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Faculty Burnout is Real and Cannot be Wished Away

Episode 130

December 6, 2022 24 minutes


EAB’s Jada Harris and Katie Herrmann discuss the key drivers leading to faculty burnout, all of which stem from a weak workplace culture, not employee shortcomings. The two offer strategies for training deans and department chairs to be more effective at managing the issue.

They also share novel approaches being used by a couple of forward-thinking institutions to foster a more supportive working environment.



0:00:10.4 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we dig into the issue of faculty burnout, the problem is real, and a Starbucks gift card with a pat on the back isn’t going to solve things. Our guest will put some context around the extent of the problem, and offer strategies on ways to create a work culture that prioritizes well being, give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:41.9 Jada Harris: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Jada Harris and I’m a research analyst in EAB’s Research Division. This is my first time on the podcast and I’m excited to be joined today by my colleague, Katy Herrmann, to talk about the issue of faculty burnout. Katy, would you mind telling us about what you do at EAB?

0:01:01.3 Katy Herrmann: Happy to. Thanks Jada. I am a Senior Research Analyst at EAB, specializing in mental health and well-being, and for the past six months, I’ve been working on best practice research on helping academic leaders understand faculty burnout, and how they can play a critical role in combating it by creating a culture that prioritizes well-being.

0:01:26.1 JH: Katy, why don’t we start by providing some context around the extent of the problem, as well as some of the key drivers to help our listeners understand how this problem is impacting the ability of institutions to fulfill their mission-critical goals. To start, how are we defining and measuring faculty burnout and how do we know it’s a problem?

0:01:47.3 KH: Absolutely. I know that burnout and faculty burnout has been thrown out a lot recently, and it’s important for all of us to get on the same page. So when my team thinks about burnout, we look to the World Health Organization definition, which defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. And we’re thinking about really three main dimensions here, so one, energy depletion; two, cynicism or excessive detachment from one’s job; and three, feeling a lack of achievement or constancy at work. So in the case of faculty, we’ve heard academic leaders describe seeing their faculty start to drag meetings or no longer enjoy talking to their students, or really even coming to work at all. And what I really wanna emphasize here is that burnout is a workplace problem, not a worker issue. So it’s arising when that level that a workplace culture values productivity becomes toxic, and this is something that hit home with a lot of academic leaders who recognize that Academic Affairs can definitely be a place where the longest CV wins.

0:03:07.6 JH: Definitely, but why should academic leaders be paying attention to faculty burnout right now…

0:03:14.6 KH: Right, so burnout is not a new concern in higher ed. So we saw the effects of chronic workplace stress taking a toll on faculty well before the pandemic, but as the pandemic hit, we all know that mental health and well-being was really thrust into the spotlight, and actually, in an ACES survey in 2021, peak of the pandemic, one of the most pressing issues for college presidents was the stress levels and mental health of faculty and staff, and this was really for good reason. So we all know much of our population was struggling with their mental health during the pandemic, but additional well-being stressors were also being put on to faculty in particular. So like faculty feeling like they were being left out of big decisions during Covid or feeling like being told to return to work in person was putting them in harms way.

0:04:14.2 KH: So there’s definitely a sense that we’ve gleaned from leaders that they’re recognizing some of that trust between faculty and administration has been lost, and really something needs to be done to rebuild it, so these leaders are recognizing that their faculty are burnt out, yes, from the pandemic, but also from these additional things that were being asked of them, and it’s not a problem that can be ignored or wished away, real action has to be taken to really start combating some of this faculty burnout. And Jada, I know you’ve been equally involved in this research, can you help our listeners understand how this tension continues to play out on campus?

0:04:58.8 JH: Of course, I mean, as you said, faculty burnout continued to rise and evidently reached a tipping point during the pandemic, and the many pain points that existed pre-pandemic were augmented over the past few years. So as a result, many faculty are really running on empty. And with the current levels of faculty burnout, we reached a point where it becomes difficult for academic leaders to move forward on their mission-critical goals. And academic leaders are trying to turn the page on the pandemic and focus on new demanding institutional priorities an ambitious strategic plan or rebuilding a sense of community and belonging on campus. But it’s difficult for faculty to help leaders meet these new priorities and challenges because they are trying to do the best they can to prioritize student needs, but they really feel like they’re running on empty.

0:05:46.9 JH: I mean, today, they’re experiencing pandemic-induced career setbacks, change fatigue, booming trauma from the past two years, depleted community connections and also financial stressors imposed by inflation. Simply put, faculty are overwhelmed and burned out, and they need help if they’re going to remain and thrive in academic affairs. Students also increasingly want more than just course content from their faculty, and they’re noticing faculty stress in the classroom. And in an environment where professors are struggling to meet those expectations, academic leaders are not well-positioned to deliver a student experience that meets today’s expectations. And because burnout is endemic to Academic Affairs, we need to intentionally shift that culture in direction that better supports faculty.

0:06:34.3 KH: And Jada, I wanna pick back up on what you were saying about student expectations of faculty. I know that we’ve talked a lot about the fact that students are continuously asking more of their faculty beyond maybe what you and I would initially think about a traditional role in the classroom. Faculty are being tapped for far more than just teaching a lecture, we know that that it’s a bigger job than that, and we continuously see that students want that relationship beyond the classroom with their faculty and are actually beginning to expect that of them. Can you expand a little bit more on this?

0:07:15.3 JH: Yeah, I mean, as previously stated, faculty roles really extend beyond the classroom, they’re not just recording these lectures, they’re not just lecturing students, there’s more to do on this job, I mean for example, 57% want their faculty help them with professional networking, 47% want them to help them landing an internship or a first job, so they may be looking for recommendations. And also 45% want their faculty to be willing to listen to maybe issues and consider accommodations on course work considering the current landscape. And this also disproportionately impacts faculty of color and the expectations of professors outside of the classroom are only growing, so as previously stated, there needs to be supports to assist them in these new changing expectations of students, but also administration.

0:08:06.7 KH: Right. And unlike some of those back office functions, we know that faculty are on the front line, they’re visible, they’re in the moment with students all of the time, really having the power to shape those student experiences. And if they’re not with it, if they are not really emotionally apt and feeling their best, or at least feeling well enough to be a support to others beyond themselves, that’s just not as good for students. Like you said, with growing student expectations, students want more, they want that support. They expect that support, they went through the pandemic also, they’re feeling the blows of it, and they’re leaning on their faculty more than ever.

0:08:52.0 JH: Katy. Let’s just pause for a moment. I think it’s easier for academic leaders to want the pandemic to be over. And with that faculty burnout will go with it. Why is that not the case?

0:09:05.4 KH: Yeah, I think that that’s a hope and definitely something I wish were the case, but yeah, we just really know that with the pandemic, it’s not just going to magically take burnt out with it. We know that flash points have really become really common for universities and institutions and their leaders who feel as though they’re constantly responding to them, but that’s a reality, we’re in widely divided country where political and economic decisions feel more emotionally charged than ever, there’s social unrest, there’s attacks on vulnerable groups in society, and these things sadly are going to keep continuing, the pandemic is not the last of our flash points, I’m sure. So it’s important that even though it might feel like we’re late in the game, or why are we talking about burnout now? Won’t that just improve as the pandemic continues to improve? I mean, for the well-being of your faculty, I hope it does improve marginally, but you also need to be prepared for the next flash point that’s going to take a toll on faculty mental health and well-being, and really just put these structures into place so that that trust exists, that the next time one of these big dire situations occur, faculty are trusting that their administration has them in mind and that they can turn to their deans and chairs and academic leaders as a support system to know how to navigate these uncertain terrains in the future.

0:10:51.7 KH: Yeah, those are such great points. Especially on the student front, I know that this was a concern that kept on coming up when we would talk to academic leaders was, right, we care about faculty, but it’s also having that trickle-down impact on students and they’re really noticing. Great, well, I know that we’ve been talking to colleges and universities across the world about this problem in the prominence of deans and chairs and faculty lives keeps coming up, so what are you hearing on your calls with provosts and other academic leaders when it comes to deans and chairs.

0:11:28.7 JH: Yeah, I mean Katy, provosts expect deans and chairs to ensure faculty and staff are supported. I mean in almost all provosts surveyed agree faculty received some support from another institutional office such as HR, but even 79% of provosts feel that the deans and chairs are responsible for ensuring faculty are connected, engaged and supported. And managers can make or break an employees experience at work. Managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. This indicates that those who fulfill this role have a great deal of influence over whether or not an employee feels supported by their employer. And in the landscape of the higher education, deans and chairs fulfill a more immediate managerial role, and they have a significant impact over the perception of support, more so than senior leaders such as provosts, and that perception of support is critical and can have serious impacts on performance and engagement. When employees feel supported, they’re less likely to under-perform or miss work, they also have positive attitudes towards their workplace, and are less likely to suffer from mental health symptoms. So broadly speaking, faculty don’t feel particularly well-supported right now, so to the extent that leadership is falling short, the question becomes how well or poorly equipped are these leaders to be at least part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

0:12:52.5 JH: Katy, do you wanna take a first shot at that? I know we’ve both done some research in this area.

0:12:57.3 KH: Sure. Yeah, I totally agree that we really did just keep hearing that deans and chairs are really key for serving that important managerial role on campus. And we often heard that a faculty member’s experience with support can sometimes feel like luck of the draw because it hinges on the department they’re coming from, and whether or not the chair of that department leads with their well-being in mind, but we know that academic leaders in boxes aren’t often overflowing with messages from faculty who can’t wait to be department chairs, and without an abundant prospect list, it becomes hard to be picky about selecting chairs with the skills to support faculty, and we totally understand that sometimes you don’t even want to impose one more expectation of the chair role when it’s already hard to recruit candidates. So I wanna recognize that that’s a tough situation, and on top of that, we can’t just assume that deans and chairs will actually come in with these skills. These are hard skills to develop, and it’s something we’re seeing executives at huge companies invest a lot in in terms of their employees and training for their employees, so it’s time that higher ed should be doing the same, but there’s a tension care, because like you said, most academic leaders think that deans and chairs are responsible for ensuring faculty are supportive, engaged, connected, all of those things.

0:14:30.8 KH: But there’s that skills gap for deans and chairs when it comes to actually leading with well-being in mind. And according to a study on the training needs of academic chairs, the majority of chairs said they did not receive any formal training to prepare them to be a chair. And of the ones who did receive training, two out of three felt the topics most commonly covered did not prepare them adequately for their role, and when asked where chairs feels like they need more training to fulfill their role to a good extent, maintaining a healthy work climate was the second most top area of concern. So clearly, we’re hearing that there’s an appetite here, there’s definitely a need, but Deans and Chairs really are lacking training, especially the right training. And Jada I know that you’ve been researching ways that forward-thinking institutions are working with deans and academic chairs to help them foster a more supportive working environment. Working to close that skills gap we were just talking about, what are you seeing that’s working?

0:15:42.2 JH: Yeah. I mean that’s a great question, Katy. And you’re right, there is great appetite and need among academic leaders for this type of training and support, and as you said, the right training and support. So it’s a continue drive in-progress. We need to up-skill our deans and chairs. And when I say up-scaling, I mean growing academic leaders, skills around active listening, empathy, difficult conversations and also psychological safety. This way they can meet the expectation of increased support from senior leaders and the faculty. The University of North Texas is a great example of this. They have deployed an annual Crucial Conversations training with a pretty great success, it is offered through their Provost Office and it’s training is designed to prepare deans for difficult emotionally charged conversations with faculty. And you can imagine this would be helpful in a range of situations like supporting a faculty member going through a difficult personal time, discussing performance reviews or even resolving disagreements. Each year at least 20 new department chairs participate in the training.

0:16:45.4 JH: So provosts are really well-positioned to promote these types of opportunities and help academic leaders enhance their emotional intelligence skills to better understand their baseline skills and also increase their relationship with others. And as I said, deans and chairs are in a unique position to influence faculty support, but they also need clarity about what their role is in supporting well-being, expectations have to be set from institutional leaders, you need to clarify that they have a role to play and what it looks like to be a supportive leader. And why you created a best practice reference sheet for managers about how to support employee well-being in the workplace, and the sheet clearly articulates the importance of well-being in work cultures and also outlines best practices to help leaders bolster perceptions of support among faculty. This resource provides that clarity about the institution’s goals, expectations and missions around well-being, and what that specifically means for academic leaders.

0:17:41.2 JH: Navigating conversations when support is critical for bolstering well-being. But Deans and Chairs often counter new challenges and incidents that carry a lot of pressure to lead in a way that upholds the interests of the institution, and at the same time, shows care and concern for faculty well-being. That’s a tall order for our deans and chairs, especially when they haven’t had an opportunity to practice. Katy and I were recently talking about a really interesting training technique that the University of British Columbia was using. Would you mind sharing that with our listeners?

0:18:13.7 KH: Absolutely. I know that we were so excited to hear about this specific practice from UBC, where they are proactively preparing deans and chairs to practice navigating how to lead in a way that, just as you articulated, is upholding the interest of the institution, while at the same time showing that care and concern for faculty well-being, and like you said, just such a huge ask, and I think that UBC is doing a great way of at least preparing them to practice their approach to this huge challenge. So on-campus, UBC offers an annual training called The Campus resource treasure hunt, and this is convening academic leaders and campus resource experts on campus in person. So here, new chairs get the opportunity to practice navigating and responding to scenarios that are sourced from real Academic Affairs, leadership challenges, for example, really low faculty morale in your unit, how do you get ahead of this? How do you respond to it?

0:19:20.7 KH: And then throughout the activity, participants are split into small group teams and design one of these real leadership challenges, so that team, they work with their peers to identify the cues in the scenario and also which campus resources they should consult to for help. So for example, turning to the Human Resources offices or the Office of Faculty relations. And then after engaging with those experts and their resources, the team of participants decides on their approach to their particular challenge, and then presents it to the other teams participating in the activity. And I love this final debrief part, mainly because participants really get the chance to learn from each other and hear many different approaches to solving a variety of complicated problems they might face in the future. So even though you as a participant only got the chance to approach one challenge thoroughly, you also get the opportunity to hear from your peers about their approaches to other challenges that could also arise while on the job. And not only do the academic leaders participating in the activity, discover that they aren’t expected to solve tough problems alone, but they also develop connections with the very people on campus, who will be able to help them in the future, and it increases their own awareness of the resources available to help them be effective leaders.

0:20:55.8 JH: What a fascinating training technique, I know I was excited to come across a training that allows academic leaders to practice how to be effective leaders. And this is a really complex topic, but we’ve only started to scratch the surface. If you had a few minutes with academic leaders, what are the most important pieces of advice you would give them about how to turn the tide on the issue of faculty burnout?

0:21:20.1 KH: Definitely a complicated topic, but I think what I’d really wanna emphasize here is that faculty burnout is a systemic workplace issue, and academic leaders are not alone in feeling the struggle on their campuses. I know that both you and I had countless conversations where leaders were fearful that this was only happening on their campus, or they heard a lot about it in headlines, but didn’t actually know how it was playing out in other places, and definitely wanna get ahead of that fear, that sadly, you are not alone, but there are things that you can be doing. Faculty burnout is not a problem that’s going to just disappear without any action from leadership to really shift that institutional culture to one that promotes and prioritizes employees’ well-being, but when institutions commit to a culture of better balance, faculty really feel heard and empowered to seek balance in their own work and lives, but again, this requires that leaders strategically prioritize a culture of support.

0:22:28.1 JH: Right. You’re exactly right. And part of strategically prioritizing that culture of support is including deans and chairs in that conversation, and like we’ve discussed, they really have that face time with faculty and the power to make faculty feel supported in their daily work lives, I mean we’ve shown examples where it’s necessary for resources and training to be at the forefront, so that there can be positive forces in their department, I mean examples like the UBC training, the MRC research sheet, they all are integral in Dean and Chair supports on faculty. But this is just one piece of the puzzle, and I know we’re both excited to keep digging more into the faculty burnout problem. I wish we had more time to discuss. I know we have so much more information, but unfortunately we have to close off the podcast. Thank you for joining me, Katy, and thank you to our listeners for sticking with us.

0:23:24.0 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we explore a unique public-private partnership that is helping to accelerate the path for Hispanic adult learners who want to launch successful careers in health care. Until next week. Thank you for your time.

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