A practical guide to handling sabbatical officer burnout

Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

As well as being storming fortnight, it is also around this time of year that many student officers start to flag a bit.

The nights are getting darker, you still have that cold from freshers hanging around, and you’re starting to get anxious about not having ticked off many of your manifesto points.

Burnout

We’ve chatted about sabbatical officer burnout before on the site, and raised some questions about how viable the big celebrity student leader role is in the current climate in which we expect officers to be representatives, trustees, activists, and facilitators all at once.

But much of that conversation demands that we redefine student leadership roles and have a wider conversation about the structure of student representation in both the SU and the university.

While those strategic discussions are key to making student leaders more powerful in the future, they are perhaps not so reassuring for current officers who are burnt out right now.

In light of that, I asked a bunch of ex-officers for their tips on how to look after yourself now you’re a decent way into your term.

Get that fire exit door

The main piece of advice that everyone gave in some form or other was if things consistently feel overwhelming, then it might be time to get some distance from the SU.

Depending on the scenario, this may range from getting away from your desk for half an hour and taking a walk in the fresh air. Or, you may want to dive into that TOIL we know you definitely have an abundance of. If one thing is clear when speaking to ex-officers, myself included, no one ever seems to use up their TOIL or annual leave.

Some of that reluctance to take time off stems from the time-sensitive nature of the roles – from the outset, you are made aware your time in the role is limited. I vividly recall being involved in planning for next year’s elections when I was barely three months into my term.

It’s a strange feeling, and I think leads to many sabbs feeling they have to “make the most of it” by working every second. If it’s been two months or more since you last took leave, or if you haven’t taken any so far, this is your sign to get it booked ASAP.

It turns out that old adage of you can’t pour from an empty cup is, in fact, very true.

Distance

Along similar lines, many ex-sabbs recommended finding moments to meet people outside of meetings. Sometimes, when you are meeting others in the setting of numerous back-to-back committees it’s hard to make any connections with those colleagues.

Particularly if you have had some moderately polite disagreements with those university staff members over some policy semantics, it is worthwhile for both an effective working relationship and your sanity to meet up for a chat, outside the conference rooms.

This might feel unpleasant, but leaning into that discomfort and resolving the conflict while trying to come to a mutual understanding can be beneficial. Plus, it means you can stop worrying about it, or may remove that nagging dread or nervousness you have whenever you see that colleague in meetings.

Another bit of advice if this kind of mediation feels impossible, find a buddy – maybe another officer or SU support staff who can mediate. One SU noted they had a “care policy” which encouraged staff to remind themselves that often people’s intentions were well-meaning, they just did not necessarily manifest themselves in the ways we want. For me at least, this was something it took me a minute to grapple with.

Many staff in the university had the best intentions and wanted to support students, they were just somewhat institutionalised to the university’s way of working, and things didn’t always happen at the speed, or in the exact manner I wanted.

As an officer, you have to work within your means to speed up change as your fresh pair of eyes and ideas is of great value and importance, but also accept that things may not always occur at the exact pace that you may want.

Mentor

One thing many effective officers have in common is they have a mentor. This may be someone within the SU, the university or from an external body. If you are a member of University Council or Board of Governors, the lay members there are often good people to form connections with, and it’s worth noting that you are allowed to have more than one mentor.

There is the obvious benefit of a mentor in terms of future career opportunities. One thing I know is a source of stress for many officers is, despite the intense mental and physical you give to your sabb role, the end is nigh and the impending lack of employment can feel daunting.

Many SUs don’t offer support for their sabbs upon exiting or understanding how to translate the wide-ranging skills they have learnt into a well-formed or competitive CV to appeal to future employers. There is a debate to be had on how much of a responsibility SUs have in this area, but regardless of your stance, it is worth seeking out a mentor to support you in your personal and professional development.

Not only can this quell some anxieties you may have around the future, mentors can be an invaluable resource in boosting your confidence, reminding you you are doing well and helping you to recognise where you are potentially spending too much time on smaller tasks with minimal impact rather than the bigger, more important tasks.

Log off when you leave

One thing many officers recalled having difficulty with was successfully “switching off” from work after hours, as many had access to SU social media accounts. Much of the advice I gathered suggested that if you’re an avid social media user for work, in allowing yourself to set firm boundaries on how you scroll and check notifications during and after work.

It is important to boost student engagement with the SU – but can you do that alone? It is worth floating the idea of your SU hiring students interested in media or marketing penning blogs, tweeting or posting Instagram stories on your behalf.

The same goes for emails. If you have the app on your phone, set it so that notifications are disabled outside of work hours, weekends or on annual leave. To be a “good sabb” you need to have time off to recoup, and that includes evening and weekends where you can think about something other than scrutiny panels and strategic plans.

It’s (usually) not personal

The big celebrity student leader position that exists in most SUs is a hard one to navigate, especially in the modern world of social media. You, whether you like it or not, become a public personality and figure head on campus – quite literally with the size of some SU posters I’ve seen across the country.

This can be great from an engagement perspective, but the potential for intense scrutiny, judgement, or blame can be terrifying. For the most part, it is important to remind yourself that it is not personal, students complaining about the university or union decisions are (usually) not direct attacks on you. It’s important to remember that those passive-aggressive emails come from a place of frustration or upset from students struggling and reaching out to the SU for help, and are not having a go at you directly, you may just be on the receiving end of it.

Although, if you do experience social media comments or emails which are inappropriate, rude and abusive, it is vital you let a member of SU staff know and request appropriate wellbeing support. Although it often is the case, this should not be treated as “coming with the territory” and staff at SUs should be ready to protect and support sabbs who, as public faces of the organisation, are vulnerable to potential online abuse.

Catch-up with your team

Your fellow sabbs can be your rocks, as well as annoying coworkers who you may disagree with. Nurturing those professional relationships now you have gotten used to working together more is important.

A useful tip I heard was organising an afternoon as soon as possible with your officer team to plan your updated priorities for the rest of this term, as they may have changed since you did them with a flipchart and some pens back in July. Setting rigid rules that this meeting is solely to focus on priorities as, from experience, since officers tend to be in back-to-back meetings and rarely get to catch-up as a team we tend to bring up anything and everything in the rare event we’re all together.

Some officers might work together more than others on joint projects, whereas others may be more separate, but all would benefit from hearing others priorities and helping each other to be realistic with their time, and finding where collaborations may be more effective. On this note, use this meeting to plan when you’re each going to take some TOIL or annual leave, this is just as vital as plotting all the exciting things you want to do this year.

Check in outside of work

Now that you’ve all caught up work-wise, get out the office and do something non- work-related. It doesn’t have to be anything as dramatic as the team building activities of residential weeks, but grabbing a pizza or doing something non-SU related does help you remember your fellow officers are just humans too.

My team and I tried to do this at least once a month, we’d go for brunch, go to a comedy night or have a movie night, it worked wonders for helping us get to know each other as people outside of our roles.

I recommend to any officer team that you spend some time together as a team each week if possible, even if it’s just for half an hour. It helps you keep up to date with everyone’s work, resolve any conflicts or disagreements early on, so you are all singing from the same hymn sheet publicly, and don’t contradict each other when negotiating with the university.

Do something non-student related

This one may seem a bit odd, but a number of people recommended finding an activity, outlet or hobby that is removed from the SU or student-related activities. Spending time with people beyond the SU-bubble can be grounding and help remind you that some things aren’t that deep, it is just a job at the end of the day.

Similarly, many officers spoke about finding their position as “not exactly a student but not a new graduate either” difficult. Personally, I found going on nights out to clubs that were student-dominated tense, especially when I saw society bar crawls and potentially questionable behaviour from some students. I just wanted to enjoy my night out and have fun, not thinking about the risk assessment form I would have to make them fill out again the next day.

So, I strongly recommend finding some social hubs, whether that be a bar, a comedy club, a local community hub, that tends to not be dominated by students to spend time in outside of work so you can truly switch off.

Passion project

Finally, many officers said that having a “passion project” or an area of work that filled them up was important in avoiding feeling run down and demotivated. This area may be something that was not originally on your manifesto, and that’s okay, you were elected for your passion for supporting students as well as your ideas.

If there is a project that makes you feel energised and excited, set aside time in your diary to pursue that passion. If you don’t, not only are you more likely to feel bogged down with the monotony of committee meetings and task-and-finish groups, you are also missing out on the chance to make some changes for students that no one else has thought of before. If you don’t do it, who will?

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