As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge higher education, more than half of faculty are now experiencing symptoms associated with workplace burnout, according to a recent Course Hero survey. Specifically, 53 percent reported a significant increase in emotional drain and 52 percent reported work-related stress or frustration.
The study interviewed 570 full- and part-time faculty at two- and four-year colleges. The largest percentage of significant stress, 74 percent, was attributed to transitioning to online teaching. And nearly two-thirds of faculty said that they are experiencing significant stress from trying to meet the emotional and mental health needs of their students.
“Teaching very stressed students, dealing with technology and coping with the impact of the pandemic on our own lives is definitely causing stress among the faculty I engage with,” said Mary McNaughton-Cassill, PhD, is a professor at University of Texas, San Antonio, and a clinical psychologist who studies stress and coping. “Common topics include worry about teaching and conducting research effectively in the new landscape, online exhaustion, and compassion fatigue related to constant exposure to other people’s sadness and trauma.”
And the stress among faculty has been increasing since the summer, back up to the levels experienced at the onset of COVID last March. In fact, one in four faculty said their stress levels are highest now than any other time in the last 10 months.
Most of these faculty see this change in academia as a permanent one. In fact, 75 percent said changes in class size and teaching modality will make it harder to deliver high-quality teaching, according to the survey.
In addition, as many as 40 percent of faculty said they have considered leaving their position because of COVID’s impact. And the decision to leave may not be a personal one, as one in four faculty are concerned that their institution or department may permanently close and 60 percent expect institutions will cut academic programs or courses of study.
On an even broader scale, the biggest fear among faculty is that someday students may start to demand an evidence-based, top-of-the-line education, according to Ben Wiggins, manager of instruction at UW Biology. “The generational break in the norm of how college is done could bring that about, and if students were to start voting with their feet towards active, creative education, then it would shake up the hierarchy of higher ed beyond what we’ve seen in our professional lifetimes,” he said.
How can administrators help?
More than half of faculty reported significant stress from frustration with the decisions of the administration and 57% from personal matters such as childcare or financial concerns.
The surveyed faculty had four suggestions for their superiors to help improve job satisfaction:
- Increased compensation (53%)
- Modification to teaching schedule or load (46%)
- New or better technology (34%)
- Increased staff/teaching assistant support (26%)
These survey results are very much in line with what Gaye Theresa Johnson, Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano studies and African American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, is hearing from her colleagues at other institutions.
“I believe that my institution, which is an R1—and has a much higher level of resources and pay than many other colleges and universities—has been able to meet the pandemic in ways that state universities, for example, cannot,” she said.
Beyond resources, it seems faculty feels abandoned by administrators as only 15 percent agreed that the administration understands their difficulty in managing workloads and half feel a decrease in appreciation by the institution.
“My own fear is that we will lose staff, and that we will have less money available for the important programming that serves an important role in community-building and retention of non-traditional students,” Johnson said. “As we watch many of our non-traditional students struggle, we are all afraid of the toll this takes on them, and relatedly our stamina to support them.”
Wiggins’ idea to ease the burden on students includes creating a relaxed atmosphere during instruction time. “It’s [class] a pause on life problems for a student and a chance to let that student flex their mental muscles and feel in control. Making more pretty good days of class, instead of unsustainably striving for a fewer perfect days, might be the most helpful thing they can do.”
Plus, he stresses the need for administrators to encourage and motivate professors individually.
“If we can’t motivate our talent, then we are going to lose it to retirements, non-teaching careers, and any of the other great opportunities that faculty had before they signed their life over to academia,” Wiggins said. “If you’re a chair wondering how to help your department and you haven’t had a personal conversation with each instructor telling them how much you appreciate their teaching efforts, then there is a lot of good left that you can do without ever leaving your Zoom station.”
Still, McNaughton-Cassill reminds faculty that there have been positive changes in higher education to come out of the pandemic.
First, working online has made everyone more aware of the importance of human interactions.
“Students are concerned about having enough contact with faculty, faculty find it hard to lecture to a zoom screen filled with blank squares, and we all miss the spontaneous interactions that happen in person,” she said.
Second, she stresses framing this challenge as a chance for opportunities.
“The pandemic has been extremely stressful, but it has also forced us to rethink our habitual routines and assumptions. Rather than returning to ‘normal’ after the pandemic, let us focus on improving our educational practices and making our campuses more supportive places in the future.”