When Faculty Burnout Leads to Turnover

Years of significant disruption have resulted in burnout for higher education faculty members, but there are solutions.

By: Aila Boyd
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Higher education, like many sectors, experienced significant disruption over the past few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the easing of vaccination requirements and a return to in-person classes, the impact of all that disruption, especially in the form of faculty burnout, is still being felt, according to an October brief from the American Council on Education. 

Kurt Gingrich, a professor of history at Radford University in Virginia and president of the public university’s Faculty Senate Executive Council, said COVID-19 took a toll on his institution, as it did on many others. 

Some junior faculty members at Radford have found the demands of establishing themselves more daunting than expected, while more tenured faculty struggle to find new ways to renew themselves. However, he noted burnout isn’t a new concept. “Some faculty members feel burnout—but undoubtedly this has always been so,” he said. 


Kevin Carman, provost and executive vice president at the University of Wyoming, said burnout is a concern for his institution. Even though his university is largely operating the way it did prior to COVID-19, he said, “There are still lingering challenges for faculty as we’ve transitioned back.” One of the most visible impacts he’s noticed has been higher attrition. 

On the frontlines of higher education as a sociology professor at the private Roman Catholic Dominican University in Illinois, Chavella Pittman knows many faculty members who are experiencing burnout. “Things were exacerbated by the pandemic, but it was more of a piling upon than it was an emergence out of the blue,” she said. 

A September nationwide survey of higher education faculty from the education consultant O’Donnell Learn found that 50% of its respondents “feel burnt out over the requirements of teaching in today’s college environment.” Burnout, the brief noted, manifests through cynicism, feelings of ineffectiveness and emotional exhaustion. 

The brief stated that burnout can cause “both individual and organizational consequences, including turnover, low morale, dissatisfaction with the workplace and opportunities for growth, and a belief that the work is no longer meaningful.” 

There are notable factors driving burnout in higher education. 

Despite the significant impact on the industry’s workforce, the brief offered a number of ways higher ed leaders can address burnout and, hopefully, stem attrition and support employees. 

Salary Concerns

Although higher education used to be considered a sector that provided strong salaries, the brief noted, that’s not the case anymore. In fact, 76% of respondents to a College and University Professional Association for Human Resources May survey are “seeking new employment because they want an increase in pay.” 

The brief offered actions leaders can take to remedy salary concerns, including offering competitive pay. To start, institutions can conduct a competitive salary analysis based on geographic area and peer institutions. 

Radford University, Gingrich noted, is doing just that. It initiated a salary study, which he said “should pay dividends in the areas of retention and recruitment.” 

Similarly, Carman said his university’s inability to provide pay raises for a number of years was an issue but noted that a raise was given this year. “Hopefully we’ll be able to provide another one next year, but nevertheless, that contributes to faculty morale and not feeling valued,” he said. 

Pittman, who also runs the faculty development company Effective & Efficient Faculty, added that faculty are either being asked or encouraged to do certain kinds of labor—“invisible labor”—that is not being compensated. “People should be compensated for their labor, whether it’s financial compensation or recognizing what they do through the formal rewards system through tenure and promotion,” she said. 

Other actions leaders can take include being forthright about salary ranges in advertisements, adjusting for the cost of living and promoting all benefits.

Even though institutions may point to the fact that they have fewer dollars to spend on salaries due to decreasing enrollments, Pittman said, “I think those dollars could be spent in more innovative ways.” 

Reasons Employees Are Seeking New Employment Source: CUPA-HR 2022 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey

Opportunities for Advancement

Although institutions often offer job coaching, the brief explained, they rarely help prepare faculty for the next step in their careers: “Leaving the onus on the individual sends the message that the organization only cares about the employee as a worker for a particular role, rather than on capitalizing on their strengths throughout their lifespan.”

A lack of advancement opportunities is especially a concern for adjunct faculty. Pittman agreed. 

“Universities are very dependent upon the work of adjunct faculty, yet they do not make paths for that to be secure employment,” she said. In a show of solidarity with adjunct faculty, Pittman’s department has advocated for increased wages and professional development opportunities on their behalf.

To keep employees engaged, Radford University makes them feel as though they aren’t stuck.  

“Radford University strives to ensure all faculty can feel forward progress, whether in their scholarly output, in their teaching acumen, in the job title or in the institution itself,” Gingrich explained. 

Opportunities for advancement can often be complicated for diverse faculty, Pittman explained. “Diverse faculty are brought to institutions to do a certain kind of work, then that work isn’t recognized in a formal rewards system,” she said. She pointed to the example of diverse faculty being asked to sponsor a student group or serve on a diversity committee, which isn’t taken into consideration when their tenure applications are submitted. 

The brief said that identifying career paths, reclassifying positions to create a less bottom-heavy organization and providing career coaches can be used to show faculty they have a future at their institutions. 

Satisfaction with the Higher Ed Work Environment Source: CUPA-HR 2022 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey

Preferences for Remote Work and Flexible Schedules

The brief indicated that, although 69% of respondents to the same association survey “would prefer to have at least a partially remote work arrangement,” many institutions reverted to a traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule coming out of the pandemic. 

“Allowing staff to shape their work hours  […] would lead to greater satisfaction with the workplace,” it continued.

Some of the suggestions offered include having flexible schedules that work for each office and the creation of hybrid schedules for those who would like to work both in-person and remotely.

Given the fact that virtual classes are more commonplace now, Gingrich noted that Radford’s administration and faculty are working to create the appropriate balance of courses in different modalities.

 “As a result, some faculty members will be able to or will be asked to do more remotely,” he said. He added that decisions about course modalities will ultimately be made with the principle that the “student needs must come first.” 

Carman said he has “seen some resistance to coming back to work on campus,” especially among senior members of the faculty. 

“For our tenure-track faculty, they have to make a choice. We need them back on campus interacting with students,” he said.

Technology Overload

The increased reliance on technology in the workplace has brought with it benefits, the brief said, but it has also allowed work to encroach into workers’ lives. An example given was that, during the pandemic, workers “were expected to always be accessible to answer questions.” 

As a faculty member, Pittman has experienced that expectation. “The pandemic demanded us to be available 24/7,” she said, adding that the issue has been compounded by the fact “we never adjusted back.” 

Carman explained technology overload was especially difficult on faculty at his institution who were hired shortly before the pandemic. “They were thrust into this remote work situation. I think it was extremely difficult for them,” he said. “It’s hard enough getting adjusted as a new faculty member, then having to adjust to new modalities.” 

To combat technology overload, the brief suggested leaders should reduce the use of chat programs by simply relying on email, which it said is “less disruptive.” 

Lack of Meaningful Work

Those who enter academia do so because they understand the value of higher education, the brief said, however, “faculty and staff are growing disenchanted with higher education as an enterprise.” For that reason, institutions need to rethink the ways they handle employee retention. 

Carman noted that despite some challenges, he normally doesn’t have a problem attracting new applicants. He pointed to the 82 applications he recently received for a new assistant professor of microbiology position, which he was quite pleased with. The one exception, he said, has been attracting those who have expertise that is highly sought after by the private sector, like veterinary pathologists.

Taking a page from the tech playbook by allowing employees to devote one day per week to a project that is of interest to them can help employees feel fulfilled, the brief said. Building jobs around the strengths of employees is something else leaders can do. 

Likelihood of Looking for Other Employment Within the Next 12 Months Source: CUPA-HR 2022 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey

Increasing Workload and Unfilled Positions

Vacant positions in higher education caused by budget shortfalls aren’t a new phenomenon, but the vacancies were compounded in recent years due to pandemic-related layoffs, furloughs and early retirement offers. “These empty positions have created challenges for those who remain,” the brief said. 

The association’s survey confirms that theory, with 73% of respondents saying they “have taken on additional responsibilities as a direct result of the pandemic.” 

Pittman observed that institutions are adding a class or two to faculty’s teaching loads but aren’t providing additional compensation. “They’re doing that as cost savings. They’re squeezing more labor out of faculty at a time when they’re already stressed out,” she said. 

“Faculty workload certainly has not decreased. But the extent to which it has increased varies case by case,” Gingrich said of workloads at Radford.

The University of Wyoming has a 2-3 teaching load mandate in all disciplines, which Carman said is higher than most research institutions. “We’re now working to change that and make it more reasonable for our faculty,” he said. 

Limit communication during non-working hours, explore a four-day workweek and rethink meetings were some of the suggestions the brief had for preventing faculty from feeling overworked. 

Commitment to solutions can change how colleges and universities operate and treat their faculty and staff by creating workplaces that are humane and that support employees’ personal and professional lives.

Culture Change

The brief noted that tackling burnout requires commitment on the part of institutions. The solutions it provided can be used to “change how colleges and universities operate and treat their faculty and staff by creating workplaces that are humane and that support employees’ personal and professional lives.” 

Gingrich believes the administration at his university understands that faculty satisfaction is of vital importance. He pointed to a meeting the Faculty Senate Executive Council and the Board of Visitors Executive Committee recently had on the topic of faculty retention. 

“This tête-à-tête itself is noteworthy because it is part of a regular series of meetings in which university leaders come together to collaborate on areas of opportunity,” he said. “In this regard, Radford University is establishing a valuable process that I hope other universities will be able to emulate.

He also noted Radford increased its resiliency over the past few years as it continued to work towards fulfilling its mission in the face of the pandemic. “That effort, especially in devising new modalities, means that the university today is better able to meet the needs of a diverse student body,” he said.  

Since assuming his position in 2021, Carman has been holding a series of town hall meetings with the university’s president, in addition to a listening tour with each department, in the hopes of improving the university’s culture among faculty. “I have brown bag sessions where I invite small groups of assistant professors to come and we visit informally,” he added. 

Pittman said that diverse faculty have been experiencing burnout for decades. Despite feeling agitated that the phenomenon has been overlooked for years, she’s hopeful that the increased attention to burnout will lead to improved working conditions for all faculty. 

Aila Boyd

Aila Boyd

Reporter

Aila Boyd is a Virginia-based journalist and educator. As a journalist, she has written for and edited daily and weekly newspapers and magazines. She has taught English at a number of colleges and universities and holds an MFA in writing.




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