Burnout is notably more severe than just plain exhaustion and can usually be associated with insufficient support in your working environment. And I will say my personal burnout level from zero to ten is probably about six and a half.
Amanda So I will say I’m probably about a seven right now. What about you, Homa?
Homa I expected you guys to be like, “From zero to ten, I’m a 12,” or something because I feel like I’m 110.
Amanda Funny enough, I sort of held myself hostage. I refused to record this podcast until Homa took some time off. So Homa, how did that go?
Homa I needed it so much it didn’t even feel like a day off. It just felt like catch-up.
Amanda Yeah. I mean, that’s one of the things about burnout is once you’re there, it’s hard to dig out of that hole.
Dan I felt it, but I’ve seen so many of my coworkers feeling it and it’s been an endemic problem from the start of my career, but it’s been especially active at Emerson.
Amanda Burnout at Emerson is, as you said, endemic and I wonder what each of us thinks the reasons likely are. We may have the same reasons. Mine is probably understaffing in general and just not having enough people to do the work.
Homa There is my personal case of doing so much because we have vacant positions or there were interruptions in very key positions at the college and I had to step in and fill in. I work at VMA, Visual Media Arts Department. It’s like a huge majority of our students at the college. In VMA, most of our students are doing productions or doing projects, doing a lot of demanding things that really needs staff support.
And we had three, now we have two, staff [members] that are working with students on a daily basis to give them support for their projects. We have a record number of enrollments this year. We have understaffing and the pandemic makes everything so much more complicated. You have to adapt to everyone’s needs. You have to offer multiple versions of the same sort of products. You have to be ready for interruptions, essentially, and be able to adapt at the last second.
Dan Homa’s doing so much for so many people, working about four and a half jobs at Emerson at the moment and that she’s burned out is not at all a surprise. I think that her level of burnout is unsustainable and I’m trying to get Emerson to recognize it.
Homa As you said, it is unsustainable. There’s this attitude that is so toxic. But I think there’s this culture of bragging about being burnt out, bragging about being stressed, bragging about being overworked, bragging about being like, “Oh, I have so much to do. I can’t even sleep. I can’t even eat. I can’t even do anything. I can’t be any of it.”
And there is some sense of pride in it as if like that, in a capitalistic society, you are the right citizen if you’re burnt out. You are on the right path if you’re stressed, if you’re overworked. If you are doing more than what one should do, you are winning the game. You are somehow more successful. That’s capitalism gone wild and capitalism literally ruining the life/work balance and also just making you deny your human needs, making you deny that you need to eat, making you deny that you need to go hang out with your people, have human connections.
And I feel like that is a really dangerous point that capitalism has arrived at. I didn’t grow up in America. This was shocking to me. First, when I moved here, it was like, “Oh my God.” Like, why are people bragging about not being able to sleep? What is going on, right? Why are they saying they have been working day and night?
Why is everyone doing that? Why would you do that? Are you stupid? Like, why would you do that? And then I find myself doing it right now. Then I find myself having to do it. There is some sort of a peer pressure of like, “if you want to make it, you have to do this.”
There’s this little quote I found on social media that was saying, “I think burnout is actually misleading. We should talk about exploitation.” Because burnout is putting the blame on people, right? Saying you, the worker, you burnt out. Like, well, if you were tougher or if you were like, I don’t know, somehow, magically, three people instead of one and that’s your problem that you’re not three. Like, go clone yourself or something. If there is burnout, that’s your problem.
But I think we need to talk about [how] it’s exploitation. It’s the institution, the corporations, pushing people to the point of burnout and also the culture, the capitalistic culture gone wild, that’s pushing people again to sacrifice themselves for essentially the 1%, to sacrifice themselves for the work.
Amanda Which is crazy! We work at a nonprofit.
Homa I know! Nonprofit for [the] arts. This is supposed to be the haven. This is supposed to be the place we break down capitalism. This is supposed to be the place we say, “We are the alternative.”
Amanda And a place that has a soul and doesn’t steal yours for profit.
Homa We put such a high value on the work. What is this? What is this language? Where [does] this language want to take us? Where it takes us is a nation that’s burnt out. It’s a nation [where] like 60% of people have some form of anxiety and stress.
Dan Burnout is a problem everywhere. It’s clear that it’s happening all over and it’s very clear it’s happening here at Emerson. There’s a political argument to be made about the role of work in daily life, but I think that there’s a standard that needs to be set about what is too far. A system that requires talent to burn out is going too far.
Amanda Having to constantly react to things, having to constantly respond without really having the time to put the thought into whether this is the best way to respond. That is, I think the quickest way to burn out for most people is when you don’t feel like you have any control over what you even think about in any given moment.
There is no time to stop, look at the process, and think, “How can I make this better for myself and for others?”‘ When you are a person who has experienced burnout and you’ve learned from it and you’ve gotten out of that hole, the way that I did it was by creating boundaries, right, and holding others to those boundaries. And people will react as though you are being difficult to work with.
Something as simple as, “I don’t answer email on the weekends,” can give you a reputation for being difficult. I’m in the middle of this thing right now. I can’t stop and help you right this second. Could you email me and I’ll get to it as soon as possible? Everyone else is being reactive as well, and so that is a roadblock in a lot of people’s minds. And it can give you a reputation for being difficult or finicky or particular when really you’re just trying to protect your time.
That was the biggest thing I learned from burnout. Not only do you need to have boundaries, but you could be punished if you have them.
Homa What is the Amazon motto right now? They’re like, “We deliver the thing you want tomorrow, today.” Just, like, why?
Amanda That sounds like dystopian fiction right there.
Homa It is! It is dystopian. Well, why do you know what I want tomorrow? But also, how are you getting it to me today? This is the expectation. This is the hustle and the gig economy that there is someone out there who will go and fetch me my food at 2 a.m. I’m hungry. I’m going to hold my phone. I’m going to [make] this order and there is someone out there who will go and do it.
Everyone is hustling. Someone will be at my service. And I’m seeing that. I’m seeing that in the way our students are navigating different structures on campus. There are a lot of students who submit their forms at 2 a.m. or something, 3 a.m. And they email me in the morning, 7:59, 8 a.m., [to] be like, “I submitted my form last night. Can you review it? I haven’t gotten my review back.”
And I keep saying nobody is working overnight. There is sort of a vicious cycle of, “I want what I want. There will be no barriers to getting to what I want and there will be someone out there hustling to make it happen. Someone will pick me up, someone will bring me food, someone will do this form”. And that is forming all of our human relationships, right?
That’s forming all of our interactions in our society. And everyone is burnt out at the end of the day because we are all servicing each other in other formats but in a really unsustainable way.
Dan Compensate the workers fairly, offer flexible working remote conditions, clarify the expectations, and practice basic fairness. I think that is a fundamental statement of what the union is working to achieve. It’s a question why the college is not working to achieve this right now.
Amanda HR, they implemented these set questions. One of the questions was, “What’s one way greater impact can be achieved in my role?” You know, if you take it at face value, it reads like, “How can you be better?” Or, you know, in a more negative way, “Why are you so insufficient?”
And so the way I read that is, “What are the barriers that are preventing you from doing your job to the best of your ability? What support do you need in order to innovate, be more proactive, take on projects, be more supportive of students? What is it that the system needs to do to make that better?” And not, “Why are you bad at it and what do you need to improve?”
So that’s, I think, an important way to look at that question. And I hope that it was part of the intention. It is not a well-written question, but you know…
Homa That question comes from this place of, “Oh, there is such a thing as the perfect worker, and tell us why you’re not the perfect worker.” Like there is a perfect worker, and obviously, we are not ready to compensate the perfect worker the perfect wage.
Amanda And there is a perfect worker and obviously, they don’t already work here.
Homa Yes, somewhere else in the world!
Amanda That’s the thing. There is a perfect worker and obviously, it’s not you.
Homa I feel like in 200 years people are going to read this and be like, “What was going on?”
Amanda I don’t want to speak for management, but my impression is that they believe that this is a power struggle and we’re like, “No, this is not a power struggle. This is what’s the right thing to do and what’s the thing that’s going to fix problems without affecting the college in a negative way”. We’re not looking to control everything in the college.
We respect the work that these people do as well. And so it’s not a power struggle for us. It’s about our working conditions and our livelihoods. It’s not some artificial thing. It’s real problems that we are trying to solve. And so I think that that might be part of the disconnect is that it’s more of a concept on the other side of the table than it is for us.
Dan The exploitation is increasing in an unhealthy way, and it’s what’s causing the burnout at Emerson to become a staff shortage at Emerson. And that is the task of the union to fix, even though it should be the task of Human Resources.
Amanda Amen. It is interesting to me to consider that the people making the decisions or the people in charge of implementing those decisions may think that support means something different from what we mean. Emerson offers free yoga classes, seminars about work/life balance, drinking more water, things like that, which, if we had support in other ways, would be so welcome and so lovely.
But they do nothing to fix the systemic issues which cause burnout, and they do nothing to help staff feel that they can set those boundaries and give managers an education on how to encourage boundaries with their staff, how to recognize burnout, and what to do when that happens. And, you know, of course, there’s the monetary support for when we are understaffed and having to, like Homa is doing right now, cover multiple positions at the college.
Homa Or the most insulting ones are like how to manage your money. It’s like, well, if you paid me enough, I didn’t have to go to quantum physics to spend my money.
Amanda I appreciate that they’re offering money management and these things, but it comes off as incredibly tone-deaf when we’re like, “What money to manage?”
Amanda Like, what am I supposed to do, rent out my couch on Airbnb?
Homa But this is the thing. Oh, my God. You go online and there are like, all these articles of “Passive Incomes,” “Rent Your Car When You Are Not Using It,” “Airbnb Your Extra Room,” “Put Uber Advertisements on Top of Your Car,” “Let Your Phone be Tracked so Every Time You Go to This Website, You Earn $0.25”. What? What? What?
Homa This is the discourse and that’s so embarrassing. But the yoga class, this became a movement in corporate America: spirituality and work. It’s not only exploiting the workers and putting more on their desks and then pretending that with deep breathing you can get through it. But it’s also exploiting a whole culture and yoga. It’s just wrong on so many levels.
It really gets me so angry. Every time I see it, I’m like, this is not how I want to do it. I don’t want to meditate or do yoga so I can work harder. I don’t want to do it so I can be a better worker. That is not the goal for any of it. It wasn’t the goal for it, ever.
And I hate to see how capitalism can take something like yoga, like meditation, and make it a tool for more money. That just grosses me out.
Amanda Well, I think that once again, it’s all about the context, right? And in this context, it is paternalistic, condescending, and it’s fully tone-deaf. I mean, there have been so many studies done about how to help people in poverty and the ones that are most successful are where they literally just give them money.
And we have to do the study over and over, constantly doing this study, and they’re like, “Can you imagine? Just giving people money makes them healthier?” Yeah, I can easily imagine that because I have basic empathy.
Dan Do we recognize who needs help and who doesn’t feel empowered to ask for it?
Amanda I have a radar for this. I will bully anyone into self-care. You can ask all of my friends. It’s the number one thing that I recommend and I learned this from my own experience with burnout is, “Oh, I didn’t take a single day off for six months? Yeah, that’s a problem.” And when you start to realize, “Oh, I am changing. My personality is changing.”
And I took a vacation and I was like, “Oh, this is bad.” And so, you know, learning that and you can see it in other people and just always encouraging people, especially in work-related situations like, “Take time off.” It is not your problem, especially people who are not the manager. The work will get done and the world’s not going to end if it doesn’t.
We don’t save lives. If you’re sick, call in sick so that other people confidently can do that. If you need to take a vacation, do it. Other people will see you doing it and hopefully will take your lead.
Dan I completely concur and we put in more time than we’re compensated for all the time because of our belief in the mission. But it’s our time and there’s a limited quantity of it and we have to recognize that we need to take it when we can. I have had tremendous difficulty in encouraging people to recognize those boundaries because I think our mission is so important and because there’s so much money involved.
If you’re graduating from Emerson College, you’re in debt. If your parents make $300,000 or $400,000 a year, you’re going to still graduate in debt. So ~90% of our students are spending more than they have to get an education, and we need to make that worthwhile.
Who’s supporting the students? The staff. Where is the staff? They are dramatically reduced. Everyone at Emerson is looking for more support than they’re getting and no one is feeling an adequate level of support. We can’t do it at the expense of our well-being and finding that balance is so hard.
Amanda We’re scheduling things and people are like, “What about noon to two?” And I’m the person who’s like, “What about lunch, y’all?” [Laughs] I’m not even talking about a lunch break necessarily. I’m like, “Literally, though, we need to eat. We’re human beings.” If you’re a person who has those boundaries, be the person who makes those comments and points that out.
I mean, you do have to be concerned again about that reputation for not pulling your weight. If you’ve got friends in your office, be like, “Can you back me up? Can you be the person who says this the next time?” Because it is hard when you’re the person saying it over and over and people are thankful for it, but only privately.
Homa It’s just, again, the situation of the work is not disposable, but the workers are. You work ’til you die. And we learned this, well, when there were no labor or child care laws or none of it. And we learned this when literally kids were dropping dead in factories. The workers were disposable then. The workers are disposable now.
It’s pure capitalism. You’re disposable, but this work has to get done. You have to fit it in. You somehow have to do it. You somehow magically have to invent time, have to find time somewhere. Cut into your personal time. The work is not to be dismissed, but we dismiss you.
Amanda Yeah. It’s like, “Your work is valuable but we can’t pay you more. We can replace you any time.” And it’s like, uh, then why am I here?
Dan This is my third union position. I’ve only ever been a librarian in a union. This is the best union I’ve been in because it is the most representation I’ve felt like I’ve had. The union feels like the most reliable and solid tool in our toolbox, but I want to feel like there’s hope elsewhere. Emerson is in a big time of transition.
At the moment, we do not have a head of our human resources department. We do not have a president. We do not have a provost. They’re all interim positions. We should hope that they will find people who will do good by us. But I think the union is the only tool in the toolbox that can demand anything of these vacancies at the moment. That there are so many vacancies right now is definitely contributing to the burnout at Emerson.
Amanda I 100% agree that the only hope I have is that the union can do something to fix these systemic issues at Emerson.
Homa We have lost touch with ourselves. We have lost touch with what it is to be human. We have lost touch [with] how to create the world that is putting humanity first. Yeah, systems are great. They save a lot of people and they move us forward. But the answer is simple: just keep it human.
Amanda If you’ve got a bunch of human beings doing all of this work, it is for the benefit of the people we’re providing services for if we are able to do that in a way that doesn’t make us quit in droves or have to take medical leave for stress or just get worse at it because we’re burned out. Until there’s a systemic solution, burnout’s not going to stop.
Individual choices are not going to change it so the union is the only way to effect systemic change for the workers. I wasn’t suspicious about the union when it first started, but I was definitely more cautious and a little bit worried that other people were going to be making decisions for me.
It took me a while to realize, oh no, that’s what’s happening now. [Laughs] The people making the decisions for me have an entirely different goal than the people in the union who would be making decisions for me.
Homa I was so excited when I took the job to learn there was a union. To have the representation and to have structure, to have the history we have with unions and the labor movement — it is as American as capitalism is. Unions are as good as a democracy can get, right? We can actually come together and make decisions that can benefit people.
Amanda I always say that unions are the best and worst group project you’ll ever do in your life. Everyone, no matter what your viewpoint is, is important in making those decisions. And it really opens up, “Oh, I’m not the only one who knows stuff,” or, “I’m not the only one whose perspective is correct, right?”
Homa We can talk about things. We can discuss things. We can try to convince each other and come up with a decision at the end of the day that is moving the whole body forward.
Dan A study by Walden University shows that union affiliation is associated with lower burnout. A union is associated with higher perception of social support in the workplace. The union is an effective tool and social support is very important. So to all of our listeners, I would encourage you to recognize in your colleagues signs of burnout.
The union at Emerson represents, I believe, about 150 staff members, but the college supports about 450 staff members. All staff members deserve recognition, and almost all staff members in higher education are on some level of burnout.
Amanda And that includes HR.
Dan Please feel free to reach out. Offer a cup of coffee and 20 minutes of conversation. Take people out to lunch if you can afford to. The union is the most solid thing we can rely on at present, and I know that those of you who are officers, especially you, Amanda, are doing heroic work in making Emerson continue in extraordinarily strenuous circumstances.
So I want to give you love and thanks and deep appreciation, because this is the strongest I’ve felt in the union and at Emerson since I started in 2008. Thank you.
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Tim Thank you for listening. We hope you will join us in future episodes as we continue to explore what it means to come together for the common good. Unity Unmuted is a loud, proud production of the Emerson Staff Union. Original music by Halfhearted Attack.
Unity Unmuted is produced by Dan Crocker, Rachel Levin, Audrey Park, Diana Potter, Allan Santos, and Amanda Wade. Homa Sarabi keeps us all together. I’m Tim Douglas.
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