Tackling Faculty Burnout

 “It’s week one and I’m already tired.”
“I’m depressed because I can’t retire yet.”
“There’s so much to do that I don’t know where to start.”
“I just don’t know if I care anymore.”
“This job isn’t what I thought it was going to be.”

Sound familiar? The World Health Organization (2019) defines burnout as sustained workplace stress characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and reduce efficacy. More and more faculty members report suffering from burnout, often to the point of at least considering leaving the profession

Thankfully, there is some hope for reversing this trend. Faculty can prevent and treat burnout from two angles: first, by attending to their own wellbeing; second, by influencing change in the unhealthy academic culture.

Reports of burnout and resignation (in both senses) in higher education are not new, and we seem to generally recognize that the pandemic only made things worse. Unfortunately, overcommitment, lack of compensation, and the resulting exhaustion and resentment are built into the fabric of higher education.

Higher education is a competitive field, with thousands of adjuncts and graduates salivating for the very few sweet tenured positions and, let’s face it, shrinking enrollment and budgets don’t help.

This competitive environment leads to at least two major contributors to burnout and resentment: first, the unhealthy circumstance of adjunct, contingent, and tenure-track faculty trying to prove their worth through over-commitment, often by getting involved in projects and teaching classes that they are not passionate about. Second, faculty internalize the need to prove their worth during the “please hire me” phase of their careers and then continue to feel (often unconsciously) beholden to institutions after winning the “golden handcuffs” of a full-time or tenure-track position: the need to please can become part of our identity, even as tenured faculty members.

Some of the problem lies with who we are. Our profession attracts people who were good enough at school to earn a graduate degree: we like to achieve. Also, many instructors find meaning in empowering the next generation. Unfortunately, this sense of noble purpose combined with pitiful compensation leaves faculty members unable to serve students and society.

Because instructors and researchers in higher education often have to prove themselves again and again - to be hired, to their tenure committees, to themselves – we often say “yes” to roles that are not aligned with our interests or fairly compensated. We may agree to serve as a student advisor even though we don’t have time because we want to demonstrate our service to students. We may take on a project we’re not passionate about for no compensation because we want to prove our value to the institution. This sums up how illogical faculty members become in this unhealthy environment: let me prove my worth to you by doing something for free! It makes no sense from the outside, but inside higher education, we make these self-destructive bargains again and again.

In reality, these deals with the devil do not pay off in the longer term: not for ourselves, not for our students, not for our friends and family, and not even for the institutions we desperately try to impress. Burning ourselves down to the ground hurts ourselves and those we purport to serve. Because of the harmful culture, faculty members end up with feelings of resentment and isolation, unhealthy lifestyle patterns, and questions about whether we should stay in the profession at all.

To address the burnout culture, faculty need to work individually and collectively to reclaim their motivation and energy.

First, we can take steps to protect and repair our individual wellbeing:

 We can each honestly examine our current situation. How do I feel? Is this how I want to feel? Why do I feel this way? How would I like to feel instead?

  • We can consider our unconscious motivations.  Which of my needs are being met? Which needs am I trying to get met? Which needs am I meeting in healthy ways? In unhealthy ways?
  • We can examine how our values and beliefs underpin our behaviors. Do I believe in my worth? Do I feel like I belong? Is feeling like an imposter leading me to overcommit?
  • We can get serious about our boundaries: Where am I saying “yes” when I really mean “no”? Where am I working on something that feels heavy or out of alignment with my values and beliefs? Where am I overcommitted? What is stealing my time, energy, and joy?

Second, as a collective, higher education faculty can support each other in our attempts to set and maintain healthy boundaries:

  • Don’t take on extra work that someone else could be compensated for. Work in line with collective bargaining agreements to ensure that you and your colleagues are compensated for all time and effort. Don’t undermine others by working for free or overenrolling your classes.
  • Only accept roles that are fairly compensated. Many contracts will have provisions for project and grant-funded work. Talk to your union or faculty association representative about the agreements at your college. Don’t set a precedent of settling for less than you are worth.
  • Support your colleagues when they hold boundaries. Notice when your colleagues are burning out and support their efforts to care for themselves. Each time an individual holds a boundary, there is an eventual benefit to all faculty and students in the long run. Don’t shame each other for scaling back.
  • Engage with your union or faculty association. Dues equate to time and energy spent protecting faculty and students working conditions and wellbeing. Educate yourself about what is happening on your campus and work collectively to improve the culture. Don’t let the hard work fall to others.
  • Speak up and take action when you see behaviors, initiatives, policies and practices that harm faculty or student wellbeing. This is especially important for tenured faculty with job security: use your voice to empower and lift up your more vulnerable colleagues. Don’t sit idly by or simply complain about unfair practices.

Saying “no” or “no, thank you” to projects and situations that rob us of our energy and joy will feel uncomfortable at first for many of us, especially for habitual people-pleasers, including adjuncts striving to get jobs; women who have said “yes” without meaning it for so long that they have forgotten what they really want; and anyone who attaches their identity to being busy, productive, and competent.

I understand that saying “no” may not feel like an option: you need to get hired. You want to be promoted. You have to check the boxes in the tenure process. You feel compelled to demonstrate your care for students by going above and beyond.

But let me assure you that you are more likely to get hired to a more permanent position when you set boundaries about compensation that works for you, you will be a better teacher when you have energy and joy, and your projects will flourish when you work only on initiatives that you care about. Holding boundaries protects you from the burnout that results from saying “yes” to poor pay, overwork, and lack of alignment to your values.

Like many new skills, saying “no” can feel counterintuitive at first, but it opens up the space to get what you really desire and what is most fair for everyone. We may not be able to say “no” to any task we don’t want to do, but we can get more intentional about setting boundaries to protect the projects and people we care about the most, including our students and ourselves.

We have the power to create the culture and lifestyle we hoped for when we joined the esteemed profession of higher education. Faculty who are exhausted, unwell, disconnected, and overwhelmed cannot effectively show up for their students and other professional responsibilities, let alone for their personal lives. Learning to say “no” is an important step toward reclaiming energy, meaning, and joy. When we take care of ourselves, we can better serve others.

Joelle Adams teaches English Composition and Literature at Santa Monica College. She also serves on the SMC Faculty Association’s Executive Committee and is passionate about faculty wellbeing and working conditions, improving distance education, and professional development. 


FACCC blog posts are written independently by FACCC members and encompass their experiences and recommendations. FACCC neither condemns nor endorses the recommendations herein.


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