Psychology professor Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill offers 5 ways for educators to reduce stress and burnout—to support themselves as well as their students.
Professor of Psychology,University of Texas, San Antonio
PhD in Clinical Psychology, MA and BA in Psychology
A former student of mine, who is now in a graduate counseling program, recently stopped by my office. Noting my numerous research, service, and teaching obligations, he said, somewhat hesitantly, “I know you teach stress management and help a lot of people, but have you thought about your own needs? Maybe you should slow down and take better care of yourself.”
Most people acknowledge that teaching at the K–12 level is stressful but are unaware of the stress that higher ed instructors encounter. Adjunct professors must drive between campuses to make ends meet, assistant professors work tirelessly to secure their jobs, and tenured professors struggle to stay relevant and productive. Not surprisingly, they all report significant levels of stress. The expectation that faculty members will now become adept at responding to students in a crisis only increases their burden. In fact, these interactions take a psychological toll on instructors as well (McNaughton-Cassill, 2017).
The signs are recognizable. Common responses to workplace stress include depression, burnout, and compassion fatigue. People who struggle with depression often have difficulty staying focused, seeing beyond their own negative thoughts, and staying engaged with other people and activities they used to enjoy. Symptoms of burnout include fatigue, lack of motivation and productivity, cynicism, irritability, substance abuse, physical discomfort, and sleep difficulties. Finally, compassion fatigue can resemble burnout but is also characterized by the loss of empathy for others, due to excessive exposure to other people’s trauma.
Professors often fear appearing incompetent and, thus, are reluctant to ask for help when they are struggling (Flaherty, 2017). It doesn’t help that many academics believe that failing to take time for themselves is a sign of academic dedication and prowess. The irony is that workaholism is actually linked to reduced productivity overall (Clark et al, 2016).
So, what can educators do to maintain their own mental health and avoid a downward stress-induced psychological spiral of their own?
- Pay attention to your own physical needs. Fatigue and hunger make it difficult to think clearly, manage your own feelings, and respond effectively to distress in others.
- Honor your feelings. If you are getting frustrated, angry, or hopeless about your job, find someone to talk to. It is likely that some of your colleagues share similar feelings. Many campuses have teaching support centers, and reaching out to a counselor can make a huge difference. If your hip started to hurt, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to go to a doctor. Why should seeking help when you are in psychological pain be any different?
- Learn how to maintain perspective and manage dysfunctional thoughts about your own competence, accomplishments, or need for approval. Research in the field of cognitive behavioral therapy suggests that we largely create our own reality, and that we can learn to recognize and address thoughts and assumptions that lead us to negative emotional experiences. Mindfulness or meditation can help you escape from the frantic pace of your daily life and find time to focus on the present, not just the past or future (Gillihan, 2018).
- Set clear boundaries for yourself. Do you routinely agree to tasks you don’t have time to complete? Are you able to hold to your own course guidelines when students ask for special accommodations? Can you close your office door and focus when you need to meet a deadline? Are you able to help a student but not get overly involved in their issues or drama? The failure to set and maintain boundaries can result in messy interpersonal interactions and the inability to maintain work-life balance.
- Act. Familiarize yourself with the Title IX and Clery reporting policies on your campus, so you will know how to seek help for yourself and others. If you have concerns about your own safety related to something that has happened on campus, take action. Consult with your colleagues and department chair. Reach out to your campus Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) and police department. It helps to remember, however, that violence on campus is actually quite rare (Ropeik, 2018).
If you have ever paid attention to the flight attendant’s instructions about what to do in the “unlikely event of an emergency,” you are familiar with the idea that you need to take care of yourself before assisting anyone else. The bottom line: We can’t address our students’ stress and mental illness effectively if we aren’t willing to do the same thing for ourselves.
AVMA. “Work and Compassion Fatigue” (https://www.avma.org/ProfessionalDevelopment/PeerAndWellness/Pages/compassion-fatigue.aspx). American Veterinary Medical Association. Retrieved December 11, 2019.
Clark, M., J. Michel, L. Zhdanova, S. Pui, and B. Baltes. “All Work and No Play? A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Correlates and Outcomes of Workaholism” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263190310_All_Work_and_No_Play_A_Meta-Analytic_Examination_of_the_Correlates_and_Outcomes_of_Workaholism). Journal of Management, vol. 42, no. 7, 2016, pp. 1836–1873. doi: 10.1177/0149206314522301.
Clement, S., O. Schauman, T. Graham, et al. “What Is the Impact of Mental Health–Related Stigma on Help-Seeking? A Systematic Review of Quantitative and Qualitative Studies” (https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0033291714000129). Psychological Medicine, vol. 45, no. 1, 2015, pp. 11–27. doi: 10.1017/s0033291714000129.
Flaherty, C. “Aftermath of a Professor’s Suicide” (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/04/21/recent-suicide-professor-sparks-renewed-discussions-about-access-mental-health). Inside Higher Ed, April 21, 2017.
Gillihan, S. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple: 10 Strategies for Managing Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Panic, and Worry (http://sethgillihan.com/books/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-made-simple/). Berkeley, CA: Althea Press, 2018.
McNaughton-Cassill, M.E. “Stress in the College Classroom: Not Just a Student Problem Anymore” (https://www.kpu.ca/sites/default/files/Transformative Dialogues/TD.10.2.9_McNaughton-Cassill_Stress_in_the_College_Classroom.pdf). Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal, vol. 10, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1–8.
Robson, D. “The Reasons Why Exhaustion and Burnout Are So Common” (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160721-the-reasons-why-exhaustion-and-burnout-are-so-common). BBC Future, July 22, 2016.
Rockquemore, K. (2019). “How to Listen Less” (https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2015/11/04/setting-boundaries-when-it-comes-students-emotional-disclosures-essay). Inside Higher Ed, November 4, 2015. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
Ropeik, D. “School Shootings Are Extraordinarily Rare. Why Is Fear of Them Driving Policy?” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/school-shootings-are-extraordinarily-rare-why-is-fear-of-them-driving-policy/2018/03/08/f4ead9f2-2247-11e8-94da-ebf9d112159c_story.html). The Washington Post, March 8, 2018. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
Wilcox, C. “Lighting Dark: Fixing Academia’s Mental Health Problem” (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26365-lighting-dark-fixing-academias-mental-health-problem/). New Scientist, October 10, 2014.
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