Academia and self-care: Reflections on field work and burning the candle from both ends

a blog by Student Council member, Karsten Fatur.

            It’s a story that we are all familiar with: deadlines are closing in, funding applications are due, fieldwork needs to be done, and for various reasons you end up pushing yourself too hard to get things done. Unfortunately, academia (and indeed many professions in our modern society) tend to reward this kind of overworking (perceived value in capitalism is, after all, linked to productivity). But where is the balance between working hard and looking out for yourself? As part of the student council’s initiatives for this year, we are hoping to include more content related to well-being and mental health. Today’s jump into that pool involves my own recent fieldwork along the Adriatic coast in Slovenia.

Karsten finally relaxing by the beach.

            This was to be my last fieldwork session for a project involving medicinal plant use in the region. I had already sunk untold hours of work into the project and wanted to get the most out of my final period in the field. As such, I approached from the first day with a very militant attitude that I needed to make the most of the situation or I would be wasting all of the effort I had already put in.

            The first day of the field work started off rough; my accommodations ended up being in a very hilly area of the region with no safe walking routes. As such, I knew I would be doing a lot of walking on the sides of busy winding mountain roads (safety note: do not do this!) or crawling through hilly forests along “trails” that had not been maintained in decades. Starting off in a bit of a bad mood because of this, I regardless got to work.

            On that first day, I was out in the field for nearly 12 hours. It was sunny the whole day, and temperatures peaked at 44 degrees Celsius. To keep safe from the sun and brush, I was wearing long pants and long sleeves. Suffice to say, I was sweating more than I care to describe. With my plant press and other sampling gear on my back, there was not a whole lot of room for much else. Still, I had as much water as I could manage stuffed in my (very heavy) bag. Regardless, I managed to get quite dehydrated.

            By the end of the day, I was exhausted. In the evening, I began to get very cold and assumed it was just due to the dropping temperature. Unfortunately, it turned out I was starting to run a very high fever, and the night would bring little sleep, instead being filled with feverish hallucinations and chills. In the morning, I felt a bit better and assumed I had just been in the sun too much. I didn’t want to lose a day of research time, so I pushed myself to go out and continue my work. I was ok for a bit until the sun came out, at which point I almost fainted during an interview with an informant. All of my symptoms came rushing back. I pushed through the interview and tried to keep going through the day beyond that but eventually had to call it quits and go to bed.

            Over the next few days I would repeat the same pattern: wake up, feel a bit better, push myself too hard not wanting to lose research time, and then end up back in bed feeling even worse. Finally, a friend of mine who had come down to help me with part of the fieldwork decided I needed to see a doctor. My fever had been dangerously high for a number of days and I had been pushing myself too hard. I had to be tested for COVID-19 as a safety precaution before I could see a doctor, and once I was cleared, I finally got medical help.

            It turned out that I had not had heat stroke as I had suspected, but rather that I had contracted meningitis (likely from a tick while climbing around through the woods) and instead of getting medical help immediately and resting as I should have, I had been pushing myself and making everything worse. But that fear of losing research time, of not getting enough data, of not having publishable results, and (ultimately larger fears) about being professionally unsuccessful in the future spurred me to keep working even when my body told me not to. As if this wasn’t enough, I was putting a huge amount of mental strain on myself, berating myself for needing to rest when I had work to do. Bottom line: the whole situation was very unhealthy, both mentally and physically and I was not taking care of myself properly.

            Would I have been ok watching someone I know put themselves through this? Definitely not! So why did I think it was ok to push myself this far? As they say, we are often much better at giving advice than we are at following it. Our generation is under a lot of pressure. The world is changing around us so rapidly, and all the certainties we grew up with are rapidly vanishing in the face of climate change and our own realisations about the shortcomings of the current global capitalist system (not to mention the ways that the current pandemic has laid these matters bare before our eyes). Unfortunately, it is easy to let these anxieties seep into other areas of our lives, and that is what I did. I felt I had to push that hard in order to be successful at this stage of my life, which would hopefully allow me to go on being successful in the future.

            But at the end of the day, is it worth it? The fieldwork could have waited a few days. And even if I hadn’t been able to complete it and had too little data to publish, so what? One less article on my CV? Not the end of the world. Not taking care of your mental and physical health, however, CAN be the end of your personal world, and can have deep impacts in the worlds of those around you. We are likely all familiar with the famous quote “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” but what that quote fails to remind us of is that that time will ultimately come much sooner if you’re working yourself into an early grave.  

            Your well-being (both mental and physical) is more important than any element of your career. If you need time to get well, take it. There are always other research opportunities, other jobs, other grants. But you only get one chance to live, and it would be a shame to throw it away running yourself ragged.

            So how did I adapt my fieldwork? Once I was feeling better, I still had a lot of walking to do in the hot sun. But I did my best to always do this in the morning and afternoon, resting around noon. Some days I worked less, depending on how I felt. If after a few hours I decided it was time to take a break, I did. I even made it to the beach a few times!

            So, hopefully I learned my lesson from this… Time will tell. Hopefully you will remember this too next time you are pushing yourself too hard. If you need physical or mental health-related help, reach out to services in your community. I know this isn’t always possible in all areas, but take advantage of any resources that are available to you. In the age of the internet, there are also many great ways to get help through the web.

            And remember, a candle burning at both ends will only burn for half as long.

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