Burnout Is Coming to Campus. Are College Leaders Ready?

column | Higher Education

Burnout Is Coming to Campus. Are College Leaders Ready?

By Kevin R. McClure (Columnist)     Aug 14, 2020

Burnout Is Coming to Campus. Are College Leaders Ready?

In May, after weeks of juggling child care and full-time work while in quarantine, I hit a physical and emotional wall. I was tired—tired in a way a nap couldn’t fix (though I would have gladly accepted one if you had offered it). At the end of a particularly long day, I remember a Zoom meeting in which a colleague suggested that we find a way to recognize our graduating master’s students. My immediate response was: “Do we have to?” It was uncharacteristic enough for another colleague to say they were worried about me.

I knew in that moment that I was burned out. I had little energy for anything beyond what was required to make it through the day. Like a car with just enough gas to make it to the next gas station, any detour or extra stop sent my hazard lights flashing. Yet idling or stopping didn’t feel like realistic options, either. There were papers to grade, deadlines to meet, students to advise, and diapers to change. So, I found a new gear and kept on moving.

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Since then, I’ve been hypersensitive to burnout—in myself and in others. I’ve tweeted about it regularly, asking what the effects will be of a months-long mix of constant work and worry when fall semester begins. Judging by the responses I’ve received and articles I’ve read on the experiences of staff, faculty and graduate students, many people in higher education are running on fumes and don’t feel ready.

“Burnout this fall is going to be on 100,” noted Ana Rosado, a doctoral candidate in history at Northwestern University, in a tweet that’s been liked over 8,000 times. In response, Jessica Calarco, a sociologist and professor at Indiana University, tweeted it feels like she’s “already in week 11 of a 15-week semester.” Despite the efforts of college leaders to push ahead with something approximating a normal fall term, the truth is that many of us don’t feel normal.

It’s not a question of whether higher education institutions will see a significant uptick in burnout among staff, faculty and graduate students this fall. The more important question is how college leaders will address it.

Burnout 101

To better understand burnout, I spoke with Anne Helen Petersen, a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed and former academic. She wrote a viral piece on the subject that she expanded into a much-anticipated book, “Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” Petersen explained that burnout is “when you get to a feeling of exhaustion with life. It’s not just physical or psychological exhaustion, it’s everything together. But instead of collapsing and saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ you hit the wall and climb over it.” A key part of burnout is continuing to work—perhaps even pushing harder—when you are exhausted.

Burnout is associated with a range of other problems for individuals and organizations, including less creativity, more anxiety and insomnia, more interpersonal conflict, lower job performance, more unexpected resignations, and more sick leave. All side effects colleges would like to avoid as they enter one of the hardest semesters in recent memory.

Petersen identified several reasons why burnout has become so prevalent, chief among them our destructive relationship to work within the “particular iteration of capitalism that we’re in right now.” Also to blame is the rise of temp jobs, freelance work and contract positions that grant workers little or no connection to a larger employer. These arrangements often leave people with lower wages and benefits, fewer opportunities for advancement and reduced safety protections.

This trend is evident in higher education with the growing reliance on contingent faculty, many of whom struggle with food and housing insecurity and limited health coverage. Indeed, people in outsourced jobs at colleges were some of the first to be laid off when the pandemic hit and campuses closed.

According to Petersen, “part of the reason that people work all the time is that they’re terrified of what would happen if they didn’t. And what they’re terrified of is precarity—not having any sort of backstop or any sort of safety net.”

Add to that this summer’s inescapable trauma from COVID-19 illnesses and deaths, a ceaseless news cycle, and racist violence. Even if people could afford a vacation, where would they go and what would be waiting when they return?

How Burnout Takes Shape in Higher Education

Are academics especially prone to burnout? When I asked Petersen, she laughed and explained academia has every ingredient necessary: crushing student loan debt, poor job prospects, and a culture of treating teaching and research as passions to pursue at any cost.

The pandemic has introduced unique challenges for faculty and staff in higher education that may make burnout even likelier to occur. They are mourning the disruption of the rhythms and rituals that structure and give meaning to academic work. Summer is normally a time of restoration for faculty and staff, and many believed that if they could just finish spring semester, they would have a chance to recover, said Renee Cramer, chair of the Law, Politics, and Society Department at Drake University, who has been researching ethics and the academic workforce as part of a three-year project. But “there’s been no recovery,” she added. Cramer reports seeing a much higher level of burnout, and the result is that faculty “are walking into the classroom, wherever that is, in three weeks already exhausted.”

One student affairs administrator I spoke to explained that this has been the busiest summer in her 11 years at her small public university. She said she tried to take her usual week off this summer but was pulled into a meeting every day of her vacation. The administrator, who asked not to be named out of concern about portraying her institution negatively, feels burned out by trying to retool practices and plans that she knows may not actually happen. Working hard with little control and frequent conflicts over values with leaders can cause demoralization, a close cousin of burnout.

“The most exhausting part of the work,” the administrator said, “is I feel like I’m putting in all this effort without really knowing if it’s worth it.”

Burnout has, in some ways, become normalized in higher education and it may be easy for college leaders to underestimate its effects. These are, as we’ve been told ad nauseum, “unprecedented times” and people are bound to be tired. But ignoring burnout among staff and faculty would be a serious miscalculation. It’s true that some faculty can’t easily switch jobs, but there’s still the potential that an institution may lose talent by failing to address burnout. The student affairs administrator I interviewed said she worried about people leaving the field once conditions settle, especially people in entry-level jobs with high turnover.

I suspect that the most likely scenario is that people will continue to work while burned out, perhaps putting their health and job performance at risk.

The good news is that many college leaders are concerned about mental health. In the latest American Council on Education survey, college presidents ranked the mental health of students and of faculty and staff among their top five most pressing concerns. Translating that concern into action will be critical for institutions as they head into one of the hardest years in recent memory.

Making the Academic Workplace More Humane

Many of the drivers of burnout are systemic and difficult for any given college leader to fix. Some leaders will fall back on webinars and task forces to look into these problems. But a webinar is not a solution, and I believe strongly you shouldn’t ask people who tell you they are burned out to take on additional work by serving on a task force.

Here are some concrete steps that leaders can take that will make a real difference in people’s lives this fall and beyond.

Break the Silence and Stigma Around Burnout

First, leaders should talk openly about burnout with the people they manage and their broader constituents. They should create a safe space to talk about exhaustion and expectations in the coming year. Get rid of references to “world-class” and “top-ranked” and instead convey what “good enough” looks like for the work being attempted.

These discussions could include leaders sharing their own struggles with burnout. After all, they’re human, too, and most have been working non-stop. It’s a fallacy that leaders have to perpetually put up a strong front. In fact, I would argue that overly confident positions and messaging have created more problems than they’ve solved this summer. In “Dare to Lead,” social work professor Brené Brown writes that leaders don’t need to go overboard disclosing personal details in order to be vulnerable. They can share their experiences within clear boundaries to create meaningful connections and build trust.

Simplify and Reduce Work Whenever Possible

Second, leaders should proactively think of ways to simplify job tasks and temporarily suspend activities and projects that aren’t essential. Leaders should recognize that people’s plates are overflowing this fall. If a leader puts something on a staff or faculty member’s plate, the next question should be what they can take off.

The goal for this year should be to minimize harm and do the most to contribute to individual and community wellbeing. Anything that doesn’t achieve these aims should be on the chopping block. As Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, has advised multiple times: This is a perfect opportunity to critically examine traditions and reflect on what matters most. We don’t need to cling to established ways of doing things if they push people to the limit or put them at risk.

Evaluate and Improve Work Conditions

Third, leaders should advocate for improved work conditions and push back against policies and practices that undermine job security and mental health. This includes protecting compensation and benefits and extending contracts for contingent and contractual workers as much as possible.

Improving work conditions also means adjusting job performance evaluations to reflect the moment. Extending the tenure clock for faculty can be helpful and reduce stress, but if pay and job security in a turbulent time are tied to promotion, there’s an incentive for faculty to keep pushing. In a conversation about tenure criteria, Dominique Baker, an assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, recommended that institutions “evaluate their idea of a tenurable candidate and use the flexibility already built into their review processes to adjust for the pandemic.” Leaders should ease job performance expectations to let people know that this year isn’t about breaking records, being exceptional, or meeting tenure criteria that were set in very different times. It’s about surviving and caring for one another.

Embrace Flexibility

Fourth, leaders should create flexibility for parents and caregivers. Make it easier for people to complete their responsibilities outside of business hours and minimize meetings. Give people permission to take a break and step away—don’t assume people know this is an option, but rather state it publicly and repeatedly. Flexibility also means figuring out what people’s needs are. Cramer at Drake University says she asks faculty what their minimum requirements are to thrive, and she encourages everyone in higher education to think about what their response would be. Some universities even have individualized work plans for faculty that respond to people’s unique needs and strengths, rather than across-the-board teaching loads.

Implementing these steps may be overwhelming, but change doesn’t have to happen overnight. And leaders don’t have to do it all alone. Make improving mental health a campus-wide initiative, recommends Hollie Chessman, associate director for research at the American Council on Education who specializes in student mental health and wellbeing, instead of relegating it to over-burdened campus counseling centers.

Colleges are only as strong as the people who constitute them. Make no mistake, staff, students, and faculty this fall are coming to campus—whether literally or virtually—feeling tired. College leaders can mitigate the worst effects of burnout by taking action to increase job security, dial back expectations, and create cultures that treat workers like the indispensable resource they are.

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