When your phone displays a low battery pop-up, or your gas light appears on your car dashboard, you know there’s not a lot left in the tank to keep things running. We’re quick to act on these signals in both scenarios. But how often do we treat ourselves the same way—especially those of us on the front lines of academia? The truth is, many educators are burning out having to juggle research, teaching, grading, and home responsibilities in such a volatile time for higher ed.
Having spent the last 25 years in academia, I have seen extraordinary concern and increasing investment on student wellbeing. It is time for institutions to bring that same level of concern and urgency to faculty wellbeing and take meaningful steps to help educators manage the stress that comes with teaching today. If we fail to do so, we’ll see more faculty leaving higher ed while colleges will keep struggling to recruit and retain the necessary talent to motivate, mentor and educate our students. Here’s how institutional leaders can curb academic burnout.
The factors behind teacher burnout
The bar has been raised for faculty looking to achieve academic success. Grants are much more difficult to secure. Students are bringing more complex challenges to the classroom, including their own struggles with mental health and disengagement. As universities make difficult decisions to maintain financial stability, more responsibility falls on fewer faculty and staff. And, most profoundly, the very role and identity of being a faculty member is undergoing a transformation not unlike that experienced by journalists during the rise of the Internet. As a result, faculty may feel even more pressure to burn the midnight oil to prove their worth, achieve their own career goals, and move along the promotion and tenure path. With all of these factors in mind, it’s not surprising that academic burnout is on the rise.
There’s an expectation to address student mental health as soon as welcome week kicks off. It’s exactly what I saw during my time at Ohio University, and at the universities I have worked at throughout my career. Of course, wellness programs directed at faculty and staff are standard, as much a strategy to control health care costs for the institution and promote productivity as for a genuine concern to live up to community values and a culture of care. However, the focus of such programs tends to be on diet and exercise. There is nothing for faculty that comes close to the amount of attention and investment made in student mental health.
Recently released survey data offers some surprising confirmation regarding the current crisis. While only 35 percent of college and university provosts and Chief Academic Officers agree that their institution has formal plans to address faculty mental health, 65 percent claim to be very aware of how faculty are faring.1 The lack of institution-specific data regarding faculty mental health and burnout, and the fact that maintaining operations the past couple years was all consuming, may help to explain why mobilization efforts among leaders are lagging behind rapidly increasing need.
A great deal of data exists on the state of student mental wellbeing. It’s clear that services have evolved over years to better support students. This includes investments in professional resources for learners, development programs to raise awareness and understand the role faculty play in student mental health, and creation of policies to include basic needs statements on course syllabi. But that same level of data and mobilization of resources doesn’t exist to address faculty mental health. What can be done in the near term to better support educators?
The low cost and high value of building and sustaining community
It can be challenging to realize that you’re on an unsustainable path. That especially holds true for early-career faculty trying to work their way up the academic ladder. The challenges go even deeper for the growing number of non-tenure track faculty. Programming designed to build and sustain relationships across disciplinary boundaries can be a cost effective way to help. Having a close confidant, a mentor, or a caring colleague who can support educators to step away from their work for an evening or weekend, and most importantly, to recognize burnout symptoms and strongly encourage their colleague to seek professional help, can have a significant impact on faculty performance and satisfaction.
Faculty learning communities have a strong record of positive impact on the individuals who participate and on the universities that invest in them. Particularly as we emerge tentatively from pandemic isolation, investment in community building among faculty is money and time well spent. University leaders should also take a close look at their institutional investment in technologies and support strategies that empower faculty to create more sustainable and rewarding teaching practices.
Use ed tech to reduce the stress on the hardest parts of teaching
Teaching, so often cited as an energizing and rewarding part of faculty life, has become another stressor. Implementing a new platform can be scary, and it undeniably requires time and effort. The first time I taught with technology, I desperately hoped it wouldn’t fail, and that my students would respond favorably. But when effective, educational technology can help reduce some of the least rewarding labor that comes with teaching, especially welcome when it applies to assessing student learning. Ultimately, if the barrier to entry for faculty is low, and if there is technical and instructional design support, then there’s a real opportunity for ed tech to energize any course. It can also help reduce the administrative burden placed on educators while at the same time enhance the student and faculty experience and improve equitable learning outcomes in the course.
Here’s just one example. Joshua Osbourn, Associate Professor of Chemistry at West Virginia University, uses Top Hat’s capability to deliver frequent, low-stakes assessments to increase student engagement, provide regular feedback, and reduce his time grading exams. Ultimately, Osbourn uses Top Hat as a sustainable solution to reduce his administrative workload and that enables him to make more space for mutually rewarding student interactions. Whether through automated assessments, dynamic content, or community building in person and online, leveraging easy to use technology can help faculty create more sustainable teaching practices that are also more rewarding for them and for their students. Bringing more joy into teaching and learning may just be the best prescription for burnout.
- Jaschik, S. (2022, May 11). Provosts Stand Firm in Annual Survey. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/survey/provosts-stand-firm-annual-survey