Five Campus Hot Spots: Why Higher Education Institutions Need to Adapt to Reduce Burnout
This article first appeared in The Best of the 2022 Leadership in Higher Education Conference (Magna Publications, 2023).
Today’s professionals use the term “burnout” to describe how a person might feel about their personal and professional obligations and responsibilities—or the overwhelming, pervasive nature of such. When we converse about burnout, we are commonly describing how tired, buried, or overburdened we are on account of our daily responsibilities. The World Health Organization (2019) has recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon or a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Higher education is not immune to faculty and staff mental wellness challenges, additionally, as college presidents report these as prominent problems on their campuses (Taylor et al., 2021). Furthermore, Gallup discovered that three out of four employees feel burned out on the job at least some of the time (Hemphill, 2022). With this in mind, it is imperative that leaders in higher education consider their role in creating a culture that supports the well-being of those who serve the campus daily. While burnout tends to be an employee issue, campus leaders can create the conditions and atmosphere to notice, moderate, and prevent burnout conditions. It goes without saying that a campus filled with faculty, staff, and students suffering from burnout is probably not functioning at its prime. Below, we identify five hot spots, or reasons, where burnout shows up on today’s campuses. We also set forth suggestions on how to best change our typical response strategies to promote healthier, more productive learning and working environments for all.
Hot spot 1: Lack of confidence in leadership
Constant turnover, lack of transparency, and unbalanced decision-making can erode confidence in campus leadership. Campus leaders, while charged with difficult and demanding jobs, must steadily work to earn and build the trust of the entire campus community. Rumors, unethical practices, hidden agendas, and constant change cause people to feel unsteady with leadership decisions, so when difficult decisions need to be made, buy-in can be negligible if not completely absent.
- Be consistent. When leaders maintain consistent behaviors over time, campus community members can better understand their approach and anticipate how to respond to daily responsibilities. Some ways to remain consistent in higher education are to communicate clear expectations with simple, straight-forward messaging, explain your rationale when making decisions, and maintain a consistent demeanor whether things are going well or you are handling a challenging situation. Inconsistent responses increase stress and the possibility of withdrawal by people involved in the decision-making processes, so take care to examine how and why you make decisions the way that you do.
- Practice participatory leadership. When leaders use a participatory leadership approach, they actively listen to others and involve them in decision-making processes. A few ways to practice participatory leadership are to be open-minded when hearing others’ ideas, approaches, and possible solutions to institutional issues; encourage collaboration to solve challenges by bringing the right people to the table; and reach out to all employees, even the quiet ones, to make sure their voices are heard even if they don’t have confidence to share ideas in a group setting.
Hot spot 2: Unmanageable workload
According to the CUPA-HR Higher Education Employee Retention Survey, a survey that targeted higher education employees without teaching responsibilities, 67 percent of staff have found it necessary to work additional hours beyond their typical workday to complete their current job duties. Additionally, the survey found that 63 percent of staff have taken on additional responsibilities because of staff shortages (Bichsel et al., 2022).
- Check in frequently. It is important for leaders to be aware of how much additional work employees are taking on due to turnover. Schedule frequent individual meetings with employees to check in on workload or plan frequent walk-arounds to check in less formally (Serrat, 2017).
- Don’t encourage work during non-working hours. Leaders should reflect on their own work habits as one way to understand the perceptions others have about the amount of work to be done in day. For instance, what type of work-life balance are you modeling when sending emails, messages, or texts outside standard business hours? If you find yourself working in the evening, on the weekends, or during holiday breaks, use the “delay send” email feature so the message arrives during the next scheduled workday or make your expectations clear about how soon you need a response (Giurge & Bohns, 2021).
Hot spot 3: Absence of role clarity
The absence of clarity in higher education happens for a variety of reasons: overlapping roles and responsibilities between team members, faculty and staff turnover, and the introduction or sunsetting of new programs or initiatives. It is not uncommon for people to take on multiple roles or serve in various capacities, even across departments or colleges. While building new skill sets can be a positive professional attribute, working for competing supervisors or having layered professional responsibilities can lead to steady dissatisfaction.
- Define individual roles. As a leader it’s important to help clearly define roles and expectations. For new employees, review their job descriptions since these could differ from their actual day-to-day responsibilities. For employees that are established with the program, department, school, or college, discuss their responsibilities and clarify your goals and expectations for them. For all employees, share which tasks they should prioritize, which ones they can move to the bottom of their to-do lists, and what success looks like in each employee’s role.
- Be transparent. To create a culture of transparency, everyone on your team should know and understand each person’s role, responsibilities, and priority tasks. Think about how challenging it is would be to complete a puzzle without the picture on the box to guide you. The same is true in the workplace: without having the full picture, it can be challenging for employees to understand their roles.
Hot spot 4: Unclear communication
Clear and consistent communication can help anyone working within a campus community to feel invested and valued. Unfortunately, many campuses are plagued with competing messages, outdated strategic plans, and unclear and inconsistent performance expectations. When campus community members do not know how to measure their own success, they are left guessing where the markers of good performance actually lie. Campus leaders, in turn, need clarity to effectively win support and champion new processes—both of which require thoughtful, meaningful dialogue with stakeholders.
- Design communication plans. Since academic leaders are responsible for sharing institutional information and updates with faculty and staff, it is important to establish where the messages will come from—then use that method consistently. For instance, if a college dean shares with faculty and staff that they will provide biweekly updates via email throughout the academic year, it is important to remain consistent with the communication plan. If circumstances arise for a delay in the biweekly communication, they dean should notify faculty and staff about it to ease any worries, concerns, or rumors about the change in the communication plan. Additionally, pay clear attention to changing trends in strategic plans, initiatives, and other campus projects. Keep abreast of where each of these is headed and inform your colleagues of what you know, including of any changes.
- Ask for guidance. Since each faculty and staff member needs different forms of professional support, each employee will require a distinct approach. Ask each person how you can help them succeed in their role. Often, employees will continue to shoulder multiple responsibilities and think that their leader knows and notices what is happening when in reality that’s not the case. Taking the time to purposefully interact can reveal some of the truths behind how and why someone’s job conditions may be burning them out.
Hot spot 5: Unreasonable expectations
Spending a career in education usually leads one to understand that long hours and a servant mindset are generally appreciated throughout the campus community. And on today’s campuses, it is not uncommon to find faculty and staff willing to put in extra effort and work hard to help meet college goals. But when long hours, complex tasks, and scarce resources become the norm rather than the exception, workload becomes unmanageable. Campus leaders, then, are often left questioning why work quality and employee engagement are suffering.
- Provide proper tools. Many times, ignoring employee-focused resources can set the tone for how employees approach their workplace tasks. When thinking about tools, you should consider time, tangible and intangible resources, and personnel. When was the last time you asked those you lead whether they have what they need to successfully do their jobs?
- Clarify expectations. Considering how much work employees can successfully manage on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, semestral, or annual basis is an important task for leaders. Especially for high-achieving employees, leaders should communicate which tasks, projects, or initiatives to prioritize and which to complete as time allows; taking on too much may lead to stress and burnout. So expectations match reality, meet with employees regularly to determine a realistic timeline for assigned tasks and solicit ideas from employees on how they can successfully complete tasks.
Higher education will always be full of complex processes. It is also important to recognize that to make an impact, we must first take care of ourselves and those around us. Knowing what you know now, where can you start creating meaningful change for the better on your campus?
Bichsel, J., Fuesting, M., Schneider, J., & Tubbs, D. (2022, July). The CUPA-HR 2022 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey: Initial results. College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. https://www.cupahr.org/surveys/research-briefs/higher-ed-employee-retention-survey-findings-july-2022
Hemphill, E. B. (2022, December 6). Uncomfortable (but necessary) conversations about burnout. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/406232/uncomfortable-necessary-conversations-burnout.aspx
Giurge, L. M., & Bohns, V. K. (2021). You don’t need to answer right away! Receivers overestimate how quickly senders expect responses to non-urgent work emails. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 167, 114–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2021.08.002
Serrat, O. (2017). Managing by walking around. In Knowledge solutions (pp. 321–324). Springer.
Taylor, M, Sanchez, C., Chessman, H., Ramos, A. M. (2021, May 20). College and university presidents respond to COVID-19: 2021 spring term survey, part II. American Council on Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Research-Insights/Pages/Senior-Leaders/Presidents-Respond-COVID-Spring-II.aspx
World Health Organization. (2019, May 28). Burnout an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
Vicki Bautista, EdD, NBC-HWC, is an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine in the School of Medicine at Creighton University. Prior to working at Creighton, she was employed in a variety of health promotion settings, including nonprofit, medical, government, and research.
Gretchen Oltman, JD, PhD, is an associate professor at Creighton University. Dr. Oltman is a teacher, attorney, and author with over 25 years working in the field of education. Her work focuses on the practical application of scholarship to real-life settings.