David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

3 Ways Colleges Can Help Faculty Members Avoid Burnout

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I was reading a 2005 essay on five theoretical frameworks that sociologists use to analyze "care work" — jobs in which people are paid to provide care — when I realized that some of those frameworks seemed to apply to academic work as well. The "prisoner of love" framework, for example, is that employees who love what they do are easier for employers to exploit. But the one that really jumped out at me was the "commodification of emotion," which "focuses on emotional harm to workers when they have to sell services that use an intimate part of themselves."

In writing about faculty burnout in these pages a couple of weeks ago, I noted that its main source seemed to be teaching: The more students we work with, the more likely we are to feel emotionally exhausted. Caring about students — and sometimes caring for them — is an integral part of most teachers’ practice. As much as I want to treat teaching as an intellectual pursuit, the emotional aspects of working closely with students to help them develop cannot be denied. Neither can the emotional costs of the work for the instructor. We may not always want to admit that we are using "an intimate part" of ourselves when we teach, but there’s little doubt that we are.

A number of commenters criticized that column for focusing on what individual faculty members could do to help reduce their own stress. Those readers felt I had ignored the institutions’ role in creating burnout. Fair enough. There’s plenty of things that colleges and universities can do on this front, and the burden shouldn’t fall entirely on faculty members themselves.

What’s more — given the importance of teaching and student success to institutional mission — it behooves campus administrators to take faculty well-being seriously and ensure that we are satisfied with our work.

Here, then, are some steps that institutions can take to prevent and combat faculty burnout.

Treat all faculty members like faculty members. Nowhere is burnout more rampant, it seems, than in the nontenure-track ranks — a population that now accounts for roughly 70 percent of the American professoriate. A 2014 study of depression, stress, and anxiety among NTT faculty members produced a striking and telling result: The more committed they were to their institution, the more stressed, depressed, and anxious they felt. That result, the report’s authors hypothesized, may be the product of faculty members’ "feeling commitment to an organization that fails to reciprocate."

A recent study of contingent-faculty well-being seems to support that hypothesis. Lisa Larson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, along with graduate students in her lab, have been studying how self-determination theory — the way our sense of our own competence, autonomy, and relatedness affects our well-being — might apply to faculty members.

Larson and her team’s 2016 study of 96 nontenure-track faculty members, published in the Journal of Career Assessment, found that environmental supports, such as help from a department chair or departmental recognition, combined with "perceived relatedness," were directly connected to faculty well-being. The more that nontenure-track instructors felt supported by their department and their institution, and the more they believed they "fit in" with a community of peers, the better they felt about themselves and their work.

Four decades into American higher education’s titanic shift toward nontenure-track faculty, it is long since time to stop treating these academics as second-class citizens. Annemarie Pérez’s recent blog post about her time as an adjunct struck a chord for many because of her portrayal of the way the chair at one of her departments treated her. Her chair (whom she subsequently identified as Karen Mary Davalos, now a professor of Chicano and Latino studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities), mentored Pérez, observed her teaching, read and responded to her research, and repeatedly helped her prepare for the job market.

In short, the chair treated an adjunct as if she were a young member of the department, which is exactly what Pérez was.

When departments and institutions treat the people doing the bulk of the teaching with the respect and value they deserve, those faculty members are far more likely to thrive. And so are the institutions.

Take a Universal Design approach to faculty mental health. The crucial principle of Universal Design is that if environments are shaped to better suit people with extraordinary needs, those environments will better suit all of us. I wrote last August about the benefits of designing our courses with the needs of a diverse range of students in mind. If we think about accessibility up front, we’re more likely to create a better learning environment for all students.

The same logic holds at an institutional level, in thinking about faculty mental health.

In their new guide, Promoting Supportive Academic Environments for Faculty With Mental Illnesses, Margaret Price and Stephanie L. Kerschbaum provide a wealth of advice for institutions looking to create policies of inclusivity and support for faculty mental health. Crucial to their recommendations is conceiving of mental illness as a normal part of a diverse professoriate — not anomalous or something that institutions should be surprised by.

Rather, the guide argues, colleges and universities should strive to create a "culture of access" in which faculty mental health is a priority. When institutions provide mental-health assistance to those who need it most, they create a culture of psychological wellness for all faculty members.

Do read the guide yourself for its detailed recommendations. It should be required reading for administrators and faculty members alike.

Support faculty work/life balance. Academics take our work personally. For many of us, our jobs are more than what we do — they’re who we are. That leads to the "prisoner of love" problem.

But that tendency, it turns out, also makes institutional efforts to support a healthy work/life balance more effective. A 2012 study of 242 faculty members at the University of Maine found that the more that academics felt their institution supported their efforts to balance work and home life, "the more satisfied they were with their job, the less they intended to leave the institution, and the higher their emotional and physical health."

Some of the factors identified by survey respondents as most helpful are things that would be fairly easy for institutions to implement: having a work culture supportive of families, being able to adjust your schedule so you can care for family members, knowing that your department is supportive of family leave.

Those are not — or shouldn’t be seen as — radical propositions in 2018. But they do make a big difference in faculty well-being for both men and women. Why? "It may be," the authors speculated, "that these policies convey respect by the institution for individual faculty members and suggest that the institution has consideration and compassion for them." Consideration goes a long way.

Faculty well-being should not be a difficult cause to rally behind. Happy, healthy faculty members make better teachers and better researchers and are less likely to leave their jobs. If institutions hope to flourish, it’s in their interest to make sure their faculty members flourish, too.

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