Tackling burnout as a pandemic science communicator

By Sheeva Azma

Working in pandemic science communications has been one of the most fast-paced jobs I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some pretty fast-paced jobs. For example, I’ve worked in the US Congress, where everything seems to be on the brink of chaos daily. The pandemic made me an expert in quick thinking and problem-solving regarding issues that I had never even imagined could happen. My past work experiences, which included a random assortment of science, writing, and policy, gave me transferrable skills which were valuable in the pandemic.

How it started versus how it’s going as a scientist turned communications professional. Click on the Tweet to expand it.

Even though nobody had really understood what I did at the intersection of science policy, communications, and research, the pandemic made my skills highly in demand. My past work experiences, a random assortment of science, writing, and policy, helped me work quickly to analyze emerging pandemic science and help create science-informed recommendations or communicate pandemic science.

For several years leading up to the pandemic, I didn’t know anyone who had the same skills as me, but these same skills were suddenly highly in demand. In the pandemic, I met a few people with similar skill sets, but there were not nearly enough of us to tackle pandemic science communication.

@SheevaAzma: My past work experiences…gave me transferrable skills which were valuable in the pandemic. I didn’t know anyone who had the same skills as me, skills which were suddenly highly in demand.

I can’t say that my job has been an easy one. The science changed often and so did experts’ recommendations. The internet became a source of distrust and misinformation long before trusted communicators had the opportunity to chime in.

My skills and experience were a good match for pandemic challenges…

Scientists were some of the few people who could communicate science (their area of expertise!), which meant that they were often the only ones doing so. Still, the correct messages didn’t always get out to the media or general public. Sometimes, facts would become politicized, which made communication all the more challenging.

I definitely explained the same things over and over again many different times and different ways in the pandemic. I often saw scientists struggling to communicate the science, or worse, being overshadowed by someone more skilled in media relations but who didn’t have the most accurate, up-to-date information. It’s all helped me realize that undergraduate and graduate students in science need training in SciComm as part of their studies, and I’ve since expanded my services to include SciComm mentoring and training.

I’ve also learned two important lessons about freelancing through my pandemic SciComm work. The first is that one can’t force creative output. The second is that if I don’t feel like working, I probably will not. Writing this blog, I am closing in on an approximately seven-hour workday which was preceded by an entire weekend off. A seven-hour day is actually a lot of work for me these days!

It wasn’t always this way, though; in the pandemic, I worked 12 hour days, sometimes more, often back to back. There was a lot of work to do, and little that could be done in a pandemic except work on science communications that, I hoped, might finally help end the pandemic. My favorite hobbies, which all involve being around other people, were simply not possible anymore.

… but I learned that working too much leads to burnout

Then, it finally happened. My brain stopped cooperating with my plan to work nonstop. It was fall or winter of 2021; I can’t remember. I opened a blog I was working on to start editing it. My mind felt like it no longer worked; it couldn’t process the words on the page. I just stared at the blog blankly, wondering when my brain might want to cooperate again. I felt sad, frustrated, and exhausted. I had just survived the Delta wave of the pandemic, and I was burned out; tired of explaining science and feeling like it wasn’t making an impact; and exhausted by the anti-science voices out there who were making my work more difficult.

I tried to work, but I felt like a zombie. I had spent all my spare time in the early days of the Delta wave coming up with a document about red-state science communications for state and local governments. While it got a few reads from local policymakers, it wasn’t nearly enough to tackle the ensuing COVID wave. I could barely sleep. The news was terrible, but my state was not making national headlines, unlike our neighbor Arkansas, who was even more worse off than we were.

I couldn’t work, so I couldn’t bring in money. I liquidated a chunk of my retirement fund so Fancy Comma, LLC could stay afloat for a couple of months while I figured out a new path for us. I decided I needed to make a change to make my work processes more sustainable and bounce back from burnout.

I changed the way I work to reduce burnout

The first thing I did to reduce burnout was to raise my rate by a hefty 33%. I had learned a lot of new skills in the pandemic. This was stuff like social media marketing, journalism, and strategic communications, including crisis communications. I had a lot to offer and also wanted to work less. I also had started working faster. So, I raised my rate from $150/hour to $200/hour. I reached out to clients letting them know that I had raised my rate, and that because I had been working faster, they probably wouldn’t even notice a difference in the overall project rate.

The next thing I did was to outsource work that I didn’t absolutely need to do myself. This included hiring a social media manager to come up with posts for our Twitter account, and setting up a process by which people could pitch our blog. I would still be the lead editor on these projects, but now other people, not me, would be tasked with content creation. This would leave me free time while still helping Fancy Comma, LLC achieve its objective of being a voice in the discussion of science communication, which was crucial in the pandemic.

I also transitioned to an asynchronous work schedule, in which I turned down people who wanted to “hop on a call” to chat about work I might be able to do for them. This helped me a lot, as I only accepted work that could be done via emails or messages. I was able to work on my own terms, which meant I could set my own hours. I had taken to working from 2 am to about 6 am in early 2022 because there were fewer distractions. 

Finally, I started saying “no” more. Because I had raised my rate, I could take on fewer clients. I did not take on clients who were pushy, required overly involved methods of communication or tons of daily check-ins, or clients who claimed that they needed work done immediately. Any potential client who didn’t respect my boundaries was out. Anyone who was condescending or otherwise rude on the discovery call became an immediate “no.” Once, I hopped on a client discovery call, and when I got a bad vibe, I immediately excused myself and promptly hung up.

Saying “no” to clients was a practice I had taken to starting in about 2019, and I found that when I started saying “no” more, my freelance income doubled. While my income didn’t double this time, my mental health improved drastically. I was no longer working for clients who didn’t appreciate the work I did for them.

Fast forward about a year, and while I still have to work more than I would like to pay the bills, I can now at least afford to take weekends off. It has been a long – almost three-year – journey to get to this point. I know that many freelancers cannot take time off because they have to pay the bills, and I lived that life for years, working through holidays. I get the impression that many clients expect clients to work through holidays – but in my experience, it is easy to push back on that without losing clients. It just requires setting boundaries between one’s life and work.

As of writing, I’m working on condensing my work week further, so that I can work four-day weeks. I’m making this possible through diversifying my income streams – I recently added science communication mentoring and training to my repertoire, started doing YouTube live Q&A streams, and I wrote two books.

In college at MIT and as a grad student, work was pretty much my life. That didn’t mean that I didn’t have fun, but I did prioritize it over life most of the time. It wasn’t uncommon for me to skip a fun event to head to the lab and get some work done. In the pandemic, those opportunities to have fun – however rare they felt in undergraduate and graduate school, and as a research assistant in the interim – no longer seemed to exist. So I worked all the time, because there was nothing else to do and because there was too much I had to do.

“Work doesn’t love you back”

The pandemic taught me that “work doesn’t love you back.” When I spend time doing fun stuff, or even just catching up on life away from work, I feel recharged when it’s time to get back to my work responsibilities. When I just work all the time, as I did in the pandemic, I end up feeling drained, with no means to replenish my mental resources.

Fancy Comma, LLC flourished in the pandemic. It was amazing to be able to do so much to advance science communication as a small team, picking up tons of important clients and being a leader in the pandemic science communications space. However, one person or even one science communication company cannot do it all. I learned a lot about burnout as I burned the candle at both ends, as the saying goes, in the pandemic. I worked more than I ever had as a student at MIT or even as a grad student at Georgetown, pursuing science policy in my spare time away from neuroscience research and classes.

I learned a lot about burnout by experiencing it in the pandemic. I had always heard about it happening to people but I didn’t realize how devastating it was to my freelance business until I experienced it. Burnout is also not a problem unique to freelance pandemic science communicators. As I wrote about in the Georgetown Voice; medical professionals, who were front line workers in the pandemic, had a serious burnout problem even before the pandemic started.

.@SheevaAzma: One thing that contributed to my burnout was the perception that freelancers don’t have a real job or don’t work hard because they don’t have a 9-to-5 job. This would cause me to work even more, which contributed to burnout.

One thing that contributed to my burnout was the perception that freelancers don’t have a real job or don’t work hard because they don’t have a 9-to-5 job. This would cause me to work even more, which contributed to burnout. Freelance writing is a job like any other job. Just because someone doesn’t understand what you do doesn’t mean your job isn’t a real job.

The bottom line

Working as a pandemic science communicator, I learned that the way out of burnout as a freelancer is to mold one’s work to one’s life, rather than the other way around.

Fellow freelancers, have you achieved work/life balance? I’d love to know about how you did it in the comments.

Disclaimer: this blog post contains affiliate links. Fancy Comma, LLC may earn a commission for purchases made through affiliate links.

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