You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

kraphix/istock/getty images plus

As colleges and universities emerge from the height of the pandemic period, providing spaces and opportunities for faculty members to process and reflect on their experiences during the last 17 months is an important component of moving forward. As we plan for the new academic year, pausing to acknowledge the trauma, grief and exhaustion faculty experienced during the pandemic is vital to helping them navigate the current stage of the pandemic.

Recognizing the Long-Term Impact on Faculty Well-Being

In our work with faculty members across multiple higher ed institutions, we have frequently found that while some are feeling excited and optimistic about plans for moving to fully in-person instruction in the upcoming academic year, many are experiencing significant grief, exhaustion and trauma from the pandemic and resulting sea changes to our professional and personal lives. In addition, uncertainty and anxiety about what the new academic year will hold -- and all the changes required in transitioning back to primarily or exclusively in-person work -- are causing additional stress.

For many faculty members, this summer is the first moment it has been possible to step back from crisis mode. In addition to spending significantly more time not only on learning new technologies and rapidly transitioning classes from in person to fully remote (and often then quickly shifting once again to hybrid and HyFlex models), faculty have also often been required to act as front-line mental health workers. While we have had frequent conversations with faculty who feel that the work of supporting students during the pandemic has been vitally important and rewarding, we also recognize the significant emotional labor and resulting compassion fatigue that results from providing that level of support over an extended period.

Although well intended, language that describes “returning to normal” or “returning to pre-COVID conditions” erases the reality that, for many of us, such returns are simply not possible. While we may be excited about the opportunities to reconnect in person, many of us are processing the deaths of loved ones and the grief of having missed significant milestones that we will never be able to recover or replace.

Indeed, even as in the Unites States the height of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be somewhat dissipating (depending on what’s ahead with the Delta variant), it appears that we are squarely in the midst of the resulting psychological pandemic.

The resulting grief ranges from what scholar Pauline Boss calls “ambiguous loss” -- from all the little and not-so-little losses common during the pandemic -- to grief over continued hate crimes and mass shootings and their individual and collective impacts. In the book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, Frances Weller writes, “Today, however, the sources of loss are multiple, and the complexity of addressing this tangled web of grief can, at times, feel overwhelming. These losses tumble in our lives continually. We sense the presence of loss from places both personal and communal, intimate and shared.” And as faculty we are often quick to think about how we can support our students and prepare to teach the day after [fill in the blank]. But a year into twin pandemics, social isolation and all that continues to be not “normal,” we must pause and allow ourselves to attend to “the growing weight of unattended sorrow,” loss and grief.

Moving Forward

Moving forward from grief and pandemic burnout demands significantly more than just reopening physical spaces on campus. Recognizing the significant toll the pandemic has taken on faculty well-being requires institutions to develop intentional strategies to support faculty in recovering and moving forward. Most important, we need to recognize that opportunities to return to in-person work do not and cannot erase the realities of the past months. Going back to our offices does not magically end burnout and exhaustion or alleviate grief and loss.

Department chairs, deans and senior campus leaders can help support faculty in this moment in a variety of ways. They can:

  • Be intentional in naming, acknowledging and normalizing grief, exhaustion, anxiety, burnout and compassion fatigue. We have heard repeatedly from faculty over the past months who feel an enormous sense of guilt and isolation because they believe they are the only ones experiencing extremely common pandemic responses.
  • Create spaces for people to share excitement, joy and anticipation in relation to the current phase of the pandemic experience -- without implying that everyone is or should be experiencing those emotions. It is important to hold space for the range of emotions and responses that faculty are experiencing in this particular phase of the pandemic context.
  • Plan with the long-term effects of burnout, trauma and COVID-related career impacts in mind. Recognizing that a return to in person does not erase or mitigate burnout and exhaustion is crucially important. Additionally, strategizing how best to mitigate pandemic-related decreases in productivity and the long-term effects of those productivity shifts will require multipronged mitigation strategies. For instance, while stopping the tenure clock or providing tenure promotions may alleviate the short-term impacts of COVID-related productivity changes, tenure clock extensions may further exacerbate the gendered wage gap and further slow women’s advancement through faculty and administrative leadership pipelines.
  • Recognize and address the ways that disproportionate teaching loads, service, mentoring and emotional labor impact women and faculty of color. These are not new features, but rather long-standing inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • Provide opportunities for faculty to process and reflect on challenges, successes and lessons learned from the pandemic year. Encourage them to identify what they may wish to carry forward and what they are eager to leave behind. Offer workshops and spaces for conversation where faculty can rearticulate and reconnect with their purpose.
  • Recognize that people are eager for community but also often uncertain about when and how to start connecting again in person. They may be unsure how to reach out to others who may not yet be comfortable doing so and anxious about being rusty at social interactions in professional settings. Campus leaders can help normalize those feelings and experiences by talking candidly about the ways that reconnecting in person may be challenging as we move back into those settings after more than a year away. Intentional planning and scheduling so as not to create too many in-person events at the beginning of the term, for example, can help faculty adjust to social demands rather than be overwhelmed by them.
  • Be intentional, whenever possible, in providing strategies that allow people to choose the return timeline that works best for them. Understand that many continue to have intensified caregiving responsibilities, changed living and/or financial circumstances, and the like. Recognize that some people are eager to return to physical work/life separation, while others may find the transition back to in-person work challenging or unwelcome.
  • Take advantage of this moment to review remote work and telecommuting opportunities. Women, faculty of color and LGBTQIA faculty face myriad microaggressions that are reduced when working remotely, making remote and hybrid options an important option in robust DEI strategies. Additionally, many faculty have found that working remotely feels more comfortable and the minimized distractions lead to greater productivity.
  • Provide meaningful support for faculty well-being. Encourage faculty not to use the summer to try to get ahead, but rather to rest, recharge and recover. Ask faculty what they need to move forward, and then listen and act on those recommendations.

Weller argues that we all need to make space to digest grief through deliberate interior work and communal sharing, including such practices as ritual, reflection and communal witnessing. She contends that we must cultivate the art of living well, which includes “metabolizing suffering into something beautiful and ultimately sacred.”

How might we create space to metabolize the myriad griefs that many of us are experiencing -- not simply as educators preparing for another class but also as holistic people and members of an academic community? We bear them and bear witness to them in hopes that they invite all of us to pause and begin to reflect and metabolize some of the grief that has accumulated over the last year -- for ourselves, each other and our communities. Opportunities for rituals, reflection and communal witnessing are necessary parts of the new normal.

The emergency-mode work of surviving the pandemic may be starting to wind down, but we are squarely in the midst of the vital work of recovering from the experiences of the past 17 months. Being intentional about pausing to reflect on our experiences and make space to collectively grieve, process and support one another in the work of that recovery will help us move forward.

Next Story

More from Career Advice