We have all been there. Losing a night or two of sleep to finish grading students’ essays before their final exams come along is routine. After a long day on campus, many of us continue to work once we get home, juggling a late-afternoon web meeting with colleagues while dinner is burning on the stove, hungry children scream, and the dogs bark to be let out. We nervously polish off a large bag of chips as a carefully crafted email is sent to a disgruntled student complaining about a grade. We feel exhaustion that is so bone deep that burnout is no longer an abstract concept faced by others -- even though we believed that becoming a college professor would give us flexibility to better balance work and life.
Career Cast (2016) listed “University Professor” as one of the least stressful jobs of 2015 due to “its flexible schedules” and “controllable workload.” Yet a 2010-2011 UCLA study reported that 80% of university faculty surveyed were stressed from self-imposed high expectations, a lack of personal time, and worry over budget cuts. Other recent studies of teacher burnout reveal that university faculty experience approximately the same level of burnout as healthcare workers and kindergarten to twelfth-grade teachers (Watts & Robertson, 2011). In addition, educators experience more emotional exhaustion than professionals in any other human services field (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). For the university professor, overly demanding workloads, a lack of clarity of work roles and duties, unrealistic expectations, professional conflicts and tensions, and an overlap of professional and personal lives often outweighs the benefits of flexible hours and working from home (Boyle et. al., 1995; Flaxman, Menard, Bond, & Kinman, 2012; Kristensen et. al., 2010; Lee & Ashforth, 1996; Sangganjanavanich & Balkin, 2013; Watts & Robertson, 2011).
So, what can a university professor do to keep from burning out? We propose taking a cue from the world of business management, where companies are helping their employees manage stress and achieve work-life balance through engaging in personal reflection, setting up expectations, and communication. In our presentation at a Lilly Conference on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning, we focused on the importance of personal reflection through creating a personal mission statement and self-care SMART goals.
Personal mission statements are a guiding light for an individual in the same way institutional mission statements are for the organization. Writing a personal mission statement gives us a chance to reflect on what is really important to us by providing clarity of thought, a sense of purpose, a commitment to living our values, inspiration, a focus on what really matters, a plan for the short and long terms, and, ultimately, the motivation to become who we really want to be.
Here are five questions to answer in order to write a meaningful mission statement:
1. What defines you as an individual?
2. How do you define success?
3. What is most important to you right now?
4. Where can or do you make a difference to others?
5. What are your current priorities and your short-term and long-term goals?
Developing a Mission Statement with SMART Goals
Once you have answered these questions, you have the foundation to create your personal mission statement. Many celebrities and famous individuals have written and shared their personal mission statements online, but don’t feel that your mission statement has to be as lofty as theirs. Write what works for you, and remember that your mission statement will change as you and your life changes. Write, rewrite, and ask others for input. That’s right -- seek the feedback of people who know you well and you trust, because they often have insights into your personality and behavior that you don’t.
Then post your mission statement in a visible location as a reminder when you are making decisions about how you want to fill your time. Also, keep in mind that while all mission statements convey a purpose, values, and action, they can take many different formats.
For example, here are our latest mission statements:
Kat’s personal mission statement:
To leave the world a better place by nurturing and teaching others, showing respect, compassion, and understanding, putting relationships first, communicating with a positive focus in all that I do, focusing on critical and creative thinking, and reflecting on my own decisions and how they impact others.
Lata’s personal mission statement:
To live a more healthy and balanced life so I can focus more time on myself, my family, and my house. To make this happen, I will spend less time on my phone and computer and more time sleeping, exercising, spending time with my family, maintaining a healthy diet, cleaning my house, and reading for pleasure.
As you can see, Lata’s is more specific. That’s because she based it on her self-care SMART goals. And although Kat advises writing SMART goals after writing the mission statement –because the mission statement should drive your goals - Lata found it helpful to switch back and forth between writing the mission statement and SMART goals. Here’s an example from Lata’s seven SMART goals, and the one she has stuck to best:
SMART Goal 4: Exercise More
Specific I will exercise more consistently.
Measurable I will log in at least 6,000 steps a day and at least 10,000 steps once a week. I will also attend at least two yoga classes a week.
Achievable/Attainable I will lose at least five pounds by the time I turn 40.
Relevant This fits with my goal to spend more time exercising.
Time-Based I will lose twenty pounds by my 40th birthday.
Five months after setting her goals, Lata can say that she has worked hard to follow. By following all seven of her SMART goals, she is targeting her mission statement, which, in turn, helps her feel that she has more control over her time. And feeling that she has more control over her time brings her one step closer to work-life balance, and, ultimately, a more authentic her. Kat believes work-life balance is not about what you are or aren’t doing, but about who you are and who you want to be. And as college professors, we owe it to our students, our loved ones, and ultimately, ourselves, to live our values and our dreams, and also to show others how to do the same.
Do you feel your experiences within the academic world are stressful to the point that burnout one day is a possibility?
Develop your own mission statement? Is there anything that surprised you as you answered the questions above prior to writing the mission statement?
What are three SMART goals for you?
References and Further Reading
Boyle, G. J., Borg, M. G., Falzon, J. M., & Baglioni Jr., A. J. (1995). A structural model of
the dimensions of teacher stress. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 65(1), 49-67. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.1995.tb01130
Career Cast (2016). Least stressful jobs of 2015: 3. University professor (Tenured). Retrieved
Flaxman, P. E., Menard, J., Bond, F. W., & Kinman, G. (2012). Academics’ experiences of a
respite from work: Effects of self-critical perfectionism and perseverative cognition on
post respite well-being. Journal of Applied Psychology 97(4), 854-865. doi: 10.1037/a0028055
Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) (2016). Financial concerns a major source of stress
for faculty at U.S. public colleges, universities. Retrieved from http://heri.ucla.edu/pr-display.php?prQry=104
Kristensen, T. S., Shaughnessy, M. S., & Moore, T-L. (2010). An interview with Tage
S. Kristensen about burnout. North American Journal of Psychology, 12(3), 415-420.
Lee, R. T., & Ashforth, B. E. (1996). A meta-analytic examination of the correlates of three
dimensions of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(2), 123-133. doi:
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1996). Goal setting theory: An introduction. In R. M. Steers, L.
W. Porter, & G. A. Bigley (Eds). Motivation and Leadership at Work (pp. 95-122). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and
task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705-717.
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of
Psychology, 52, 397-422.
Miller, L. H., & Smith, A. D. (1994). The stress solution: An action plan to manage the stress in
your life. New York: Pocket Books.
Parker-Pope, T. (2015, January 5). Creating a new mission statement. New York Times.
Posner, R. (n.d.). The power of personal values. Retrieved from
Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York: The Free Press.
Sangganjanavanich, V. F., & Balkin, R. S. (2013). Burnout and job satisfaction among
counselor educators. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 52, 68-79. doi: 10.1002/J.2161
Seyle, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York: McGraw Hill.
Watts, J., & Robertson N. (2011). Burnout in university teaching staff: A systematic literature
review. Educational Research, 53(1), 33-50. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00131881.2011.