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By Sakshee Chawla
The mental health of employees has topped the list of college and university presidents’ short-term concerns about COVID-19, second only to the mental health of students. For years, higher ed leaders have rightly focused on improving mental health supports for their students. But a survey of faculty with mental health concerns found that nearly 70 percent had limited or no familiarity with the resources available to meet their mental health needs, and only 13 percent used them due to fear of stigma and professional risk.
Now, more than ever, faculty and staff need support in maintaining their own mental health and wellness as they personally cope with COVID-19 while also serving as first responders to students in distress.
Recognize the long-standing stigma surrounding mental health in academia
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, conversations about faculty mental health and wellbeing have largely been absent. But in reality, faculty and graduate students are more prone to developing mental health conditions than the general population and face high levels of anxiety, stress, and burnout. Concerns about job security, demanding workloads, and competitive academic environments create a culture that forces academics to be “tough skinned,” perpetuating the cycle of silence on mental illness.
Consider the disproportionate impact on vulnerable faculty and staff
Compounding the pervasive stigma and elevated stress that all employees are experiencing right now, vulnerable faculty groups and administrative staff may be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Higher ed leaders must be attentive to the policies and structures that can either exacerbate or alleviate the added stress placed on these faculty and staff members.
Typically, few adjunct faculty members receive health insurance and paid leave, and the extra hours required to adapt coursework for virtual instruction are often not reflected in their salaries.
Tenure track faculty may feel increased pressure to produce research without having access to university resources such as laboratories, libraries, and archives.
Disruptions in work-life routines can disproportionately affect female employees, as women tend to take on more household and childcare responsibilities than their male counterparts.
Academics of color often face higher expectations of “invisible labor.” This includes diversity and inclusion work as well as supporting students of color experiencing microaggressions or discrimination, which may intensify with COVID-19.
International faculty who are away from their home country may find themselves in precarious circumstances with visa restrictions and may experience increased xenophobia and racism.
Staff working in facilities, health services, residence life, and dining services may worry about personal safety, reduced hours, layoffs, or unpaid work as most jobs cannot be completed remotely.
Improve your system of mental health support for faculty and staff
Colleges and universities should focus on developing a “culture of access” that recognizes and supports the mental health needs of faculty and staff. This cultural shift orients the entire campus community around open dialogue, collective accountability, and cooperative action. In doing so, higher ed leaders can help make mental health and wellness a reality for their faculty and staff and reduce the stigma associated with seeking support during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
Use EAB’s COVID-19 Employee Mental Health Audit and Resource Guide to design, evaluate, and improve three key pillars of a culture of access at your institution:
- Build a communication strategy that is transparent, ongoing, and multi-channel to acknowledge the impacts of COVID-19 and alleviate anxiety and stress for faculty and staff
- Provide a variety of mental health and wellbeing supports for faculty and staff, including weekly wellness emails, social media blasts, and virtual support groups and events
- Adjust administrative polices including the tenure clock, performance evaluations, flex and leave time, and your Employee Assistant Program (EAP) to structurally support faculty and staff through COVID-19
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