Faculty Club / Wellness / From Surviving to Thriving: Overcoming Teacher Burnout

From Surviving to Thriving: Overcoming Teacher Burnout

Cynthia van Golen, PhD, explores the topic of faculty burnout and provides valuable insights and strategies to help educators overcome this common issue.

Cynthia van Golen, PhD


Associate Professor,
Delaware State University

With the pandemic, like many of us, I became interested in the Great Resignation and why people were leaving the workforce. This led me to develop an interest in burnout, and I started researching and exploring ways that both individuals and institutions can deal with burnout—and hopefully reverse the trends that we are seeing. 

My entire reason for getting interested into this was, of course, because I wanted to better help my students. In doing this, I realized that my colleagues are just as affected by burnout, and I was inspired by Professor Arnold Bakker from the Netherlands when he says that “by protecting professors, we are protecting students and the quality of education”.

Exploring faculty burnout actually does help our students and improves the quality of education we are delivering.

What is burnout and how has it impacted higher ed?

Burnout actually was originally listed as a phenomenon in the ICD-10, the international catalog of diseases. It was modified in the 11th version, and these are the World Health Organization criteria that were elucidated in 2020—it is listed as an occupational phenomenon, not a medically centric disorder, tied to feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s work, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related one’s job and reduced professional efficacy. If you meet at least one of these criteria, it is likely burnout has hit you. 

Now, if we look at reasons for the Great Resignation, people are reevaluating what their priorities are in life. They are seeking work life balance and questioning what they need out of the workplace. This was a historic trend that the pandemic blew open, and we see more than double the number of resignations than what we saw a decade ago and 115% higher resignation in 2021 than in 2011. 

This holds true in higher education.

In a recent survey, provosts revealed that they had decreased applications overall for faculty positions. If you look nationally at faculty survey data, coming from Association of College Professors, what you see is a decrease overall in faculty salary, which is indicating that actually some of the faculty that are receiving higher incomes are actually leaving the profession as well. If we look at education as a whole, 40% of teachers leave the profession within five years.

If we focus on higher education, 55% of faculty have considered a career change or considered early retirement, according to a Forbes survey. If you look specifically at post pandemic, about 35% of faculty are considering leaving the profession altogether. Interestingly, when we look at gender, there does not appear to be a large gender difference but when we look at people of color disproportionately are considering leaving the profession.

Who is becoming burnt out? 

When we look amongst generations, what we are seeing is that millennials are soon to be experiencing a greater amount of burnout relative to baby boomers. This has implications for higher education, because that means, if we are looking at people in certain positions, those that are early in their careers are experiencing burnout at a much higher rate. Contingent faculty also experiences much higher burnout, at all levels, whether early, mid, or late-career, and those that are in the community colleges show higher rates of burnout than those in four-your institutions.

If you look at the instrument that measures burnout, it has different measures, so physical exhaustion scores, emotional exhaustion scores, and measures of depersonalization, which is essentially displacement.

Women and people of color have higher emotional exhaustion scores. Men, on the other hand, have higher depersonalization scores, so essentially, men tend to disengage more, whereas women and people of color tend to remain engaged until the point of expressing extreme burnout.

What can we do about burnout? First, address the institutional context.

When you read articles on what to do about burnout, many of these suggest self-care. They suggest getting proper sleep, meditation, yoga, taking your vacation, proper eating. These, of course, make people healthier overall. They help us deal with stress overall. But these are not the cure to burnout. 

Burnout is an organizational issue. It is not an individual issue—simply doing self-care is not going to fix the burnout problem. I think that most of us realize this: if we have a nice self-care day, then we get ready to go back to work and we are experiencing burnout, we probably have dread.

Now, what has been done? Well, some of the things that have been done, both in the workforce as a whole and in higher education, are providing things on-site like gyms and daycare. Or it’s recommended that you download an app that tells you when you get up and take a walk and break, or we have faculty walking hours from noon to 1:00 at the gym. 

While on-site perks are great, when you look at the data, on-site perks actually negatively correlate with burnout, meaning if this encourages people to remain on-site, it erodes boundaries, therefore increasing burnout rather than decreasing. So although on-site perks are great, for those not experiencing burnout, they aren’t the cure for now. 

What needs to be done is a whole lot. Author Jennifer Moss relates that “burnout is a complex constellation of poor workplace practices and policies, antiquated institutional legacies, roles and personalities at higher risk, and system, societal issues that have been unchanged, plaguing us for too long”.

Which means, of course, this is a very complex issue that is not going to be solved by one thing. It is especially not going to be solved by what I will call surface-level perks.

So what should institutions do?

Institutions need to, first and foremost, pay people what they are worth, and adjust workload and salaries so they match.

Currently, those who are ineffective instructors of 20 years actually have higher pay than highly effective instructors of five years, which means that we benefit in a salary fashion from longevity, not from merit, and that is difficult.

Meanwhile, faculty that have students in their lab or who run clubs or honor societies are not given compensation presently. This contributes to the imbalance between salary and workload. The salary structure also offers little in the way of continuous increase, meaning that we see salaries increase among tenure-track only with promotions unless we choose to enter into administration. But for those of us who have no interest in administration and want to continue teaching, we must remain in a set salary structure, and we ultimately hit a glass ceiling. As professors, that is as far as you can go unless they apply for jobs at other institutions and get a counter offer from their current institution. 

Institutions also need to provide the tools and resources for people to do their job. Part of this is going to come on us to tell them what the tools are and what they need. Unfortunately, with the decreased budget in the higher educational departments, some departments are just scraping by, instead of getting the tools that are necessary. 

Institutions need to do a better job of managing service requirements. All of us know, from the start, if we are on the tenure track, we have to focus on research, teaching, and service, and recently there has been a marked increase in the service component. In some instances, contingent faculty are being pulled into service roles that they would not have had before.

The number of committees on which faculty sit has also increased, and committees that no longer serve a definitive purpose have not been left out, so we are adding more and more overtime. True, we need to have effective, directed committees, meaning that we need to have committees with a specific purpose.

But there is a cynicism amongst faculty who recognize that most of us who have strong faculty Senate committees are not necessarily getting communication back from the administration or recognition of our contribution. This is all leading to an increased workload and an increase in burnout.

Finally, institutions need to ensure that discriminatory practices are not part of the workplace. Yes, we can go through all of our training on diversity, inclusion, and microaggressions, but discriminatory practices that can lead to burnout usually come from the institutional level—not necessarily as overt as one worker to another. 

Unfortunately, there is only so much that can be done. If you continue capping classes, obviously you will need more sections, and if you need more sections, you need more faculty to teach them, which leads to increased cost. So there has to be some balance between manageable costs for the institution, and manageable workloads for faculty members. 

What can we do as individuals beyond just saying “no”?

The first piece of advice that you find in the literature is “just say no” to those things that are not necessary for you to do your job. The advice here is to do more of what you are good at and do less of what drains you. While this is great on paper, for those who are in their early career, or those who are contingent faculty, saying no to what you were asked to do is very difficult. That is something that can promote burnout because you feel like you simply cannot say no. 

One of the studies that I quoted asked people in the workforce as a whole, not just in higher education, if they felt that their bosses would value burnout. The majority say yes. Burnout is almost considered a badge of honor. We feel that our administrators value our burnout, that it is good to do more than what is expected of us. Once again, this is great on paper, but it is really not good for most of us in practice. 

A better approach involves remodeling our environment by making the choice to build a life you don’t want to escape from.

  • Start seeking out relationships with other departments, among staff, and form collaborations with people outside of your department to develop a new sense of purpose. 
  • Acknowledge one another as peers and leaders. We tend to hear a lot of the negative, without acknowledging the positive, and we need to acknowledge intangible contribution and invisible work, especially true for women and people of color, who are overwhelmingly doing a lot of the invisible work that is not documented. 

More resources on burnout

Works by Jennifer Moss

Works by Nataly Kogan

Jobcrafting Articles by Arnold Bakker

Get the Faculty Club newsletter

Browse by Topic