Faculty who have spent the past 18 months teaching during a global pandemic often report that they are experiencing burnout. In this episode, Kristin Croyle joins us to discuss the causes and symptoms of burnout and strategies that individuals and campus leaders can use to reduce faculty burnout. Kristen is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego.
- Maslach, C. (2018). Understanding Job Burnout, presentation at the Devops Enterprise Summit, October 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRPBkCW0R5E
- Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 2(2), 99–113.
- Maslach, C. (2017). Finding Solutions to the Problem of Burnout. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69 (2), 143–152.
- Karlan, Dean (2019). Commitment Devices. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 103. October 16.
John: Faculty who have spent the past 18 months teaching during a global pandemic often report that they are experiencing burnout. In this episode, we examine the causes and symptoms of burnout and discuss strategies that individuals and campus leaders can use to reduce faculty burnout.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Kristin Croyle. Kristn is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome back, Kristin.
Kristin: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
John: It’s good to talk to you again. Our teas today are…
Kristin: I’m doing an oolong jasmine green tea this morning.
Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.
Kristin: Yeah, it’s very tasty.
John: I had never heard of an oolong green tea.
Kristin: Actually, it is one that I snagged from a University event. They’re the ones that show up on the tea tables when there’s occasional tea. So I grabbed it off of the Provost Council meeting yesterday. It’s good to use the actual University resources that are available. It is tasty, though.
Rebecca: I have just an Irish breakfast this morning.
John: And I have a black raspberry green tea from The Tea Republic, which I got from our office and it has not gone bad. It’s one of a few [LAUGHTER] that have not gone bad during the year and a half that we were away.
Kristin: It still has flavor and has not completely deteriorated to dust, that’s good.
John: It tastes wonderful.
Rebecca: Yeah, when your tea starts tasting like dust, we’ve had a guest who mentioned this… we’re good.
Kristin: Yes, yes. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: So we invited you here today to discuss the topic of faculty burnout. What are the symptoms of burnout?
Kristin: I’ll preface this by saying that much of what we’re going to talk about today is based on the research of Christina Maslach, who’s an Emeritus Professor at UC Berkeley, and she’s been working on this topic with her collaborators such as Michael Leiter since the 1980s. So, as an international authority, much of what we know about workplace burnout is really based on her research, and we owe a debt of gratitude to her, absolutely. One of the things that Dr. Maslach has looked at is what characterizes burnout, and there’s a specific definition. Actually, the World Health Organization, just a couple years ago, added burnout to their compendium of areas of concern and it’s important as we talk about it to recognize that they added it in a way that’s consistent with her research, which is that it is, an “ occupational phenomenon.” Meaning that, it’s a characteristic of the workplace and the fit between the workplace and the individuals in the workplace. It’s not an individual problem. It’s not a mental disorder. It’s not individually diagnosable, and it’s experienced individually, but it’s experienced individually because of the workplace situation. So as we talk about it, and we’re going to be often talking about the individual experience of it, but we can keep in mind, all the time, that even though it’s about the individual experience, it’s not an individual problem, it’s a workplace problem and the way that burnout is characterized is in three components that people experience. One is exhaustion, and of course, all of us will recognize all of these things, because these are normal human experiences. It’s just when they come together in kind of a toxic combo, that it becomes burnout. So the first one is exhaustion, feeling emotionally drained and physically exhausted by work, on a consistent basis. The second one is cynicism, feeling callous, for example, or not caring what happens at work, and sometimes faculty who are feeling particularly cynical, you’ll hear this in the way they talk about their students and their colleagues. A student will come to them with a tough situation, and they’ll basically be communicating “I don’t care what is happening to you in your life, all I care about is what I need to accomplish,” which is an experience of cynicism. The third characteristic is a feeling of ineffectiveness, feeling like you’re not accomplishing worthwhile things in the workplace, or kind of a decline of professional efficacy. An example of this for faculty is feeling like no matter what you do, your students are not going to learn, that you can’t be helpful to your colleagues, that in the past, you may have felt like a resource and that you could accomplish something in the workplace, and now you feel like you don’t have anything to offer. And it’s important to think of those, together, as an experience of burnout, and not as the God’s truth. For example, in feelings of ineffectiveness, that’s a feeling, a perception of ineffectiveness, a subjective experience. If someone feels like they don’t have anything to offer, that doesn’t mean they actually have nothing to offer. If they are feeling cynical, it doesn’t mean that their colleagues and their students actually don’t matter, even if they have that feeling at the moment. If they’re feeling emotionally exhausted, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have reservoirs underneath that. So this is a subjective experience, together, and yes, people can feel different combinations of that. The way that Dr. Maslach looks at it, if you have all three together that are relatively high, that’s burnout. If you have more one versus another, they don’t characterize that in their research as burnout, but of course, we’re really talking more about the subjective experience. If you’re completely exhausted by work, but you’re not high in cynicism, it’s still not a very pleasant experience, whether or not in a research setting that would be called burnout.
Rebecca: Because we’re talking about burnout today, some faculty might say, casually, I feel really burned out, but maybe don’t really fit that definition, but maybe really experiencing high stress or feeling really overwhelmed. So, as we’re talking about things today, are the pieces of advice that we talk about things that will help those individuals as well, or is there a different set of characteristics or things we should be thinking about?
Kristin: Oh, absolutely, it will absolutely be helpful, because, as we’re talking about it, the experience of burnout is a subjective internal experience, and just because it’s defined one way in a research setting doesn’t mean that someone can’t say to themselves, boy, I am really burned out… totally fine. I mean, we use similar words like “I feel really depressed” when, clearly, we’re not experiencing clinical depression. It’s a subjective mood state of feeling sad, and maybe losing some interest for a little while, but it’s not at a kind of a professional definitional level, it doesn’t really matter for the individual. If you’re saying “I’m feeling burned out,” …yes, absolutely, all of this stuff will still apply.
John: What are the causes of burnout?
Kristin: That’s an important point because, I think I’m just going to use the same answer to every question, by the way… [LAUGHTER] We’ll just start by saying that burnout is a workplace phenomenon, but it’s experienced individually, so it’s not an individual problem. I’ll just start by saying that for every answer. So when we talk about what are the causes of burnout, there are some individual factors that can contribute, but it really is an issue of workplace and individual fit. So, in the research, they tend to look at six characteristics of the workplace. And this is based on lots and lots of interesting work with different types of workplaces. So, let’s go through the six. First one is workload, and remember, this is always a question of individual to workplace fit. So if the workplace is manageable, with time to rest and recover, people are less likely to experience burnout, but of course, some individuals vary in what workload they consider to be manageable. The second aspect is control, when people can influence decisions that impact them, when they can exercise autonomy in the workplace, when they can get the things they need to do their job, those aspects of control help. Now people on the podcast should know that even though we’re doing this remotely, we can see each other’s faces. I like the nods I’m getting here, that when you feel like you can influence the things that you need to do your job, that aspect of control can reduce burnout. The third one is reward, that there are rewards that are commensurate with the work, and sometimes those rewards are specific to the individual needs, financial rewards, institutional rewards, social benefits, the whole slate of rewards. We know that being underpaid does not help, but also never being told “thank you,” also doesn’t help. So making sure that there are a slate of rewards that are commensurate with the work and commensurate with the needs of the people who work there. So there’s three: workload, control and reward. Next one is community, that there are job related relationships that are characterized by social support and effective conflict management. We know, for example, in higher ed, that one of the top reasons that faculty will leave is because their colleagues are not nice to them, a kind of a broken culture at the departmental level, that that kind of broken community builds burnout and drives people away from one institution to another. The fifth aspect is fairness, that decisions at work are perceived as fair and equitable. And anyone who’s been in any workplace longer than about six months, you understand how important this is, right? Even if stuff is just really a struggle, if it’s perceived as fairly impacting people, that some people are not getting ahead over others in mysterious ways, that is much easier to take, like we’re all in this together, this is happening in a way that is fair. And the last one is values, that the individual’s ideals and motivations that are relevant to work are consistent with the practices and values of the employer. I interviewed a highly qualified person for a faculty position fairly recently, and one of the reasons that she was on the job market… she was already in a tenure-track position. She was on the job market because the institution she was at was dramatically changing. They were structurally changing, everything was different, and one of the things that she had valued was undergraduate research, and that was not going to be an important value of the institution going forward. So it kind of broke her relationship with her employer. Another way that we’re seeing this with COVID is when you hear people talk about “I didn’t get into this work for this reason,” that sometimes speaks to a values mismatch. You hear it often with healthcare workers who are under a lot of stress right now, you hear them talking about having to make decisions about who to help first, having to tell people: “You can’t be with your loved one while they’re dying” …those are things that directly cut against the things that got them into healthcare, and it builds this feeling of burnout. So those are the six aspects: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. And those pieces, the mismatch between the individual and the workplace, in any of those areas can dramatically contribute to burnout.
John: And I think the pandemic may have affected nearly all those categories. Could we perhaps talk about some of the ways in which the pandemic may have affected things like control and some of those other issues?
Kristin: Absolutely, absolutely. And I would bet anyone in higher ed, who’s listening to this, could write them down immediately. Like, for example, “How has the pandemic affected your workload like, “Fwahah… these 83 different ways,” and you know, the most obvious example is when people were asked to go remote very suddenly, especially people who had not been teaching in an online environment… that the workload, like straight up, of just having to completely retool materials that were intended for one delivery into another one…. whether or not you had the underlying knowledge base for that, or an orientation towards it… just separating all of that out, just the work involved in shifting everything was dramatic. Control is also a really excellent example. Control is something that has made the pandemic so stressful for so many people in so many different professions, that there are critical aspects of our work lives that we now feel are controlled by an invisible virus. Our feelings of how we control our environment and what keeps us safe, have been completely thrown out the window. And at the same time, our ability to shape our workplace, our individual ability to shape our workplace to maintain that sense of control, has also been completely thrown out the window. I know there were some faculty who would have preferred to stay face to face even when we moved things remote, whose sense of risk was low, and were upset that they had to make that change, and that there are faculty who would much prefer to stay completely remote now, even though institutionally, that’s not always a choice, especially across the country, different institutions are in very different places where faculty may not have as much control as they would typically have over how they’re delivering their classes, how they’re interacting with their colleagues, how they are interacting with their students. And, when you’re talking about something that is a literal existential threat, that is terrifying in a way that I can see would dramatically increase this loss of control and experience of burnout and we could talk about all the other ones as well… [LAUGHTER].
John: But those are certainly the big ones, I think, and I think Rebecca and I have both experienced those as well in different ways, but it’s been…a challenge.
Kristin: Absolutely. I also think that from some of the things I hear from colleagues in other states, some legislatures or boards that have gotten very involved with how universities are delivering their classes, I think that also contributes to burnout for both faculty and administrators where you think you’re doing the best thing you can and then somebody who has no idea how you’re doing your job, or how a university work says “No, this is the way we’re going to do it” …that can be a crazy-making experience. Rebecca and John know that I relocated to New York just two years ago. I’m happy to be in New York, where universities are empowered to make more of their own decisions, then in some states, and my heart goes out to our colleagues in some states where they have been prevented from making decisions that they think are good for their students and for their faculty.
John: That was a topic we talked a little bit about last week in the episode dealing with legislatures affecting what topics are allowed in the classroom.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between burnout, the workplace phenomenon and discussions around work-life balance?
Kristin: Yes, work-life balance is a really fraught topic, isn’t it? On the surface of it, it seems like this great ideal that we’re all shooting for, right? That we can hit some individually adjusted perfect balance, but underneath it is all of this social baggage of who is positioned in a way to be able to achieve what is more of a work-life balance, who is socially and economically positioned in such a way as to have that be almost a completely unattainable goal, all of that kind of stuff. So, I think that there are similarities to kind of pushing for the ideal work-life balance and the concept of burnout. Because work- life balance is also experienced individually and there are aspects that you can individually control, but it is also a workplace phenomenon. So I know we’ve seen in the news, for example, that China is having conversations about the 9-9-6 work week. If you’ve seen this, the 9-9-6 work week is the idea that you should work from 9am to 9pm six days a week, and this is an ideal that is pushed in some companies. And finally in China, people are saying, “Wait, no!”
Rebecca: That sounds horrible.
Kristin: This is not good for people… like they collapse from exhaustion and illness. So we can say that work-life balance is an individual ideal, but at the same time, there are workplace variables that push people in one direction or another, that’s in a broader sense. It’s hard to hold that kind of dialectic in mind, that the work environment requires this of me on the one hand, but on the other hand, I still have control over many aspects. How can I exercise and grow that control in a way that can help me to live a healthier life? That those two things are both simultaneously true and need to be kept in mind at the same time. So burnout is a great example of that. Burnout is a workplace phenomenon that is best addressed institutionally or across the workplace culture, but at the same time, individuals maintain control over various aspects of their lives, and how do you focus on the pieces you can control and make the most of your areas of influence over your own life, over your own time, over the way that you’re allocating your energies and your emotions?
John: Since most of our listeners don’t have control over their workplace environment to the extent that they might like, what can individuals do when they’re faced with an environment where they’re feeling these types of pressures?
Kristin: So one thing that helps me to keep in mind is the three components of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. And I know, for myself, that when I am edging towards burnout, ineffectiveness is one of the first things that I start to feel. I start to feel like I don’t have anything to contribute, and I recognize that that’s a sign of burnout, and I tell myself that I actually do have things to contribute. Just because I don’t feel that in the moment, it’s not a sign I don’t have something to say, it’s a sign that I need to take more stock of how I’m approaching things and reduce my level of stress. So, the first thing I would suggest is keeping in mind what are signs of burnout, because otherwise, it’s very easy for people to blame themselves and see it as an individual weakness… say, “I’m just not up to this,” when really an alternative interpretation is “I’m experiencing burnout. It’s not an individual flaw, it’s not an individual weakness, and there are things that I can do about this,” and at the same time, those three things, exhaustion, cynicism and effectiveness, what you’re shooting for is kind of the counter for that. So what can you do that counters exhaustion? What can you do that builds your energy? What can you do to counter cynicism? What can you do to build your emotional engagement and your compassion? And for ineffectiveness, what can you do that builds your sense of effectiveness and your sense of accomplishment? So there are a number of things that we all have individual control over that help us to build our energy, to build our emotional engagement, and to build our sense of accomplishment. Just for example, all three of us have worked very hard to figure out how do we set boundaries in time? We don’t have magical solutions to this, but we try really hard. How do you decide when to stop working and to start having fun, or sleeping or exercising? Because those are all things that build energy, and when you don’t set those boundaries of time, it sucks the energy out of you, because you’re spending all of this time exhausting yourself in the workplace, and although we may feel some pressures to spend all our time exhausting ourselves in the workplace, that actually is not required. We do have some control over that. Now, I’m specifically speaking about a university setting, there are certainly some workplaces where it is literally a job requirement to exhaust yourself in the workplace, and that is really a toxic environment to be in. I know we’ve seen that with some health-care workers where they have been given no choice but to exhaust themselves in the workplace, and it’s a horrible situation to be in. So when I’m talking about a university workplace where we may feel like we have to put everything into our jobs all the time, but that’s actually not a job requirement. So how do we say, “I’m going to stop working now, because it’s 11 o’clock at night and one should sometimes go to bed and get some sleep?”
Rebecca: I hear it’s good for brain function.
Kristin: Yes exactly, and those things actually help us to be more effective at work. I often don’t do email on the weekends, for example, which for a Dean is unusual, but that’s because we spend 30 years socializing as grad students, and further on, that you work all the time, nonstop seven days a week, because that’s how academia works. It doesn’t have to work that way. So as another example, how can people, if they’re feeling cynical, if they recognize that increase of cynicism, how can they address that? Because one thing that brings people into higher ed is often a connection to students, especially in institutions like ours, comprehensive institutions that really value undergraduate education. We hire people who got into higher ed because they love students, and they are excited by working with students, and they have compassion for students, and they want them to live better lives when they graduate, and it can be particularly distressing for people who got into higher ed for those reasons to feel that aspect of themselves retreating, to lose patience and to lose compassion for their students. So what if you feel that? What can you do? So the first thing is, you recognize it’s a sign of burnout, you say “This is not me, this is not my weakness, this is not me becoming a harder person, this is a sign of burnout.” So it helps you to identify it as external to yourself, and something that you can approach as a problem instead of an individual failing. And then, oftentimes, we find that when you want to be feeling something that you’re not feeling, honestly “fake it till you make it” is not a bad approach. So if your student says this terrible thing is happening in my life, I need some accommodation for that in this class, perhaps some days, you have a hard time coming up with a compassionate response to that. That’s okay, as long as you don’t tell that to the student, you have it in your heart, like I just don’t have the depth of compassion that I typically have, so today, I’m going to say to the student, “I’m so sorry, you’re going through that, let’s talk about what kind of accommodations will work for class for now.” If they need extended deadlines or something like that, because later, you know, you’re going to go back to that, and you will feel it. It’s okay to say, I’m sorry, you’re going through that knowing that, cognitively, you’re sorry, and later you can be emotionally sorry for them, if that makes sense. And you’re allowed to have more depths of compassion some days than others or more depth some semesters than others, that’s okay. As long as the way that you respond to your students is the way that you want them to feel. I’m not expressing that very well. It’s okay when you feel emotionally out of control inside, it’s okay to go to your social support network and talk about that. It doesn’t have to affect the way that you work with your students. And I know some of the faculty that I have worked with that sometimes go through this, they feel horrible later if they don’t treat their students with compassion, because they were having a bad day.
John: I think also, with a pandemic, some of those support networks broke down a little bit, making it a little harder for faculty to connect to their support networks.
Kristin: Oh, that’s absolutely true, partly because we are social creatures who have evolved to be able to respond to in-person support, and when we’re not able to access that in-person support in the same ways, it doesn’t feel as powerful. I lived in Texas for many years, and hugging is, in South Texas, a big thing. You hug your colleagues when you see them, you hug a stranger when you meet them, there’s sometimes a little cheek kiss in there, you hug when you’re happy, you hug when you’re sad. There were like 80 hugs in my professional day when I worked in Texas. And, if you’re used to that level of both physical connection and social connectedness, and that is suddenly withdrawn, like it has been in the pandemic, it’s very difficult to feel the same kind of level of support. Plus many people in higher ed, we get our professional support from colleagues that we feel friendly with, but we’re not close enough friends that we would seek each other out if you have to work at it. So like, going to a department meeting, the meeting may not be that fun, but seeing your colleagues can be a highlight, like “How are things going?” …but you’re not close enough friends that you actually seek each other out outside of that. During the peak of the pandemic, those kinds of relationships were very difficult to maintain, because you weren’t having those kind of casual informal social interactions, they had to be planned and scheduled. Is this is going to be outside with masks or is this going to be in video? And without having a social support network that was that strong, much of those kind of collegial connections just melted away, and I think all of us have seen the effects of that on social loosening between colleagues and how it shows up in email and how it shows up in like people are just kind of rude to each other sometimes, because they haven’t seen each other and they haven’t rebuilt those social connections, But I should be talking more about how to build a defense against burnout. So we talked about setting time boundaries, I think that’s really important. Another aspect that, okay, it’s gonna sound individual and it is individual, but remember, burnout is a workplace phenomenon. Didn’t I say that I would say that over and over? One of the reasons that burnout can be so damaging is that it physically stresses you, and it can set you up for health impacts. So a way to build your physical resilience can also help as a response to feeling burned out. So making sure that you’re taking care of your health the best that you can. If that is starting to walk when you’re not walking, making sure that you take ergonomic breaks at work to stretch, watching how much you’re drinking, all of those aspects that build physical resilience, they make you more resistant to the stress response of the exhaustion aspect of burnout and they’ll also help protect you against the health effects that can come from an extended period of burnout.
Rebecca: Things like eating lunch seem important too in that department, right?
Rebecca: Because, one of those time barriers… that lunch just escapes away. There’s all these meetings.
Kristin: Yes, absolutely, absolutely! I had a wonderful colleague that I worked with that was so committed to students, and in her job, she was both an instructor and an advisor for a fairly large number of students, and I talked to her when she was feeling really stressed out one semester, and she said, “I don’t have time to eat or go to the bathroom. From the start of the day, to the end of the day, I’m talking to students non-stop.” And we talked about how she could build control back into her life, and as the teacher of these students, she was the one making the appointments, and they would come with a question, but she would set the agenda of how you address that. So it’s not good for your students to see that you don’t eat and go to the bathroom, it’s okay to say, “I’ve been talking to students for two hours, I need to take a restroom break, I’ll come back in 10 minutes.” That’s okay. It’s also okay to say “I need an hour here for lunch, because I also need to kind of disengage.” So we talked about how she could set time barriers so that she literally was making herself go to the bathroom and eat. Also, as just a side note, her other colleagues who had similar job responsibilities did not have this issue. That doesn’t mean it was her fault. It wasn’t her fault, it was a mismatch between what she was being asked to do and her, like a workplace issue. But, it also speaks to how boosting your own level of control can help to combat burnout. And we see this also sometimes in our colleagues who are like, I’ve been assigning these amazing projects and papers for students, and they take me so long to grade and I give them six versions of feedback along the way, and they never make revisions. They can figure out how to achieve those learning outcomes in a way that requires less instructor time. So how to exercise control in a way so that you can pull back some of that time, pull back some more flexibility.
John: And maybe doing things other than work to get back some of that work-life balance can help. I know I recently started playing with a band again.
John: Somehow in the next couple of weeks, I’ve got to learn 60 songs [LAUGHTER] before we do this long show. But it does help, it’s very refreshing to do something that’s not involving Zoom meetings for 8 to 10 to 12 hours a day.
Kristin: Absolutely, absolutely. I worked with a psychologist who ran one of the only inpatient PTSD units in the country who was really fabulous, and that was a high area of potential burnout and emotional exhaustion, listening to people talk about their traumatic experiences. And his advice, which is just the same as the literature is, you got to have fun, you got to have fun in between all those. In fact, he said, “the more stressful the work situation, the bigger the fun has to be, you have to have big fun.” Oftentimes, when people feel exhausted, it’s difficult for them to imagine doing something that would be enjoyable, it’s difficult for them to plan it, it’s difficult for them to think it’s gonna be any fun to imagine it as being fun. Don’t let any of that stop you, you just do it anyway. You say, “Usually, I like to do this, I don’t feel like doing it right now, but go do it anyway.” Because it really does have a mood lifting effect, even if you don’t feel like it when you’re going into it, and that can be little fun, it can be going on a walk with somebody that you like and enjoying nature, it can be big fun. Many of us are not doing a lot of traveling right now, and it can also include sometimes people who practice mindfulness experience increased joy in their daily life as well, because they can kind of suck the little moments of joy out of the day in a more focused way.
Rebecca: I know one strategy I used during the summer when I was starting to feel overwhelmed, was I just signed up to take a poetry class because I had time to do extra stuff, and I paid for it, and it had a regular meeting time, and it had a schedule associated with it, and it really helped me get back on a creative path, because there were some structure to it. So I didn’t have to put any brain work into the structure, I just signed up, and then the structure came to me, and that really helped because that was one less thing I had to think about.
Kristin: Mmhmm, absolutely.
John: We’ve talked a little bit about what individuals could do when they start to experience the symptoms of burnout, what might institutions do to help reduce the likelihood of burnout?
Kristin: It’s a great question and something that all workplaces need to have an eye on. In fact, some of the most interesting work that Dr. Maslach has done is working with workplaces and helping them to identify what are the sources of burnout in your workplace and how can you institutionally address it? For universities, I’m going to shift it slightly to what can leaders do. So the first thing I would say, is to watch for their own burnout, because you know that one of the aspects of burnout is cynicism, this reduced feeling of compassion. Another is feeling of ineffectiveness. If you’re expecting someone to provide leadership, you want them to have compassion for the people at the institution, and you want them to feel like that if they do something, it’s actually going to make a difference, as opposed to feeling like it’s not gonna matter whatever they do. So to watch for signs in their own burnout, and recognize that if that’s impacting their work, that they need to address that before it impacts the people that they have some responsibility for. But in general, we know that one thing that reduces workplace stress in crisis and I would characterize us as having been in a constant crisis for the last year and a half, one thing that definitely helps is to provide information, lots of information. Be as clear as possible, communicate more often than you think you have to, in multiple modalities, just communicate, communicate, communicate, because in the crisis mode, it’s very easy for people’s emotions to escalate quickly if they feel that important things are not being addressed, or they don’t know what’s going on. So over-communicate, and do what you can, in every aspect, to build faculty, staff and student experiences of control. So there are some things where the institution has to take control, there has to be some direction. It’s very important, for example, that we stay in the black in our budget, because we really want people to get paid. That’s true for every university, that there are institutional goals that protect everyone, and sometimes you have to set direction that requires that. But at the same time, there are aspects where you can cede as much control as possible. It’s very helpful if you’re already in an environment in which there is a strong tradition of shared faculty and administrative governance, but there are aspects where faculty, staff and students can exercise control over their own lives and over what’s happening to them. Every piece that you can build for that can help. At the same time, it is another dialectic where if you say, “We don’t know what to do, what do you want to do?’ to someone who is heavily burned out, they may not be able to come up with a solution, and it’s a leader’s job to be able to come up with a solution. So you don’t say “We don’t know what to do? What do you guys think?” And sometimes the answer to that is, “Well, we don’t know either it’s your job, figure it out,” and that’s a fine answer. So if that’s the answer to the Dean or the Provost or the President, then they need to figure it out, [LAUGHTER] while allowing as much flexibility as possible. Another aspect, I think, is that we need to be extra conscious of faculty, staff, and students who have comparatively less institutional power. So in a time of crisis, with widespread levels of burnout, it’s definitely going to affect some people more than others, and those people are often on the margins of having a voice or having power to create institutional change. They’re people who may be already under extra stress because of low pay or because of discriminatory experiences in their department or inequitable workload assignment. Those people are already getting the short end of the stick, and may be more prone to burnout because of it, and may have less power to say anything. So it’s an institutional responsibility to be extra conscious of those voices, to go the extra mile to find out what their perspectives are, and to build them into whatever we can do to, again, build experiences of control. And finally, I think all of us should be practicing compassion as much as we can. We may not agree, that’s okay. Higher ed is really good at having disagreements. We have disagreements about ideas, we have very fundamental disagreements about policy, that’s okay. We can even say like “this person is super freaked out about going into the classroom right now, because of their own assessment of risk that is completely independent of anything else, and this person is not.” That doesn’t mean one of them is right or wrong, it means that their own perceptions are different, and that we should have compassion for people who have different perspectives on what is happening in their lives. I recognize that that list is too global. I would really like to say, “Here are these specific things that we should do,” but it does differ by institutional contexts. In terms of specifics, though, I think communicating as often as possible in multiple modalities and making sure that voices are in the room. Those are two specific things. When decisions are being made that affect their lives, faculty, students, and staff should be in the room so their voices can be heard, so that they can exercise as much control as possible over their workplace situations.
Rebecca: Sounds to me to based on what you were saying, Kristin, is that when we’re thinking about faculty or staff voices that need to be in the room, it’s not just tenured faculty, or full-time faculty or full-time staff, but people that are on a range of situations from those who might be really part-time to those who have been really established with the institution and been there for a long time.
Kristin: Absolutely, absolutely. And doing it in such a way that… and this is, I think, a tricky part… adjunct voices, for example, are very important in determining how to move forward in ways that affect adjunct work, but at the same time, we don’t want to burden them with extra service requirements of serving on a bunch of committees or put them in a position where they feel that their contracts are already unstable if they speak up and say something… are they going to lose a potential adjunct contract in the future? So it’s a hard line to walk, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. There is a way to make sure that untenured faculty, both part-time and full-time, have a voice in determining how the institution moves forward.
Rebecca: Some of that sounds like anonymity might sometimes be important to providing some feedback, especially with part time faculty.
Kristin: That’s an excellent point.
Rebecca: Maybe they can’t be in the room, but we can certainly ask them for feedback, in an anonymous platform, so that we have at least a representation of their voices in the room, even if they’re not there.
Kristin: Absolutely, and I appreciate the unionized environment in New York, where there is an alternative pathway to provide input, where people can feel protected in a different way.
John: Anonymity is one good way of providing that feedback, but also having a sense of trust that what you say will be taken under consideration seriously, and I think our campus has done a pretty good job with that, compared to what I’ve heard from many other campuses.
Kristin: I think so too. Both in the classroom, and in leadership, we have to walk that tricky line of like, “I think I know what I’m doing, but at the same time, I have to really welcome critical feedback.” Like if your students say, “I really don’t understand what you’re talking about,” you have to have some experience of gratitude for that, that somebody said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” so that you can explain. And similarly in leadership, when faculty say, “this is a dumb idea, don’t do this,” we have to be able to experience some gratitude for that feedback and say, “Well, thank you for pointing out all those potential horrible downsides that had not been considered.” So cultivating that attitude of trust and safety, because then you, on the one hand, you get some pretty negative feedback sometimes, so you suck it up. But at the same time, you need to feel grateful for that negative feedback, because it really does make the institution a better place. One aspect that we didn’t touch on, I just want to pop in, in higher ed, full-time faculty more than part-time, but full-time faculty of all ranks tend to have somewhat more control over their assigned work over time than in other workplaces, and that is another way to combat burnout in the long run. So if you say I have been doing the same thing for years, and I just can’t take it anymore, there’s so much interesting stuff that can be done at a university. If you got a better idea of how to spend your time, probably somebody is going to let you do it. I worked with a wonderful woman, I will give her a shout-out even though I don’t think she’ll hear us: Wendy James-Aldridge was my most influential Department Chair as an Assistant Professor, and Wendy was a great researcher. She studied primate family relationships for decades at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, but she was also a talented administrator, she was a great teacher, and she told me one day, “You know, when I just get tired of dealing with students, after years of a heavy teaching load, I go be Department Chair, and then I do some stuff, and I push some paper around, I take care of faculty, and then whenI get tired of dealing with faculty, complaints and paperwork, then I went to chair the faculty assembly and did that for a while, and then when I got tired of that, then I went back to full-time teaching.” And this is over decades of a career, and it’s a really great example that when work seems like a slog, you can actually change, if you have enough control, which in higher ed we often do, you can actually change the proportion of your time. And every university, I would hazard a guess, has some great faculty who are leading a center somewhere. And they often do that when they were doing one thing and being very successful at it and thought, “Hey, I would be really interested and excited to do this other thing,” then you do that for a while and you say, “Hey, you know what would be interesting? To do a different thing, because I like to learn, I like to grow,” You do a different thing, and in higher ed, we can actually do that. In many workplaces, that is not really an option. And I’ll say it again, as Dean, I can say, there’s so many things that need to be done that if someone comes up to me and says, “I have this idea, I want to do this really interesting thing that needs to be done,” there’s usually a way to make that happen, because we need a lot of stuff to be done. So I’d also suggest that people think about both control in the short term, how can you control your time and how you’re spending your time and allocating your emotional investment, but also think about control in the long term. If you’re tired of what you’re doing, and your institution gives sabbaticals, take a sabbatical, move in a different direction, apply for a leadership position, write a grant, those are all things that actually can help refresh people’s sense of engagement with their workplace. It’s interesting to me that sometimes the solution for burnout is not less work, it’s different work.
Rebecca: I’m definitely someone who has had a lot of different interests and jumps around and does all kinds of different projects, from research to creative work.
Kristin: Oftentimes, when I’m feeling particularly ineffective, I will listen to the podcast or do a good hour of development, because that kind of learning helps to re-engage me emotionally. And then I don’t feel so ineffective. It’s like, “hey, those are good ideas, I have ideas, I am thinking about these ideas.” I now have a little rejuvenation of energy, and I think a lot of academics are that way, we get turned on by learning and we get turned on by stretching and doing different things.
John: I know that’s something I’ve enjoyed about the podcast. I’ve received a lot of inspiration by the suggestions from our guests. The main problem is trying not to implement too many of them all at once. [LAUGHTER]
Kristin: All at the same time, all at the same time, yeah.
Rebecca: I know one of the lessons that I tucked away from that poetry class I’ve been taking was the idea of generative reading, and that’s really what you’re talking about.
Rebecca: Consuming something else from some other folks to be exposed to new ideas to remind yourself that you also have ideas.
Kristin: Yes, absolutely. I’ll add one other strategy: oftentimes we find people to hyper focus on their areas of weakness, and say, “I’m so stressed out, I have to get better at these 28 things,” and oftentimes, that kind of focus actually doesn’t help. It can be much more helpful to focus on your areas of strength. Say, “You know what, I’m bad at these things, but I’m good at this stuff, I’m gonna do this stuff I’m good at.” So for example, I am not good at writing by myself, I have never been good at writing by myself, I find it completely unrewarding. If I had a deadline, I would usually hit it, but if I have a collaborator, I can write because the social motivation is much more interesting to me.
John: A commitment device, as we talked about on an earlier podcast.
Kristin: Exactly, I also find writing articles to be really boring, but I can write a grant with no problem, because I see the impact it’s going to have, and that is much more motivating to me. So I could spend my career beating myself up for being bad at writing articles by myself, or I could spend my career saying, “You know what I like to write grants with a team, something that will make a difference, and that’s less frustrating for me, it’s much more rewarding, it has better impact for the institution because I’m actually doing something that I’m good at, as opposed to just trying to build what I’m bad at.” We spend so much time trying to say “I am bad at this, I should be better.” Well, that’s actually not very helpful. So the next time you find yourself thinking that you can say, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, what am I good at? I’m gonna focus on that instead.” And that can also help to combat that feeling of exhaustion, because you’re always trying to remediate what you’re bad at and being tired and being worn out. Uh hnnn. What are you good at? Where will you find that energy? What gets you intellectually engaged again?
Rebecca: Sounds to me like in tenure, promotion, retention practices that focus on the contributions made by an individual, rather than specific kinds of contributions, like contributions that are a good fit for the individual and the institution, would be something worth rewarding and emphasizing.
Kristin: Absolutely, and we see that at the Associate Professor level, how can we kind of spread it more to the Assistant Professor level, where when people are promoted to Associate and given tenure, sometimes they blossom in an unexpected way, because they don’t feel so much pressure to be evenly achieving across multiple areas.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?
Kristin: What’s next? That’s a good question. As Dean, I am very focused on what role that I can play and what role can the college play in supporting our faculty and students and I will remain both focused on COVID, ‘cause, you know, it kind of is a cloud over everything, right? But, at the same time, thinking about “What do we do next? What are we learning now? What can we use now that we can leverage to come out of this in a different and new way?” How about you two?
Rebecca: It’s always an adventure, right? [LAUGHTER]
Kristin: Yes, it is, yes, it is.
Rebecca: Well, what’s next, I’m going to learn my new job, which is the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at SUN- Oswego.
Kristin: Well congratulations! And I am excited to work with you in all of the capacities that you have been in, including this new one, and the nice thing for me is that the Graduate Studies Office is right down the hall, so I’ll get the chance to see Rebecca more.
John: What’s next for me is continuing in the classroom after a nice long break. It was really exciting to be back in the classroom. I wish more than 60% of my students had been vaccinated that first day, but working with a challenging environment where I have a number of students in quarantine, a number of students testing positive every few days, and handling that mix in face-to-face and online is a challenge, especially when you have a very interactive class environment where there’s a lot of polling and group work taking place that, as many people experienced last year, it’s very challenging, and I was kind of happy to avoid it, but it’s so much more energizing, for me at least, to be back in that classroom environment.
Kristin: Right, absolutely. Well, good luck to you and to your students.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.