What I Learned about Faculty from 15 Burnout Workshops
As I’ve written elsewhere in this newsletter, burnout is a serious problem in higher education—not only for faculty but also for students and staff. Defined by the World Health Organization as a “syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” burnout manifests as exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy and can lead to mental, physical, and emotional health problems in the long term. And while burnout dramatically affects the individuals experiencing it and those they work with, its origins are cultural, in terms of both Western capitalist culture and the culture of our workplaces, which prioritize productivity over all else.
Since releasing my book Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal last September, I’ve conducted nearly 20 workshops on faculty burnout with institutions of all types and sizes, each with their own unique institutional culture but sharing many of the same struggles with faculty burnout and overwhelm (the word many of my attendees use to describe their experience). Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout continues to trend at our institutions of higher education, and I’m in a unique position to see trends across the sector. For example, faculty describe burnout as a common experience but one that is not shared, leaving people to suffer alone, often worried for their health and their careers.
In this article, I identify three trends I’m seeing across the institutions I’ve worked with, trends that leaders need to know about as we move into a new academic year.
Trend 1: Overwhelm leading to exhaustion
Many faculty say that burnout is status quo in academia, with publishing requirements, grant cycles, budget cuts, administrative turnover, and political tension causing stress and worry. But while faculty report that experiencing burnout and being overwhelmed were features of faculty life before Covid hit, the pandemic amplified the stress, and many say the workplace stress never evened out. They are experiencing levels of overwhelm that can lead to exhaustion, decision paralysis, and cynicism because they see no hope of the workload getting better in the future. Between students, research, and ever-mounting service requirements, faculty feel pulled in a million different directions, unable to engage in deep work because they are too busy taking small steps forward on countless fronts to dig deep into certain priorities. Saying no to a request often feels futile because someone still needs to get the work done, and with declining support for administrative positions, faculty do far more logistical and administrative work that they did historically.
Faculty say that they see burnout everywhere, including among staff and students, and that it can be contagious, leading to widespread cynicism and resentment.
Trend 2: Students experience and amplify burnout
Perhaps unsurprisingly, students dramatically impact faculty burnout levels. For many faculty, students are the reason they do what they do and, they find purpose and direction in their work with students. But faculty also report that students seem less prepared, more anxious, and less self-directed since the pandemic began. The additional hand-holding that students need takes many forms, all of which add time and stress for faculty who want to meet students where they are but are overwhelmed by the number of requests and needs. Faculty see institutions paying attention to student mental health through increased well-being resources and staff while hearing continued calls to be flexible and supportive. Many faculty appreciate the focus on student mental health and well-being but feel left out of that concern, having few resources they can tap to take care of themselves in the face of the additional stress of working with today’s students.
Trend 3: Craving engagement but protecting time
The third trend I’m seeing relates to faculty engagement. Faculty tell me that they still feel the loss of a sense of community on their campuses initially caused by the pandemic and move to remote work. Even though operations on most campuses have returned to “normal,” the feel of comradery, shared purpose, and shared commitment to the work of the institution has not always rebounded. Faculty report a lack of engagement and interaction as people continue to spend more time off campus than they did prior to the pandemic. Some faculty question the reasons for this—Is it disengagement? laziness? reduced interest in recreating lost community? Or is it more about lessons the pandemic has taught about self-care and protecting your mental health and well-being? Faculty seem to be more tuned into their own mental health needs and may be more protective of their time and efforts now. But self-protection can look like disengagement or lack of interest in community. Some faculty are frustrated with their peers, saying people craving connection have to put in the effort to make it happen, while others tell me it’s difficult to reengage when you feel overwhelmed, burned out, and unappreciated by students, peers, and administration.
So, what now?
One other thing I’m hearing loud and clear from faculty is that messaging, attention, recognition, and action from administration matters in the face of these three trends. Here are some suggestions as you work with faculty to address overwhelm, stress from students, and (dis)engagement:
- Train department chairs, associate deans, and faculty representatives to have compassionate conversations with faculty who might be struggling. To do so, they need to be able to identify the signs of burnout and overwhelm as well as have some professional development around emotional intelligence, crucial conversations, and empathy.
- Show respect and recognition to faculty for the stressful work of the last three years, and work with faculty governance to assess what reasonable workloads are and how to arrive at them. Faculty want to know that leadership notices and appreciates their hard work by leadership but also that there is a light at the end of the tunnel of overwhelm. Work with faculty to develop creative workload solutions, limit “sludge” in your processes, and create avenues for rest and rejuvenation.
- Create opportunities for faculty to discuss their well-being and stress management needs and how the institution can help them meet those needs. Holding “well-being day” is one thing, but what are the longer-term needs that the institution can address through training, coaching, and culture change?
- Work with faculty to develop new norms for engagement and community on campus. Resurrect programs that have worked in the past or are tied to campus traditions. Imagine new ways faculty can connect with each other, leadership, and students through the values and the mission of the institution. Leverage a mix of in-person and virtual opportunities to meet people where they are.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark, PhD, is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. She is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Research, Service, and Teaching (Chicago, 2017) and Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins, 2022).