Reduce Faculty Burnout: Lessons From ‘The 4-Hour Work Week’

If you’re like most academic faculty, you probably feel like you spend too much time working and not enough time enjoying your life.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a faculty member who’s either experienced burnout, currently trying to reverse burnout, or knows someone facing mental health challenges associated with overwork.

Faculty Burnout Five Matchsticks
Photo by Tangerine Newt on Unsplash

In this article, I’m going to take a slightly unconventional approach to examine faculty burnout, and share some tweaks I’ve made to my work life to buffer its effects. I did my PhD on burnout, and the literature is vast and wide. But, in this article, I’m taking a slightly unconventional approach by sharing how I’ve used lessons from Tim Ferriss’s popular book The 4-Hour Work Week to transform my academic life.

What is faculty burnout?

Academic, or Faculty, Burnout is a term that’s commonly used to describe a range of symptoms that can occur in people who work in academia.

These symptoms include increased exhaustion and cynicism, and a reduced sense of professional efficacy. The origins of burnout research come from the work of Christina Maslach, who went on to develop The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) – a questionnaire that’s used to measure the three dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. Maslach found burnout to be an outcome of chronic workplace stress.

The MBI consists of 22 items that are rated on a scale from 1 (never) to 5 (every day). The items in the MBI fall into three categories: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. More information about the MBI can be found at Mindgarden.

Research shows that academic burnout can lead to a number of negative outcomes, including reduced job satisfaction, job turnover, decreased mental health, and presenteeism (i.e. showing up for work but not producing anything of value).

Burnout is also linked to depression, anxiety, feeling tired and not getting enough sleep, poor academic performance, and reduced ability to function.

Burnout rates seem to be rising.

Our journey to faculty burnout can start from our experiences as college students. We probably started to feel overwhelming stress levels during our pursuit of high grades and a PhD program but pushed through these feelings on our way to academic careers. As we became PhD-qualified faculty and staff members, we may have continued this pattern. Many of us don’t seek professional help when the stress we are under reaches unhealthy heights because burnout can feel like a failure of self care, and/or something that we should be able to manage alone.

Unfortunately, burnout seems to have made its way into our work culture as an accepted norm, which I find intolerable.

In this article, I’m turning to the lessons in a book that has long lingered in my mind as potentially offering solutions for changing that narrative: The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. Recently, I’ve been implementing Ferriss’s advice into my academic working life and seen a shift in my mental health and wellbeing, noticeably the amount of emotional energy and time I have regained.

Disclaimer: my privilege, Ferriss’ bro privilege, and a caveat for focusing on a non-peer-reviewed text

My privilege

Note, this is an ‘opt in’ article and discusses experiences of a full-time employed academic. You are free to ignore or disagree with anything I’m sharing. It is my personal experience and not meant to apply to everyone. I acknowledge that for many professors in higher education, the strategies are not practical to implement. I also acknowledge my privilege in being white, able-bodied, and being able to prototype workplace improvements without immediate threat. It is through this lens that I write and share this article.

Bro privilege

Recently featured in The Thesis Whisperer’s co-hosted podcast, On The Reg, segment ‘Is this book bu!!sh#t‘ The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris certainly gets some bad press.

The book has been criticised by many as an expression of ‘bro’ privilege.

I’m not here to debate this.

Peer reviewed

The 4-Hour Work Week is not peer-reviewed in the academic sense of the term.

But it has sold 2+ million copies, which is the equivalent of more citations than many of us will achieve in our lifetimes combined.

Love it or hate it, it strikes a chord with readers and continues to sell copies.

While the book was published a while back, the hook that keeps us coming back is the hope of the opportunity it offers for escaping the rat race and living life on our own terms. A seductive sell.

Its lure was why I recently walked into my local book store, and for the second time, purchased a copy and started integrating lessons from the book into my academic work practice.

My original copy of the book was purchased when many of my students were toddlers. I read it and was inspired, but never really did anything about it. However, the teachings have lingered in my mind throughout my life, and recently I began testing out his ideas.

What is The 4-Hour Work Week?

If you’re not familiar with the book, “The Four-Hour Work Week” is a best-seller by Tim Ferriss that offers a radical new approach to time management and productivity.

Ferriss offers a number of strategies for decreasing your workload and increasing your quality of life.

The book was first published in 2007. Over two million copies have been sold and it has been translated into 40 languages.

In it, Ferriss argues that most people spend far too much time working and not enough time enjoying their lives. He offers a number of strategies for reducing your workload and increasing your productivity. While the book is aimed at people in the business world, many of the concepts can be applied to academic careers as well.

While the concepts in the book may not be applicable to every profession, I’m going to suggest that they can certainly be adapted to academic careers and they can assist us in reducing academic burnout and improving our mental health.

Mitigate burnout using lessons from The 4-Hour Work Week

In the book, Ferriss asks us to replace the pursuit of gold bars, ‘busyness’, and career climbing with an empty Outlook calendar.

‘Time’, he claims, is what we should be striving for. He calls it the currency of the New Rich.

The New Rich are people who’ve figured out how to live a luxurious life without having to work a traditional job.

Tim Ferriss defines the New Rich as “people who have automated their income so that they can focus on what they love.” In other words, the New Rich are people who have found ways to make money without having to work traditional jobs. Nice work if you can get it!

Ferriss explains that the New Rich create luxury lifestyles in the present – and not after 40-years slogging it out for a chance to enjoy a break in retirement.

Ferriss’s message is increasingly relevant to academics whose precarious journey through higher education will leave many (especially women faculty) with inadequate retirement savings, and reduced income from tenure delay.

In other words, many will never get to the ‘end point’ of being able to enjoy retirement.

This is why one of the questions Ferriss urges us to consider in the book resonates:

If retirement isn’t an option, how do we design our lives in the present?

Another noteworthy point he makes is ‘The commonsense rules of the “real world” are a fragile collection of socially reinforced illusions’.

This, in my journey exploring how this book could help me design a better academic life, led me to document the socially reinforced illusions in the higher education sector.

The fragile collection of socially reinforced illusions

Here is my back-of-the-napkin list of commonly accepted rules I have witnessed in the higher education sector.

  1. Write and publish articles until your fingers bleed
  2. Teach until you’re 2-degrees away from desperation
  3. Be available 24/7 to answer emails as this is a demonstration of your commitment to your job and the academic profession
  4. The more hours you put in the greater the rewards will be (although not guaranteed)
  5. Strive to attain the position of ‘Professor’ and/or a senior leadership position at all costs with other jobs seen as inferior
  6. New ideas are more valuable than testing or strengthening existing offerings
  7. You must work with the resources (or lack thereof) provided by your institution

If we accept the above, it is no wonder that faculty are googling phrases such as ‘how to overcome faculty burnout’, ‘symptoms of burnout’, and ‘burnout syndrome’.

Anyone working to deliver on the above list is on a fast track to burnout no matter how well they are prepared.

However, as socially reinforced constructs, all of them can be dismantled and rebuilt.

High risk of burnout, especially for female faculty members

Female faculty members and junior faculty members are at particular risk of burnout. One reason for this is that many of these faculty members face a lack of choice when it comes to exerting control over their working lives.

For example, pre-tenure faculty will likely be putting in excessive hours (leading to exhaustion) to address the ticking tenure clock and these pre-tenure requirements. Being on a roundabout of roles and geographic locations can lead to cynicism and cause self-doubt (i.e. lack of professional efficacy).

As a tenured professor, it does somewhat become easier to push back on work that might have a detrimental impact on one’s mental health and wellbeing. But by that stage, one can reach a position in which the damage has already been done.

Women additionally are found to carry more home and caring responsibilities which additionally contributes to the problem of exhaustion. This has been exacerbated by the challenges of working from home amidst caring responsibilities due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But, if we believe Ferriss, “Reality is negotiable”.

If we follow his advice, the path to redefining our reality begins by turning those common heald beliefs about academic work on their head.

Just like a country has the choice to exchange the Gross Domestic Product for a National Happiness Index, so too do we have the opportunity to redefine the rules of academia.

If we were to rewrite the rules of higher ed, what would they look like?

I took a crack at it, and came up with the following:

  1. Write and publish future research at a pace that encourages deep thought and engagement
  2. Be able to bring your best self to your classroom
  3. Limit access to email and busy work as a demonstration of your commitment to your job
  4. Prioritise quality over quantity
  5. Find the academic level that aligns with your work-life priorities and be celebrated for not applying for promotion if you wish to stay where you are
  6. Strengthen foundations before building new structures
  7. Share resources and be kind to each other

Ok, perhaps I’m aiming a little high?!

In order to do all those things, we need time. Which seems to be an increasingly scarce resource in our institutions.

Time is the currency of the New Rich

In his book, The 4-Hour Work Week, Ferriss argues that β€œtime” is the new definition of freedom. He posits that with the right strategies, we can each reduce our workload to just four hours a week while still maintaining our current standard of living.

While I’m not convinced I could ever deliver upon my academic role in just 4-hours a week, nor would I want to only spend 4 hours doing so, in the past month I have started to use the tips Ferriss provides to strip out the work that weighs me down. The ‘busy work’ that brings more frustration than results.

The outcome of this shift has been turning a demanding job and daily feelings of overwhelm, into space in my calendar to breathe and focus on what’s important.

Ferriss offers a formula for achieving this, which he calls DEAL.

The DEAL framework

If we use Ferriss’s approach, whether you’re an assistant professor, associate professor, or one of the college presidents, he recommends following his 4-letter (D, E, A, L) approach to structuring our working lives.

  • D = Definition: what does a good life and good mental health look like for you?
  • E = Elimination: What can you get rid of to free up your time?
  • A = Automation: How can you outsource your work?
  • L = Liberation: How can you move beyond the academy?

Strategies I’ve used for reducing ‘busy work’

Busy work is typically defined as work that is time-consuming but does not produce meaningful results. It can include tasks such as responding to emails, attending unnecessary meetings, or completing administrative tasks.

These tasks are all too familiar to anyone who works in the higher education sector.

To limit busy work, here’s a few strategies from Ferriss’ book I’ve been implementing.

Limit email

The first step I took in my 4-Hour Work Week experiment was to stop being a slave to my inbox.

The better you are at responding to email, the more likely people are to email you, which creates a never-ending cycle of increased email. A vicious cycle!

I’m yet to see any serious negative effects arising as a result of an email being responded to within 48 hours rather than 5 minutes.

If every time an email arrives in your inbox you diligently respond, you will be constantly diverting your attention away from the task at hand, and sacrificing a good chunk of time after the email has been answered in order to refocus.

If you get nothing else from this book, if you put Ferriss’s advice about email into practice, you can be guaranteed that you will be able to reclaim some of your time.

The best advice in The 4-Hour Work Week is to create a scenario that removes or automates email from your daily list of tasks

These days, I aim to only look at your email once a day, preferably later in the day after completing the tasks I actually want/need to get done.

It’s amazing how people start to find other ways to solve their problems when they realise that you are not a 24/7 email help desk, at the ready to respond to their every enquiry.

Batch tasks

Second, try to batch similar tasks together. For example, coming back to the email example, sit down and do a chunk in one sitting rather than in 5-minute intervals throughout the day.

Delegate / Outsource

Third, delegate or outsource some of your work. This is easier said than done, but if you have the opportunity to delegate some of your work to others, it can free up a lot of time.

Putting The 4-Hour Work Week advice into practice, I hired a virtual assistant. It’s been a game-changer.

The company I use to hire the candidate is called Remote Staff and I can’t recommend them enough.

Their candidates are featured on their website, including work experience, hourly rates, a picture and an audio recording of them introducing themself. My assistant Mae, who I refer to as A’Mae’Zing, has a better command of the English language than I do and is a true asset.

It’s a bit of an unconventional approach, but not that far removed from Professors hiring research assistants and outsourcing their work to their PhD candidates.

Make time for non-work activities

Fourth, make time for leisure activities and exercise. This may seem like an odd tip for increasing productivity, but Ferriss argues that it’s important to have balance in your life. If you’re constantly working and never taking time for yourself, you’ll eventually burn out. However, if you make time for activities that you enjoy, you’ll be more productive when you are working. Taking breaks is a shortcut to increasing your productivity.

Get comfortable saying ‘no’

Finally, I’ve got comfortable with saying no. It was extremely awkward at first and to help me achieve the goal I wrote the word ‘NO’ on a dozen post-it notes and stuck them all over my home.

Saying ‘no’ is probably the most difficult tip to follow, especially for junior staff. Saying ‘yes’ to everything is not sustainable. No one wins if you burn out, especially not you.

Additional strategies for faculty with high levels of job security

If you have achieved tenure (i.e. full-time academic employment), as opposed to being on the tenure track, you will likely enter a world of privilege where you can start to exert more control over how you spend your time (i.e. limit energy depletion).

The strategies outlined below tend to run counter to the way we think of our work, but hear me out πŸ™‚

It’s OK not to aspire to get a promotion

In most of the examples I’ve witnessed, with each step climbed on the academic ladder the more meetings you are expected to attend, and the more management and/or leadership positions you are expected to take on (i.e. more meetings). If meetings, management, and/or leadership roles aren’t your thing, getting comfortable with the fact that it’s 100% fine to stay at the level you’re at will bring a sense of freedom to your work life and remove the feeling that you should always be striving for more (even when you’re doing a great job!).

If you’re offered a leadership development opportunity and don’t want it, say no.

At one stage of my life, I drank the Cheryl Sandberg ‘Lean In’ manifesto. After the experience, I wanted to get a T-shirt printed with the words “I leaned in to leadership in higher education and all I got was this lousy faculty burnout’.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with finding an academic level you like and staying there.

If you look to the people at the levels above you in the academic food chain and can’t find evidence that their lives/careers are fundamentally better than yours, why strive to go any higher?

But what about the money?

Staying at a level you’re happy at and doing a consulting job on the side once or twice a year (because you have the time to do it as you’re not in meetings all day) can potentially earn you far more money per year than your senior colleagues are receiving from their senior-level salaries.

I recently coached a member of faculty to help her take the plunge into consulting and she locked in her first paying client within weeks!

Keeping your current role and augmenting it with consulting work can also help you stay in touch with what’s going on in Industry and open up future employment opportunities should the ivory tower collapse.

By contrast, having one source of income can keep you siloed and dependent – at the mercy of the whims of the institution you’re currently working for. As Ferriss suggests, diversifying your income streams can help you ride out difficult patches (if they eventuate).

Trade rises in pay for increased time off

If earning back our ‘time’ is a goal (as Ferriss suggests) then I’d urge you to think about what the time you give to your academic role (in order to earn that income) is actually buying you.

In Australia, at most universities, you can purchase additional annual leave days as part of the employee benefits scheme. The deduction from your wage for those days is split equally across your pay for the year so.

I buy out multiple additional weeks of leave each year. If my pay increases, so does the amount of time I buy out, effectively keeping my wage constant despite it growing.

But doesn’t that mean my income is going backwards?

The way I look at it is that lifestyle/spending tends to expand to whatever you are being paid. Acknowledging that this happens above a certain threshhold. Academic wages in Australia for full-time staff are generous by world standards.

By staying on a certain wage (i.e. not taking pay rises as money, but as time off) I essentially maintain my life while getting more and more holidays each year.

While I may not be earning more money each year (from my academic role), I have more time for consulting work, and/or rest and gain relief from potential sources of workplace stress which lead to burnout.

That’s a wrap

These are just a few of the ways that I’ve taken the lessons from The Four-Hour Work Week and applied them to an academic career. So far, I like the results.

The 4-Hour Work Week is available online, or at most major book stores.

Would I recommend getting a copy?

Yes. In the past year, through implementing the strategies outlined above, I have gone from living in academic hell to living in academic heaven. It was worth the cover price!

While a lot of it won’t apply directly to your academic career there are enough gems to justify the price, and you might just get inspired to start a side hustle, start your own website, and navigate your way out of the realm of faculty burnout entirely πŸ˜‰

Lastly, a duty of care to staff should be a responsibility of higher education institutions, it doesn’t seem that that is translating into meaningful actions.

IMPORTANT: If you are experiencing symptoms of burnout, please seek professional help such as through your university employee assistance program or confidential online therapy through a service such as BetterHelp.

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