I shared some personal news on LinkedIn this past month: I quit. The past few years upended our way of working, but it did remind me how much I’ve normalized burnout in my career. I decided enough was enough, and joined the Great Resignation movement rather than repeat my cycle of overwork and recovery.

Academia — like many high-performing industries — tends to attract high achievers. I experienced a lot of joy and purpose in my work investigating how marginalized employees navigate the workplace. My latest research shows how women directors use specific tactics on corporate boards to ensure their voices are heard. I have also studied how Black people use codeswitching to circumvent biases and discrimination at work. These people are remarkable for how they succeed despite all odds, and I have used some of these behaviors throughout my career. Although this work may be necessary to achieve success, it is also quite exhausting.

Exhaustion not only comes from the fact that the work that I do can be emotional, but it’s also from the design of work itself. Academia, like many industries, is known to overwork professors and an increasing number of contingent faculty that teach numerous classes for a fraction of the pay. Unfortunately, the busy culture in higher education, and in corporate America, can generate inequality, especially for women who are more likely to be asked and more likely to say yes, to non-promotable tasks. Women of color face even more demands for their time as universities and corporations focus on diversifying their organization. Similar to women in corporate spaces, women in higher education are struggling to manage the burnout that comes from their work, causing many of us to leave. According to a recent report from LeanIn and McKinsey & Company, women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate ever. And if the underlying causes for these departures aren’t addressed, the already dismal pipeline for women leaders could dwindle even further.

Quitting Burnout by Quitting Work

As an academic, I am expected to conduct research, design and teach courses, publish in academic journals, advise students, and serve on committees. Summer ‘breaks’ are usually spent catching up on research, writing, attending and organizing conferences, and preparing for the upcoming school year. I normalized this life because I assumed producing a large volume of work while receiving stellar teaching evaluations would bring me closer to earning tenure. Tenure-track positions are highly coveted as it offers a well paid job for life along with the freedom to study anything you want. Yet, the decline in tenure-track roles creates a competitive landscape where academics are not guaranteed tenure unless we presumably outwork and outperform our peers. Especially for people who do not identify as cisgender, heterosexual, white, or a man (or hail from one of these select institutions).

Being expected to work at this capacity for an extended period of time (tenure track is an average of seven years without interruptions including parental leave) will naturally lead to burnout. The World Health Organization relabeled burnout as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Chronic stress depletes our mental, physical, and emotional resources, making it harder for us to cope with the demands of our work. Highly ambitious women may be all too familiar with burnout and its components — exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. We spend our careers feeling guilty for not having what it takes to manage the stress while allowing burnout to persist.

Although everyone is likely to experience some degree of burnout at work, it is most often felt by individuals from marginalized groups. LeanIn and McKinsey’s 2022 Women in the Workplace report found that 43% of women report experiencing consistent burnout compared to 31% of men at their level, and the number continues to rise. It is important for women to advance in their careers, but it is even more important for women to be well along the way.

Reimagining Work

Taking short breaks but returning to the pace of work that inevitably generates burnout is not a sustainable solution. Many women figure out how to cope with unrealistic job demands until they are forced to decide whether we can continue on this stress cycle or choose a different path.

I reached this point last year after a decade in academia. From an output standpoint, I had achieved tremendous success: published in high impact journals, received recognition for my teaching, and was beloved by my students and colleagues. But I also suffered from insomnia, depressive symptoms, physical exhaustion, and general unhappiness. My stress levels were at an all-time high and if sustained could contribute to cardiovascular disease or other negative health outcomes, a similar pattern for Black women across social class backgrounds. My inability to meet the demands of a career I had worked so hard for caused me to grieve the loss of this identity and future I imagined for myself.

Then, I realized I could reimagine another way of working that does not require me to continue in cycles of burnout and exhaustion. I could pursue a career where I normalize working from a place of rest instead of working to rest. This included redefining success as more than my job title to include how well I feel at the end of each day and whether I am achieving in other areas of my life (pottery class, anyone?).

Getting to this point was not easy and it may not require you to actually quit your job, like it did for me. We can reimagine how we work while staying in our roles. To start, it helps to psychologically detach from your work and see things from a different perspective. Spend time rediscovering your passions and skills by revisiting your performance evaluations, recommendations, or other insight you’ve received on what you do well. Experiment with different ways of working such as the 4-day week model.

Many women are exploring different configurations of work including:

  1. Taking a sabbatical or a career break.
  2. Renegotiating full-time work to part-time.
  3. Pursuing contract or gig work.

Whichever path you choose, know that you have options, and burnout does not have to be one of them.

Have you listened to the Chief podcast? Tune into "The New Rules of Business" as Chief Co-Founders Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan unpack today's most challenging leadership questions. Be sure to leave a review and follow wherever you get your podcasts.