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Coping With Faculty Burnout in the Pandemic

Three self-statements that can keep a person engaged in today's classrooms.

Key points

  • In higher education, the evidence shows that students, administrators, and faculty are facing ongoing challenges in the pandemic.
  • Faculty burnout is real and pervasive. Presented are three self-statements that may be useful, including expressions of gratitude.
  • Faculty members can take steps to prevent or reduce burnout, partly by recognizing that things are not, and may never be, back to normal.

In higher education, I hear people saying that things are looking up: “We’re back in the classroom!” At least some of us are. Some might think that things will soon be back to “normal,” or even better than normal! But the reality is that the pandemic has taken a toll and continues to do so.

Students are experiencing high levels of stress and mental health concerns. School administrations are struggling to deal with the new realities. For example, a recent survey of students at the University of Oregon shows that higher education institutions may be engaging in “institutional betrayal,” partly by “creating an environment in which COVID-19 transmission seemed more likely to occur.”

And faculty burnout is real and pervasive; a recent survey found that faculty mental health is the third “most pressing issue facing college presidents,” after student mental health and long-term financial viability.

Faculty Burnout

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beth McMurtrie identified some of the stresses on faculty, including “a crushing workload combined with child-care challenges…. Their institution expects them to be counselors and ed-tech experts on top of their regular responsibilities.” McMurtrie pointed out that the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing stresses and that “Black and Latino professors are bearing additional burdens, supporting students of color and contributing to the national debate on racism.”

McMurtrie discussed strategies faculty members have tried to prevent or mitigate burnout, including getting up earlier, networking with colleagues, and simply trying to become less perfectionistic. Finally, she noted a major cognitive shift that may help: Stop denying the problems and stop pretending that things are the same as before.

In another Chronicle article, Emma Pettit reported some strategies institutions have adopted to help faculty. For example, universities are modifying their standards for promotion and evaluation. Some schools are extending the “tenure clock”—the time professors have to demonstrate their teaching, research, and service records. Some schools are weighing teaching more heavily in faculty evaluations because teaching is now taking more time. I’ve spent countless hours during the last eighteen months on a new and stressful teaching activity: unmuting myself and repeating what I’d just said. One of my favorite suggestions is to reduce the number of committees on which faculty serve! I second that!

Personal Strategies for Dealing With Burnout

Flower Darby had some great suggestions for faculty members. For example: “keep it simple” with technology. This works for me: I love making videos for my students, but I’ve learned to take it easy on the animations, funny digital hats, etc.

Several of Darby’s suggestions followed the “don’t deny” principle. For example: “Don’t teach the same way online as you do in person.” Have some “Zoom-free dates” so both you and students can get away from the screen. Be candid with your students and what you’re doing, and why. (This last one is a good suggestion in general!) And streamline grading.

Three Useful Self-Statements

I want to share three quick cognitive suggestions to deal with burnout—in the form of self-statements that have allowed me to cope a little better. The first self-statement I owe to a supervisor I had years ago on my internship. I was doing therapy with a couple who bickered constantly and were not making headway. Part of the reason they weren’t is that the husband’s political views were diametrically opposite of mine. He expressed his views by ridiculing, demeaning others, and, in general, not being nice. As a young psychology intern, I was overwhelmed by the negativity of this much older couple. I spent some time conveying all this to my supervisor.

After listening patiently, she said, “Find something to like about him.”

I said, “No, you don’t understand, this guy is ….”

“Find something to like about him,” she repeated. It took a little effort, but I did!

I was able to admire the tenacity with which he held onto his beliefs and his style of communicating them—even in the face of negative reactions and a disintegrating marriage. I continued with that couple and appreciated them as human beings; we even made a little progress in therapy.

My supervisor’s words, “Find something to like …,” have helped. I’ve been looking for and finding some of the affordances in the Zoom classroom. Just one example: Some students from whom I would never have heard are now able to chat in multiple ways.

My second self-statement is adapted from what I’ve been telling my advisees for years when they approach their statistics course or any course they have a negative attitude about. This is the gist of it:

College can change your life—it sure changed mine. Quick interactions with professors or other students—inside of class or out—can be life-altering. [I’ve written about some of these in previous blog entries.] But we cannot predict when those moments will occur!

Thus, rather than going into class saying things like, ‘This class has nothing to do with my major,’ or ‘I hope the instructor isn’t too demanding today,’ you can go into every class meeting and say: This is the class period that will change my life!’ That attitude shift can change what we see and experience.

Even now, towards the end of my career and amid a pandemic—when my students and I are totally stressed—I expect that tomorrow’s class will be one that will change my life. I can’t wait.

My last self-statement is self-evident: I am grateful for a long, challenging, and fun career. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn even more about how to teach. I am grateful for the support of my university, my colleagues, my friends, and my family. And I am grateful for my stressed, exhausted, and tenacious students who trust me on our journey.

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