January Community Call Recap – Burnout, exhaustion, and fractals of care

For January’s community call, we hosted a “salon” – a loosely scaffolded group discussion for sharing experiences and generating new ideas – so that our members could come together and talk about care. 

We’d been noticing (and we were not alone) an increasing sense of tiredness and overwhelm among STEM community managers, accompanied by an uptick in conversations about boundary-setting and self care. If this was happening in our own community of practice, we wondered, what was going on in the communities our members were trying to manage? 

An illustration showing a person with their head on their desk, apparently asleep, clutching a coffee cup.
Adapted from an image by Storyset on Freepik

This month’s call was an opportunity to open up our internal conversation more broadly – and to ask how we can care for ourselves as individuals, support our community members as they establish boundaries to protect their wellbeing, AND still encourage members to participate in community activities as an act of collective care. 

We did not record this month’s call, in an effort to protect the space as a confidential one in which it was comfortable to share vulnerably about the challenges we’re facing at work and in our personal lives. However, in this blog post we’re sharing a few of the themes that emerged, as well as a collection of resources for anyone interested in going deeper on some of the topics we covered. 

Meaningful self care and how it integrates into our lives

We opened the call by asking how everyone was feeling and what they were seeing in their communities, with a couple of question prompts in our shared notes doc. After a few minutes, some clear messages started to crystalize – we’re all tired, we see our colleagues and members struggling, and we don’t see a way out from under a relentless todo list. 

In short – everyone’s burnt out. In their book “Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle,” Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski (after Herbert Freudenberger) define burnout as: 

  • Emotional exhaustion – the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long
  • Depersonalization – the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion
  • Decreased sense of accomplishment – and unconquerable sense of futility: feeling that nothing you do makes any difference

Some participants commented that since switching to remote work they’d lost moments of pause between tasks – the lunches with colleagues, the chats in the break room. And others remarked that they didn’t feel seen or heard by their supervisors as they went through challenging life events (from childbirth to grieving a close relative). In this act of sharing, others also felt validated in their own experiences, commenting about how helpful it was to hear that others were facing similar challenges. 

One antidote, or preventative measure, to burnout is self care. We’re not talking about long bubble baths or scented candles here, but real, intentional, self care. There are multiple frameworks for self care, and on the call we shared the idea of self care operating in five dimensions: 

  • Social – connection with others, feeling seen
  • Emotional – working to understand ourselves, journaling, therapy, boundary-setting
  • Physical – laughter, movement, nourishment, touch
  • Mental – rest from decision-making, learning about new things (and finding a balance between the two) 
  • Spiritual – bigger picture, deeper meaning – meditation, prayer, nature, art

By framing self care in this way, we as individuals can see how we might gravitate to certain forms of self care, or we might not realize that some of the things we do anyway are having a positive impact on our wellbeing. For example, one person on the call was surprised to see “laughter” as an example of physical care – laughing is known to help us relax, and there is a scientific field dedicated to the study of the psychology and physiology of laughter (gelotology)! And so self care might look like calling that friend who makes you laugh or finding a stand-up comedy special to watch on TV.

Our discussion also highlighted that we often experience a seasonality to our self care practices, maybe gravitating towards journaling for a while, and then shifting to a daily walk or yoga practice, perhaps as the daylight hours grow longer. This seasonality reminds us that balance is not necessarily something you achieve – it is fleeting (consider how long you can stand on one leg without wobbling or grounding the lifted foot), but you can experience balance in different ways at different times. Having a constellation of self care habits or tools is one way to creatively explore the 5 dimensions of self care – without feeling guilty about letting one habit gradually replace another.

Community or collective care

Community care is the collective nurturing of community needs so that the labor of care does not fall on one person (or small group of people). Participating in community care requires individuals to trust that the others in the community are also contributing to care, and that members can take on varied roles depending on their own personal circumstances, which might change over time. 

Implicit in this definition of community care is reciprocity – that every member of the group is empowered to give and take depending on their bandwidth at any given time. If only a small subset of the community participates in care, they may eventually start to feel exploited, or that they cannot take a break from community labor because they don’t believe others would share the work of care in their absence. In this way, a breakdown in community care can result in burnout on the individual level. 

As a group, we reflected on specific examples of community care and multi-modal community programming, considering the various ways we support members in participating – and what feels sustainable. And then we talked about the mechanisms in our own work-lives that we appreciate as means of facilitating self care outside of the collective (e.g., receiving clear guidance from employers around expectations and working hours, or establishing a regular group gratitude practice). 

Fractals of care – a framework for kind interactions between work and life

In preparing for this month’s call, Katie and Lou had several conversations about the reciprocal nature of self care and community care, which led Lou to propose the idea of care operating in a fractal – with core elements that you can see manifest at different scales. For example, physical self care might look like taking time to prepare a wholesome meal, or going for a walk before you sit down to work. Physical organizational care might look like offering your employees clear indications of working hours, or instructions for how to request vacations. And physical care at the level of the STEM ecosystem as a whole might look like adequately resourcing community engagement and not exploiting volunteers to support basic infrastructure. 

In this example, without clear communication about working hours it becomes harder for the individual to step away from their computer to go for a walk – and over time this results in employees with less perceived agency over their lives, a common indicator of burnout. 

Developing the fractals of care framework is something we’d like to work on more over the next few months, and if you’re interested in connecting with us on this project, let us know by sending an email to info@cscce.org

Thank you! And what’s coming up next month

We’re so grateful to everyone who participated so generously in this month’s community call. It felt like a timely and necessary moment of connection and solidarity. Please do explore the resources curated below – and if there are others you’d like us to add to this list, please send an email to info@cscce.org

Next month, we’ll be talking about content-creation, and exploring six “informational roles” of content commonly employed to share information in STEM communities. We hope to see you there (add to calendar).



  • An Exhausting Year in (and Out of) the Office – This article by Cal Newport appeared in the New Yorker at the end of 2023, and talks about the wave of exhaustion in knowledge workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Paywalled, with a limited number of free articles)
  • When Executives Burn Out – In this article, penned in the early 80s, Harry Levinson describes the signs of burnout in managers, and suggests ways of ameliorating its impact on individuals and organizations. (Paywalled, with a limited number of free articles per month)
  • Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle – Sisters Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski describe the signs and symptoms of burnout and stress, and offer tools to help you manage them. 

Self care


Community care 

Additional resources

  • Work Life – a podcast hosted by Adam Grant that explores “how to make work not suck.”
  • More podcasts about community management – choose from 6 podcasts that talk about building community online and in-person
  • Analog – a pen and paper productivity system
  • Work Appropriate – another podcast, from Anne Helen Petersen, that explores challenges of work and work culture. Often she is joined by a guest to tackle a specific topic