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Higher Ed Burnout Is Real
February 4, 2021

By Teresa de Onis

Summary

In 2019, the World Health Organization upgraded burnout from a stress syndrome to a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The evidence for compounding stress and burnout in higher ed is everywhere. Dive in to see what research from The Chronicle of Education, Educause, and our own analysis at Apogee reveals on this topic and how managed services can make all the difference in providing relief for IT, Student Affairs, and other higher ed departments.

Higher Ed Burnout Is Real

In 2019, the World Health Organization upgraded burnout from a stress syndrome to a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” in its International Disease Classification, the official compilation of diseases. WHO characterizes burnout by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

WHO specifically states that burnout is a phenomena specific to occupation and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life. This change in definition prior to the pandemic and other stressful events of 2020 and into 2021 has particular power now, as the higher ed community seeks to understand and hopefully address widespread stress and burnout. Together we must bring about increased awareness and remove any stigma that surrounds burnout while finding solutions to combat and prevent it.

The evidence for compounding stress and burnout in higher ed is everywhere. The Chronicle of Higher Education just published its 72-page report Burned Out and Overburdened: How to Support the Faculty. The report is a devastating view into the effect the pandemic has had on faculty, especially women. The Chronicle received 1122 responses to its faculty survey in October 2020 and quantifies the result of the shift to remote emergency learning in Spring 2020, the frenetic pace of preparation that gripped faculty in Summer 2020, and the increased workloads (82% of females and 70% of males) and work/life balance deterioration (82% of females and 63% of males) that has continued.

The Staff Are Not OK

Professional man with glasses holding pen to face

And it’s not just faculty. The Chronicle of Higher Education article The Staff Are Not OK acknowledges that no one is OK in these times of pandemic and social unrest, but that higher ed staff – the “middle managers” and people carrying out all the plans on campuses nationwide – have been overlooked. One main cause of the compounding stress: providing emotional support while maintaining a “façade of calm, confidence, grace, and patience.” I witnessed this first-hand in preparation for an upcoming virtual event with two customers. I asked the two housing officers what they would tell their pre-pandemic selves, and they both talked about how they would warn themselves that their roles would expand into social work and public health. The benefit has been the deep connections they’ve forged with their teams and student residents. The downside: exhaustion. I was most struck by our customers’ flexibility and genuine concern for the well-being of their staff and students and how much they rely on each other to “turn fear into strength.”

Educause also published QuickPoll results last week on stress in the higher ed workplace, where 1500 IT and technology professionals told Educause they are not OK and may not be for some time. Like the Chronicle of Higher Ed faculty survey results, the IT viewpoint shouldn’t be breaking news to administrators. 76% of the respondents in the Educause QuickPoll reported their level of workplace stress has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. This number jumps to 86% for those who support remote teaching and learning and to 81% for those involved in instructional design or faculty development.

And there’s no relief in sight. 54% of respondents said they expect their stress level to stay the same, and 36% said it would further increase over the next 12 months. The Educause results point to WHO’s definition of burnout:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion: 42% said, “I have had less energy or felt more tired while at work.”
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job: 32% said, “I have felt less personally invested in or fulfilled by my work.”
  • Reduced professional efficacy: 60% said, “I have had more difficulty concentrating while working on tasks,” and 27% said, “I have been slower and/or less productive in my work.”

Get Relief from the Higher Ed IT Expert

In 2020, Apogee analyzed 491 institutional strategic plans to understand the state of strategic planning in the pre-pandemic world with the goal of helping our customers make data-driven planning decisions moving forward. We have data on health/wellness initiatives that is not yet published in our interactive report, but I’d like to go ahead and share it here and invite you to visit the report to interact with data for 16 initiatives related to technology, pedagogy, student life, and more.

Our analysis showed that only 33% of institutional strategic plans contained health/wellness initiatives. Schools with less than 5000 students enrolled in rural/town locales indexed a little above average for these initiatives at 35%, while their larger counterparts with 5000+ students enrolled greatly under-indexed at 21%. Schools in cities and suburbs indexed at 37% for less than 5000 students and 31% for 5000+ students.

The research and findings from The Chronicle, Educause, and Apogee all point to the need for strategic institutional support for health/wellness initiatives to mitigate stress and burnout. The activities and projects under these initiatives should include promotion of physical activity, faculty and staff engagement avenues and empathetic community communications, and flexible work and health policies.

Because workload expectations are not adjusting to the new realities of constrained and shrinking resources, and higher ed must do everything possible to increase enrollment in 2021, we believe that now is the time to take a serious look at managed services and outsourcing as high-value mechanisms to relieve staff of operational burdens so that they can focus on the school’s mission and prevent burnout. We also believe that more communication is needed to acknowledge the hard work and sacrifices faculty and staff are making and to keep everyone informed to alleviate confusion and fear. Unifying the campus community during these times is necessary to reduce anxiety and stress.

Apogee wants to help. We have been focused solely on serving higher ed for two decades and offer managed services that can relieve or prevent staff burnout. Our Managed Campus and Residential Network services enable the delivery of reliable, high-performing, and secure Wi-Fi, so IT is freed up to focus on strategic innovations, and our Campus Engagement Service acts as an extension of your Student Affairs and Communications teams to deliver content and campaigns that inform and unify your campus community. To schedule a call to learn more about how managed services can make all the difference in addressing workplace stress and burnout, please contact us today.

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