We’re going to look at faculty’s stress and burnout levels from a different angle: what institutions can do to help. The onus should not solely be on faculty to take care of themselves when systemic changes need to occur. While everyone has their plates full with competing demands, some simple actions can be taken to reduce burnout and create a culture of wellness throughout the institution.
According to a recent study by the National Education Association, the top issue facing educators right now is burnout, with 67% reporting it as a very serious issue and 90% as a very serious or somewhat serious issue.
If those statistics aren’t scary enough, think about the fact that institutions without systems to support the well-being of their employees have higher turnover, lower productivity, and higher healthcare costs, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). It’s in everyone’s benefit to contribute to faculty well-being.
We interviewed Jason W Osborne, Ph.D., PStat®, on the topic. He has extensive experience both as an administrator and faculty member at institutions like Miami University, Clemson University, North Carolina State University, and the University of Louisville. Having recently served as Provost at Miami University, he is keenly aware of the importance of creating a wellness culture for all campus community members. Jason W Osborne said, “Burnout in the faculty, staff, and leadership ranks is a huge challenge for higher education and it will impact us for years to come, across all different forms of academic affairs and types of institutions. I believe that every institution must be actively working to create a culture of wellness and specifically, to address burnout to be successful going forward.”
Burnout happens at the institutional level as well as at the faculty level and it needs to be acknowledged. Dr. Osborne said, “We as administrators have to start by recognizing that burnout is a real problem on our campuses. It’s not laziness, it’s not lack of dedication, and it can impact us. If we don’t identify burnout as a problem and wellness as an institutional value then we cannot begin to address it with faculty by changing the culture. Many of us live in a culture where people feel they cannot speak up about wellness and/or burnout for fear of seeming like an underperformer, especially those faculty early in their careers, and this just isn’t reality. They feel vulnerable, which just adds to the gravity of the problem. We have to have these conversations and make it OK to talk about. We don't want faculty members suffering in silence with personal and professional challenges. We need to tackle these negative stereotypes in these challenging times."
Faculty turnover is a serious institutional problem. According to a recent study by Fidelity Investments & the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than half (55%) of faculty at higher education institutions have seriously considered changing careers or retiring early, including 35% of tenured faculty. In order for the administration to address turnover, they have to focus on retention. Jason said, “Turnover causes us to lose valuable colleagues, adds stress to the system as existing faculty and staff have to absorb those duties, and help search for a replacement, then help onboard that person. It can be a vicious cycle. If we can create an ecosystem of wellness where faculty, staff, and students feel supported, we are more likely to retain our most valuable asset- our people.”
Health and wellness programs are meant to benefit physical and mental health and alleviate stress and burnout within faculty. The American College Health Association discusses some ways institutions can implement these sorts of programs: work-life balance workshops, walking opportunities for faculty on campus or fitness programs, smoking cessation programs, mental health support, nutrition and counselling. It’s important that leaders embrace and encourage these programs and work-life balance through words and actions, rather than merely paying “lip service.” Once wellbeing interventions have been implemented, there must be a practical assessment on their impact. We must lead by our actions in this space, especially where the culture of the institution has not embraced wellness as a core value.
Jason Osborne says: “Ask faculty what’s going on for them. Offer questions that will allow them to share their realities, and feel safe doing so. That may require building trust to encourage challenging discussions or beginning with anonymous surveys. When you get the answers, you have to listen to them and take specific actions that create real change. Change can be difficult and slow, but your faculty will appreciate it if their input leads to action.”
It’s time to facilitate difficult conversations about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), acknowledging that faculty, staff, and students from marginalized groups have different experiences than other folks in the education system and in the world. Approaches shouldn’t be an isolated occurrence but rather a long-term conversation about how to improve DEI initiatives, climate, and culture within your institution. In order for everyone to feel valued and heard, any initiative should be responsive to community input and grounded in action.
Dr. Osborne shared, “One factor we know that contributes to burnout is invisible work. Women and BIPOC faculty often share a disproportionate burden in terms of service, incredibly valuable contributions but which aren’t always easy to quantify or recognize. This can contribute to differential burnout. A more inclusive campus climate, and institutional practices that value all contributions can reduce stressors that can contribute to faculty burnout ” It’s important to support women and BIPOC faculty through helpful policies and practices that encourage work-life balance and account for the broad range of contributions faculty make to campus life.
With the information you collect, think about how to construct policies that encourage positive change. A study about burnout contagion amongst educators found that current education and policy contexts characterized by reduced budgets, pressure to increase student achievement, and lack of institutional support all have the potential to increase educators’ stress levels and cause burnout. Leaders must continually evaluate whether policies are unnecessarily causing stress, creating barriers to productivity, or failing to acknowledge important aspects of faculty work- like mentoring of students or colleagues, or service to the community. Addressing these on a systemic level is challenging, but engaging faculty in discussions of how to make their work easier, more effective, and acknowledged can be beneficial- and leveraging the power of shared governance can help faculty feel heard, engaged, and valued.
Faculty can benefit from support and professional development throughout their careers. An active and engaged Center for Teaching Excellence, like we have at Miami, or an Office of Research and Innovation, mentoring circles, and other efforts can help faculty feel more successful, supported, effective, and efficient. New ideas or strategies can be exciting and empowering, and simply knowing that you as a leader value them enough to invest in them can help morale. These efforts can offset or counteract burnout, stress, anxiety, or other adverse outcomes. Make sure that the professional development is seen as meaningful and valuable, implementing opportunities they’ve identified as important to them.
As a society, we’re coming to realize that not all meetings are helpful and worthwhile. Dr. Osborne shared, “It’s important to examine if we’re being efficient, effective, and lean with our use of people’s time. Do we need another committee, another meeting? Or can the issue be addressed via email or a survey? We have to ask whether we need another task force, and if so, is there one we can sunset? Are our routine meetings the best use of everyone’s time or are there other ways to communicate the same information or accomplish the same goal? ” Institutional leaders- from department chairs to deans and provosts- have to consider ways to free up as much time as possible for the critical tasks that only faculty can perform.
Edtech tools are available that can, in some cases, offload some work to make teachers' lives easier, helping to alleviate the burden of burnout while simultaneously boosting student success. Many collaborative learning tools, including Labster, an interactive web-based science teaching tool, can be utilized. A case study with Arizona College of Nursing professor Dr. Amber Kool found that she turned to Labster when searching for a wet lab alternative during the pandemic. A year later, she continues to use the virtual simulations because she’s satisfied that they support active learning and engage students. We as leaders must ensure we are investing in tools that faculty and students can benefit from, particularly as edtech options rapidly improve and expand, and offer brilliant data analysis and measurement.
We as leaders know that the success of our faculty means the success of our institution. If we as leaders can support wellness and reduce unnecessary stress, anxiety, and burnout, our institutions and our people will benefit tremendously.
About The Expert - Jason W. Osborne of Miami University
Jason W Osborne is an experienced senior leader in higher education (HE), and has held high level leadership positions at Miami University, Clemson University, and the University of Louisville, and has served as a faculty member at Old Dominion University, North Carolina State University, the University of Oklahoma, and Niagara County Community College. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Buffalo and worked as a researcher in the University of Buffalo Medical School.
Jason W Osborne is currently Special Assistant to the President at Miami University, and Professor of Statistics on the Miami Faculty. He is the former Miami University Provost and has served in previous roles as Department Chair, Dean, and Associate Provost. He has led multiple strategic initiatives in faculties to tackle teacher burnout and implemented boldly creative proposals with industry partnerships to tackle teacher retention.
In conjunction with his work at Miami University, Jason W Osborne is a celebrated author in statistics and quantitative methods. He has written multiple books on statistics, exploratory factor analysis, data analysis, and business analytics. He is a member of the American Statistical Association. Jason also authors thought leader articles on stereotype threat, educational psychology, the demographic cliff in HE, instructional technology, human development, career development, and degree programs.