Research, student grades, lesson planning—it’s easy for university faculty to overlook their own mental and physical health in favor of other endeavors. Perhaps because of this, instructors are twice as likely to experience mental health issues as the average population. Adding to this, 70 percent of higher education professors report high or very high levels of stress.1 The new teaching reality—one that’s swayed heavily towards online or hybrid forms of course delivery due to COVID-19—has only heightened instructors’ anxiety and stress levels: There is often little-to-no separation between work and home life, while hybrid or hyflex courses may seem like they require more preparation work than faculty expected. The boundaries between work and play have been blurred to the point where, often, home isn’t the only spot for delivering a lecture—it’s where grading, research, caretaking, cooking, living and more take place.
With online forms of course delivery becoming a staple of higher education, it’s important to ensure you’re prioritizing your mental health and physical wellbeing. Below, we share some tips on how to thrive—and not just survive—through this uncharted moment in higher ed, all of which can enhance faculty development.
1. Be selective in where you spend your time
For instructors, time management is just as—if not more—valuable than it was prior to COVID-19. In the current teach-from-home arrangement, it can be difficult to log off at an appropriate time, especially if emails and inquiries keep flowing in. Attempt to stick with set working hours to avoid grading and responding to emails late into the evening. It’s important to be a support system for students, but protecting your personal time and your mental health should be of equal importance.
Schedules can help you keep track of where your time is allocated—and can help highlight if you’ve stretched yourself too thin. Consider tailoring your schedule based on your familial or social circumstances as well. At the start of the week, or each night, you may wish to create a concrete schedule of how many hours you’ll spend on curriculum development, grading, responding to students and other faculty-related responsibilities. When strictly followed, schedules provide stability, lead to a more predictable day and, ultimately, optimize your workload for a healthy work-life balance.
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Being selective in how you spend your time doesn’t mean communication with students has to suffer. Virtual office hours can easily be incorporated in your schedule and provides balance for both you and your students. These pre-arranged meetings can help students be mindful of your time, encouraging them to take advantage of these hours to contact you. Without face-to-face classes, instructors have attempted to strengthen feedback loops by being available to answer students’ questions—even outside of working hours. However, it’s equally important to build time into your day to step away from your screen to reduce emotional exhaustion. It’s okay to take care of your students, but the first step is taking care of your own wellbeing—and that shouldn’t warrant guilt.
2. Consider impact versus effort when adding items to your to-do list
Working in higher education comes with a multitude of responsibilities. Aside from delivering lectures or hosting class meetings, many faculty members conduct research, sit on panels or committees, manage TAs and act as a support system for potentially hundreds of students. Closely examine your responsibilities to determine the impact that your actions will have and, more importantly, the required effort on your part. Have you encountered a task or position that will have little impact on students or your school in the long-run but requires a significant amount of effort? Chances are you may want to re-evaluate whether you want to be involved. Especially during the current teaching setup, it’s easy to think that taking on more responsibilities and sitting on more committees will make you feel more connected to your school. In the moment, it can be disguised as a wonderful opportunity, but in the long-run, feelings of emotional exhaustion can accumulate.
Finding ways to save time in your recurring weekly responsibilities can help eliminate faculty burnout. Clutter-free course design allows you to stay on top of what matters most and may even reduce the number of inquiries you receive from students asking where to find instructional materials. Top Hat houses everything under one roof, reducing the number of hours spent organizing and creating course content. Introductory course solutions for popular first-year classes such as psychology and economics come with interactive textbooks, a detailed question test bank, weekly insights on student performance and more. Top Hat’s pre-designed assessment materials are especially helpful in today’s teaching environment, where it’s easy to overwork yourself. Save time when creating materials and better understand how students perform before, during and after class—a win-win scenario for both of you.
3. Remember to practice self-compassion and empathy
Empathy towards students is a crucial piece to the instructional design process, more so now because the number of hours spent face-to-face with one another has been reduced. The flip side to this equation is ensuring you’re being empathetic towards yourself, which can improve your own mental wellbeing. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, finds that those who practice self-compassion experience fewer negative emotions and avoid emotional exhaustion in challenging situations. With university faculty facing greater levels of burnout than the average person, it’s key to practice emotional self-care.
Early signs of burnout and overwork include feeling guilty about not checking everything off your to-do list. Unlike academic positions and responsibilities, your mental and physical wellbeing can’t be restored through an application or interview. Avoiding faculty burnout means giving yourself enough space away from your work to focus on yourself and any interests beyond higher education. Doing so will help you rejuvenate and provide you with a chance to improve your work-life balance—allowing you to focus on hobbies and recreational activities. Space away from your teaching responsibilities can also help remind you why the work you do is important and can help you feel refreshed and recharged.
- Holly, E. (2018, July). Burnout in academia. https://www.apadivisions.org/division-28/publications/newsletters/psychopharmacology/2018/07/burnout-academia