Student-Facing College Workers, Contingent Faculty Face Exhaustion

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Updated Jan 10, 2022

Dr. Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley who pioneered research on job burnoutDr. Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley who pioneered research on job burnoutAs students begin returning to campus amid Omicron’s rapid spread, pushing some universities to pivot to all-online classes again, those who work in student affairs or teach as contingent faculty must once more navigate uncertainties and stresses of their jobs.

“Once again, people are just exhausted with the unknown,” said Jenny Connolly, associate director of academic advising at the University of Northern Iowa, a public institution. “It feels like we’re on this rollercoaster with lots of hope, then not, lots of hope, then not. Students are asking if the semester will be normal, and nobody has any answers. That puts everyone on edge.”

With students coming back to her institution on January 20, Connolly said she and her colleagues in academic advising are trying to prepare for the different scenarios they and their students may find themselves in.

“But you don’t know what all the scenarios are,” she added. “Most of us in higher education, especially at public institutions, are having to be back to normal as much as we can. And that’s just hard and scary to do when no one knows what the next few months will look like.”

Throughout the pandemic, Connolly, who is a working parent with four kids in school, has been juggling the growing demands of her job and family. She said that support from her colleagues has been critical in managing her responsibilities. But even then, she’s not sure what she will do this semester if she and her partner both become sick with COVID-19 and are out of the office.

Connolly is not alone.

Dr. Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, a professional association of student affairs administrators in higher education, has been hearing similar experiences from early and mid-level professionals in particular.

“I think we have to pay attention to the fact that many of them are telling us they are stressed and overwhelmed,” said Kruger. “The circumstances of working on campus during COVID have been extremely challenging. A lot of higher education professionals didn’t come into this work thinking they’d be on the front lines of a global pandemic and putting their own health at risk.”

Kruger noted how residential hall directors, for example, were often providing services to students in quarantine in the early days of the pandemic, such as delivering meals to students in their dorm rooms. NASPA’s recent data on reasons why some young people say that they are leaving higher education student support roles indicate that the amount of crisis management now baked into their jobs is not what they had expected. And the pay they often receive is not commensurate with their education or responsibilities.

“The other thing is that the mental health crisis on campus is so pervasive now that no matter where you work in higher education, you’re on the front lines of students who are themselves dealing with mental health,” said Kruger. “That may also be contributing to the challenges that some folks are facing.”

Connolly agrees.

“In the last almost two years, I’ve had more students talk to me about pretty devastating family situations, from a relative’s illness to death to job and income loss,” said Connolly. “I’m not a trained counselor, and I don’t know how to navigate some of this. There are just not enough people on campus to help everyone through all of that.”

These challenges for student affairs workers are similar to those that many adjunct and contingent faculty face. Unlike tenured or tenure track faculty, adjunct faculty are paid a lot less and tend to be assigned at some universities to teach classes that are larger. Managing the varied student needs in a big class can be difficult without additional support.

“I hear in a great deal of emails and commentary among contingent and adjunct faculty just how exhausted people are,” said Dr. Victoria Bhavsar, the director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly). 

Bhavsar added that contingent faculty at Cal Poly and other institutions are often assigned to teach classes that are gateway courses with a high fail rate. The impact of contingent faculty burnout on students is not clear, she said, but is a worry for her.

“It’s a big ball of wax where the most vulnerable employees have the most vulnerable students as well,” she said.

Like Connolly, Bhavsar stressed that contingent faculty as well as staff members in roles with a lot of one-on-one contact with students, many of whom may be in distress, can be another area of concern.

“If you talk to 50 students a week and 48 of them are in some sort of distress, that is going to affect you,” she said. 

Dr. Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, pioneered research on job burnout. Her work on the definition, predictors, and measurement of burnout formed the basis of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s 2019 decision to include it as an occupational phenomenon with health impacts. But she said most people tend to think of individual rather than structural solutions to burnout.

“Job burnout is a response to chronic job stressors that have not been successfully managed,” said Maslach, emphasizing that managing such stressors is not only the responsibility of the worker but the workplace. “There are huge amounts of self-care options for people to cope with their job stresses today, yet that doesn’t prevent burnout because that doesn’t change the sources of the stress.”

Maslach emphasized, however, that the pandemic has taught many workplaces that a job can indeed change. In higher education, Kruger pointed out that many student affairs administrators have been calling for more flexibility to work remotely since the pandemic. Connolly said that new flexibility would help her and her colleagues manage more of a work-life balance, cutting down on commute times, for example.

For adjunct and contingent faculty experiencing exhaustion, Bhavsar also suggested building networks of support among fellow faculty members. She added that many campuses may have faculty resources to help instructors. Asking for that support is key. 

In looking ahead to the next semester, Connolly had a similar message to university leadership.

“I’m also really done with hearing ‘we’re so resilient,’ and I think students are done with hearing that as well,” she said. “I think ‘resilience’ has this idea that we’ve overcome and moved on, but we haven’t overcome this. I want everyone to remember that we’re people, too.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at rkelliher@diverseeducation.com