Higher education faculty have always had a demanding job. Add to that the stress of a pandemic and having to adjust to remote teaching almost overnight, and it goes without saying that this past year has only compounded the feelings of burnout that faculty too often experience.
According to an October 2020 survey conducted by The Chronicle, more than two-thirds of the 1,100+ faculty participants said they felt “very” or “extremely” stressed or fatigued in the past month. Another recent survey from the American Council on Education (ACE) found the mental health of faculty and staff members was the third most pressing concern for college presidents.
It’s obvious that faculty burnout cannot be ignored in today’s higher education climate. Institutions that are unwilling or unable to address the issue could experience decreased job performance and run the risk of employee turnover.
Although many individuals in any kind of helping profession – like teaching – experience some degree of burnout or compassion fatigue, prioritizing self-care practices and establishing a culture of support can help faculty minimize and manage their stress. To help your school take proactive steps to protect your faculty members’ well-beings and avoid losing talent, we spoke with Tim Loatman, director of academic services at Collegis Education, to discuss faculty burnout and how it can be avoided.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a type of work-related stress that takes a toll on both physical and mental well–being. It’s a condition – not a medical diagnosis – that is hallmarked by a state of physical exhaustion. This exhaustion can also be coupled with a reduced sense of accomplishment and personal identity.
A number of workplace factors can commonly lead to burnout. Unclear expectations of your responsibilities, unhealthy work environments and a lack of control over your workload can all contribute to burnout. Individuals lacking a work-life balance or supportive social circle may be more likely to experience burnout as well.
Similarly, some individuals are more prone to burnout than others. For instance, people with high workloads, those in “helping” professions and individuals who closely identify with their line of work are more likely to experience burnout.
Unfortunately, these individual risk factors are often prevalent in higher ed faculty members. As such, it should come as no surprise that faculty burnout is so common – and it is felt now more than ever.
Why is faculty burnout so prevalent?
Even in the best of times, faculty burnout is an issue. One pre-pandemic study found that one-third of faculty members suffered from burnout. The research also found that burnout rates were higher in female faculty members and negatively affected quality of life for those suffering.
That begs the question, what is it about higher education that leads to such levels of burnout?
Unfortunately, academia possesses many of the key components typically found in a blueprint for professional burnout: the poor employment prospects, large amounts of student loan debt and the fact that teaching is often considered a passion profession.
Many institutions have become more reliant on contingent faculty, sometimes referred to as “adjunct” or “non-tenure-track” faculty, which also contributes to an increased risk of burnout. Many of these employees end up working around the clock because they don’t have the job security that a tenured professor does. They feel their job may be at risk if they don’t “prove themselves” by putting in the extra hours.
Additionally, the emotional weight of the job cannot be ignored.
“Teaching is a tough job,” Loatman says. “Faculty’s jobs are filled with tasks requiring emotional energy. And for the most part, those tasks are a solitary endeavor.”
These stressors have always been part of the job description for college faculty. Adding pandemic-related factors to the mix – translating lesson plans for remote learning, supporting their students’ mental health and juggling personal and family responsibilities – only exacerbates the probability of faculty burnout.
How can schools avoid faculty burnout?
There are a number of actions that can be taken to help ease the burdens and avoid burnout. Acknowledging the struggles of your institution’s faculty is the first step. This process starts with transparent communication about the issue from the top down.
Establishing a culture of support and understanding is essential. Building in opportunities for instructors to share best practices and vent about their struggles will help them feel connected, even if they are separated by physical distance. Keeping these open lines of communication can also help faculty members identify signs of burnout among each other.
“Fortunately, institutions typically have some sort of faculty support built into their teaching and learning infrastructure, whether that is a peer coach/mentor or an administrator, like a department chair,” Loatman explains. “Keeping those connections meaningful and regular is a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of burnout.”
Another way the administration can help avoid burnout is by respecting the responsibilities that many faculty members face at home, such as lack of childcare or the need to facilitate their own children’s virtual learning during the pandemic. Encourage and model work-life balance over an “always–available” culture.
Help faculty members prioritize essential work, and value quality over quantity. Reevaluate the need for non-essential department meetings so instructors aren’t losing that valuable time during normal work hours. Consider temporarily relieving some of the pressures around tenure requirements, such as research and academic publications.
In addition, encourage faculty members to create a self-care plan in different areas: physical, social, emotional, workplace/professional, etc. Intentional self-care practices that minimize or protect against burnout and compassion fatigue can include exercising, mindful eating, connecting with others, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, planning and committing time for meaningful leisure activities and more.
Equally important are the opportunities afforded to faculty members – such as continual faculty training and development. Encouraging and providing faculty members these opportunities for professional development go a long way to keeping them active and engaged in their careers.
“Colleges need to provide many opportunities for training. These are a great way for faculty to develop new skills,” Loatman says. “Training sessions allow faculty to be as prepared as possible, while also reinforcing their own teaching connections.”
And, as COVID-19 continues to force classes online, it is critical for institutions to provide the right support for faculty teaching from home.
“If a college is adopting a remote teaching paradigm, then colleges absolutely need to invest in the correct technologies and IT support to make that happen,” Loatman advises. “Using the wrong technology and then depending on the faculty to ‘just make it work’ is basically a recipe for burnout.”
Back your faculty
Faculty burnout is not a novel symptom of the pandemic, but it’s certainly intensified because of it.
Be proactive in your plans to help faculty members succeed through good times and bad by establishing a culture of support, setting realistic expectations of work-life balance , offering opportunities to learn and grow and providing sufficient tech support.
Explore more about the importance of investing in your instructors in our article “Acknowledging the Importance of Faculty Training and Development.”