Professors say faculty burnout is always a real threat, but especially now, and that institutions should act before it’s too late.
September 14, 2020
As a frequent commentator on all things higher ed, Kevin McClure likes his predictions to be right. But in the case of a recent article he wrote about the growing threat of faculty burnout, he wanted to be wrong.
“Basically what I heard over and over again was people saying, ‘That’s me. This is how I feel. This gives words to the way that I’m feeling walking into fall semester,’” McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said about feedback he received. “So it’s a situation where many people confirmed my argument that there will be a wave of burnout -- but it does increase my level of concern.”
Others are sounding the alarm about faculty burnout, too. It's always a risk in academe, they say, but now more than ever.
"Faculty burnout -- exacerbated by pandemic-related stressors, absent childcare and school, and unrelenting or even accelerating work expectations from colleagues -- poses real and serious risk for mental health challenges of unprecedented scope," said June Gruber, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Gruber co-wrote a column for Science last month saying that academe needs a "reality check" regarding expectations for faculty this semester.
"To be absolutely clear: This. Is. Not. Normal," Gruber and her colleagues wrote. Elsewhere, Gruber has described flattening the "mental health curve" as the "next big coronavirus challenge."
Lisa Jaremka, assistant professor of social-health psychology at the University of Delaware, and co-author of a recent paper on "common academic experiences no one talks about" -- including burnout -- also said that the main consequences of burnout include mental health issues. Disillusionment with work is another danger.
Jaremka experienced burnout as a graduate student and again as an assistant professor, but she said last week that "I would absolutely expect that burnout is worse during the pandemic, particularly for women with school-aged children."
What Is Burnout?
In his recent EdSurge piece, McClure said he was at such a low point at the end of the spring semester -- drowning in Zoom meetings, grading, advising and 24-7 daddy duty -- that he asked some colleagues if they really needed to find a way to recognize their graduating master’s students.
“My immediate response was: ‘Do we have to?’” McClure wrote. “It was uncharacteristic enough for another colleague to say they were worried about me.”
According to the World Health Organization, which includes the occupational phenomenon in its International Classification of Diseases, burnout is a "syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." The primary symptoms are feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental "distance" from or cynicism and negativity toward one's job, and reduced professional efficacy.
While burnout is sometimes used loosely -- think "Zoom burnout" or "pandemic burnout" -- the WHO says that burnout "refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Christina Maslach, professor of psychology emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, who developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory, said that there is a "widespread tendency to add the word 'burnout' to all kinds of topics." Yet it's "not at all clear that the word means the same thing in all of these instances. In some cases, burnout is being used to mean exhaustion, but burnout is actually much more than that."
Jaremka and others describe burnout as feeling "at the end of one's rope." Recalling her first experience with burnout, when she was trying to finish her dissertation, Jaremka wrote that her "to-do list was getting longer each day rather than shorter. I started an unhealthy sleeping pattern in an effort to catch up; I would nap from about 9 to 11 p.m., get back up to work from about 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., and then sleep again from about 3 to 8 a.m."
The lack of sleep only made her feel more overwhelmed and burned out, making for a cycle of reduced productivity. "I was so fatigued that I worked inefficiently and made needless mistakes along the way, often spending more time on a task than I would have in a non-burned-out state," Jaremka wrote. "Being a first-generation college student, I also felt an intense pressure to succeed, which further fueled the imbalance I was experiencing between work and the rest of my life."
Jaremka had a reprieve as a postdoctoral fellow, where her supervisor encouraged working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and general work-life balance. But burnout happened again during her assistant professorship, when the demands of working toward tenure left her little to no space to deal with the deaths of several family members and infertility.
Much of the research on burnout involves the medical field. But Maslach said burnout can occur "in all kinds of occupations, professors included." One pre-pandemic study of faculty members from Brazil, for instance, found that more than one-third suffered from burnout, that women were more exhausted than men, that burnout was negatively associated with quality of life and that burnout rates did not seem to vary with field of study.
Not an Individual Problem
Both Jaremka and McClure are in a better place now, for now. Jaremka's paper highlights some individual-level coping skills for burnout: know you’re not alone but don’t compare yourself to others, recognize that more work doesn’t always equal enhanced productivity, have space to recharge away from work (harder during a pandemic) and identify “what your burnout is telling you.”
McClure is trying to practice the art of saying no to more tasks, more frequently. He’s also re-acquired care for his young children, a big help. But he and others agree that navigating and surviving burnout territory shouldn’t be up to individual faculty members and that institutions need to step in.
“It’s literally not possible for people to complete this amount of work in a 24-hour day,” McClure said of faculty responsibilities right now, especially for those professors caring for others stuck at home. “And so we have to actively figure out how to cut things out that we would normally have to do.”
Gruber's "reality check" column recommends three principles for individuals and institutions: acknowledge that things are not normal, respect childcare and other personal needs, and triage what work is "essential and reasonable."
"Expecting the same output as in previous years, even though many people have less time and more stress than ever, is not a sustainable or humane solution," Gruber and her colleagues wrote. "The world is not normal -- so the way we do science cannot be normal either."
Beyond individual interventions, Jaremka's article includes a series of cultural and structural recommendations for institutions to reduce burnout, such as not setting “toxic” expectations, encouraging and modeling work-life balance, valuing quality work over quantity, and understanding the current limited research-funding environment. Bertram Gawronski, one of Jaremka's co-authors and a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote that burnout is very much about people feeling like they have no "control over their outcomes." This is not the same as simply having too much work, he said.
A ‘Perfect Storm’
Amelia Nagoski, associate professor and coordinator of music at Western New England University and co-author of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, said the coronavirus pandemic is a “perfect storm for professor burnout,” as it presents many new stressors without taking any old stressors away. Professors are being asked to shift course content online to new platforms and learn new technologies, avoid getting sick, following changing health research and guidance, and deal with their children’s own distance learning.
There is also being “polite to co-workers who think everyone is overreacting, raging at the administration for making arbitrary decisions that affect you but don't make any sense to you,” and so on, she said. To that last point, Nagoski said “one of the greatest risks for burnout is institutional decisions that professors can't control. We are accustomed to being experts, in control, having answers, and knowing what to do. It's very stressful now to be in a position where your everyday life is turned upside down, and you feel completely out of control.”
Institutions can help by letting faculty members talk about their experiences and listening to what they need -- and then providing it in tangible ways, she said. “Starting every email with, ‘The health and safety of our campus family are our first priority’ [is] not soothing or helpful when you follow the words with actions that negatively impact your faculty.”
Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and a psychologist who studies the science of why people choke under pressure, said burnout is “something we all experienced from time to time, and really, it's the lack of motivation and feeling of struggle around whatever you need to do.”
One way people ward off burnout is turning to different “identities” when one part of life becomes overwhelming, Beilock said -- such as going for a run after a difficult day of teaching. That kind of “stepping away” is harder to achieve at the moment, she added, yet she advises her faculty members to try and do it.
“A lot of us are having to multitask all the time, and as humans, we’re not very good at that.”
From the Top
Beilock said that institutions asking their faculty members to do more must do more to support them. Barnard revised its curriculum this semester to better address issues related to COVID-19 and social justice and moved from a semester format to approximately eight-week units, which it believes are more conducive to online learning. All of that has required the faculty to innovate, and the institution’s teaching and learning, technology, and Center for Engaged Pedagogy staff members have been working hard to support them.
Barnard is also expanding its student-centered Feel Well, Do Well campaign for transparency and dialogue on mental health to college employees.
“Mental health is everyone’s responsibility,” and talking about it shouldn’t be limited to the counselor’s office, Beilock said.
McClure admitted that some of the biggest institutional interventions would also be some of the most expensive, such as offering course load reductions to faculty members who request them and hiring new instructors to pick up those classes. But institutions also could look long and hard at their course offerings and eliminate “redundancies,” to reduce the overall number of courses offered where possible, he said. They could also cut out nonessential meetings, so that professors aren’t making up for time lost to Zoom at night and on the weekends.
A major overhaul -- one that could last beyond the pandemic -- would be to change promotion and tenure criteria, McClure said, crediting Dominique Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, for the idea.
“What difference does it make if we say, ‘Instead of having 20 publications, you need to have 15’?” he said. “We have total control over what this looks like, and if we don’t want people to be burned out, why don’t we adjust our expectations a bit in light of what’s happening around us?”
An ‘Impossible’ Moment
Joya Misra, a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, called this moment “impossible” for academics.
How can institutions help? Recognize how much teaching and administrative workloads have increased and demonstrate flexibility in reviewing faculty accomplishments, Misra said. UMass, for instance, has delayed tenure clocks for assistant professors but promised “tenure bumps” -- paying them as if they had gone up for tenure on time, pre-pandemic, so that professors aren't punished financially for factors beyond their control. Misra’s dean also emphasized taking summer time off to recharge, she said.
UMass Amherst is accepting pandemic impact statements as part of the faculty review process, so professors who hope to be promoted can explain how their work has been affected, as well. The campus's ADVANCE: Organizational Change for Gender Equity in STEM Academic Professions office, which is affiliated with the National Science Foundation, also created a tool for professors to track how they’re spending their time.
Misra said tracking one’s workload may feel like more work and that “ideally, what we would be doing is hiring more faculty, rather than laying off faculty, providing more resources.” Many colleges and universities are of course in dire financial straits, particularly if they’ve lost revenue from room and board, she added.
“We desperately need the federal government to step in and ensure that higher education can continue supporting teaching, research and leadership.”
In response to McClure’s piece, some female academics have said they’ve been warning their administrations about burnout for a long time. Misra said her own research supports the idea that women -- who traditionally face a “second shift” of caring work when they get home from their workplace -- will feel burned out first, and hardest.
There is “no question in my mind that men are also experiencing burnout,” Misra said. “But I think it's important to recognize that as long as women are expected to do more of the care work -- both inside and outside of the workplace -- women will be experiencing higher levels of burnout.”
Nicholas H. Snow, Founding Endowed Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry, recently wrote an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed suggesting that professors take a “sabbatical” this fall for teaching, concentrating their professional energy on instruction over other duties.
Snow said in an interview that focusing on teaching, not research or other work, could help mitigate the risk of burnout.
“There are not enough hours in the day, week or semester to accomplish everything on our traditional plates both professionally and personally with the backdrop of the pandemic and other societal pressures,” he said. “So faculty should prioritize activities that benefit both themselves and their institutions the most.”
That includes teaching, especially undergraduates, Snow added. “It’s what so many of us came into higher education to do in the first place and the ideal on which most of our institutions were founded.”
For that kind of effort to work, however, Snow said that senior faculty members and administrators should let junior faculty members know, “‘We have your back,’ and then act on that ideal.” Teaching well in this new landscape “requires two or more times the effort by the faculty member as teaching a traditional lecture,” and professors should be evaluated that way.
Risks of Inaction
In a 2019 BuzzFeed article, journalist and former academic Anne Helen Peterson posited that burnout among millennials is so prevalent because of their precarity, financially and in other ways. This certainly applies to academe, where the supply of willing and capable professors vastly outweighs the demand, as measured by stable jobs that pay a living wage.
McClure agreed, saying, “I do think it’s the case that burnout has become normalized in academe partly because folks don’t feel like they have the freedom to go looking for other jobs.”
It does happen, though -- folks turning down jobs because they don’t see academic life in the U.S. as sustainable. Ross Vander Vorste, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, last month posted a letter to Twitter from someone who declined a job on his campus, citing “the way that the U.S. federal government is handling the COVID-19 pandemic, the troubled economy, the negative prospects for higher education, the continual changing rights of immigrants in the U.S.”
Psychologist Amy Summerville left a tenured position at a midsize public university last year for a research job at a research and development start-up -- what she's called going "full phoenix." She recently tweeted about her experiences, advising academics to "Say no. Ask for help. But remember, most of all, that protecting yourself is not selfish -- because your burnout serves no one."
Summerville, who studies the science of regret and how people imagine alternative possibilities to reality, told Inside Higher Ed that she was on sabbatical the year before she left academe. With “a lot of reflection about my career and my life as a whole,” she said she “realized I was unsustainably stressed and unhappy at work.”
Part of the problem was that she became a faculty member in fall 2008, during the financial crisis, “and it felt like the sky never stopped falling. I had a decade of hearing from administration that we had to do more with less, and at some point there just aren’t more notches to tighten on a belt.” She also felt it wasn't something she could “escape just by moving to another institution.”
COVID-19 only appears to have made financial pressures on universities “even more acute,” Summerville said, and many professors are being told to prepare courses for multiple modes of instruction, representing much more work. There are also unanswered questions about how scholarship will be evaluated for promotion and tenure going forward, and the ongoing childcare crisis.
“So I think that, when you look at the factors that cause burnout -- things like unmanageable workload, unclear expectations -- COVID is definitely making those things worse,” she said.
McClure said that allowing burnout to go unchecked is “wildly inconsistent” with higher education’s stated values. But there are more reasons to intervene, he said. That is, just as the risk of faculty burnout is real, so too are the risks of institutional inaction.
“What we want to be able to achieve in higher education, being able to meet the goals we set for ourselves becomes so much harder,” he said. “You want to enroll more students and graduate more students and start exciting academic programs and do cutting-edge research? Your ability to do all of those things, in my opinion, is much more probable if you’ve got conditions in place so that people can thrive.”
“If you’re running an organization that burns people to the ground, then I don’t think you can anticipate that your outcomes are going to be met.”