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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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