School is back in session, and many are back to a little bit of normalcy after the Covid-19 pandemic propelled higher education institutions into uncharted territory with abrupt shutdowns and the challenges of online learning and instruction. Nonetheless, there has been an increased push to establish mental health support programs and services to help students deal with the lingering stress, depression and anxiety related to the feelings of isolation and uncertainties about the pandemic and what lies ahead.
With mental health problems being reported in this demographic at an all-time high, it’s no surprise that university leaders are focused on making the well-being of their students a priority. But the impact the past year has had on faculty and staff should also be examined – not only for their overall health, but also for the health of the institution.
It goes without saying that educators were faced with one of the greatest challenges of their careers in March 2019, not only with their teaching responsibilities but also in dealing with the emotional toll the shutdown took on their students – while also trying to manage the stress of their own personal struggles. In study by the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than two-thirds of faculty members said they felt “extremely” or “very stressed” over the past month, compared to only about one third at the end of 2019. (1). What should be very concerning to higher ed institutions is that more than half of all faculty are considering retiring or changing careers and leaving higher education, with tenured faculty members even more likely to retire than others. (2)
The impact of losing highly accredited professors will no doubt impact enrollment and retention rates that are already declining. So, what can be done about professor “burnout” before it becomes a larger problem at your facility?
The first step is understanding the exact pain points your staff is facing. Do they feel supported by the administration? Are they working too many hours and struggling with work/life balance? Do they feel that their extra efforts are not being recognized? Do they feel that enough precautions have been made for safe classrooms? You might think you know what these pain points are, but you don’t really know what’s troubling your staff until you simply ask.
We can help. Vennli will work with you to develop a custom research study that provides quick, actionable insights about overall staff satisfaction, what they are motivated by, where their priorities reside regarding their own well-being, what are some of their biggest struggles and more – broken out by department, length of employment, gender, and more. Once you have better insight, new strategies and programs can be developed to unburden educators and improve morale. You might be surprised by what could move the needle – sometimes it can be as simple as recognizing efforts and lending more support. Sometimes there is a very specific need which can be addressed.
For example, in Fall 2020 Barnard College recognized the time-consuming and technical challenges virtual learning was giving their staff so they developed a program in which students applied for work study positions to support faculty in the virtual classroom. Barnard also launched another work study program that connected students with faculty and staff with children K-12 to provide virtual tutoring and in-home learning support. Both programs addressed two major areas of stress and anxiety for the parents while also relieving some of the financial burden of their students.
Getting to the root of your faculty’s concerns and stress factors, rather than assuming you know, can guide the development of such programs that effectively support your staff. And as with all employee satisfaction research, follow up surveys should be done to measure the impact of any new initiatives.
By now, we’ve all seen data on how happy employees make for more productive employees, and this is no different when thinking about higher education. While little research has been done on the impact of teacher ‘burnout’ on student outcomes, a recent study (3) provided some evidence that teacher burnout is associated with worse academic achievement and lower quality student motivation. The study also noted the need to explore this topic more deeply and given the decreasing retention and persistence rates in higher education today, we believe that tackling educator ‘burnout’ in a meaningful way could be a way to help combat this decline.
- https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-pandemic-is-dragging-on-professors-are-burning-out , Nov 2020.
- “On the Verge of Burnout: COVID-19’s impact on faculty wellbeing and career plans”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct 2020.
- International Journal of Educational Research, 2021, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0883035520318206.