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Colleges and universities are supposed to be the innovators and thought leaders of best practices. We pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge. Most faculty are not drawn to universities for high salaries, but rather because we value the educational mission. We forgo financial benefits to enter a community of scholars. We also believe, to some extent, that we have some control over our time and how it is allocated.
Recently, the pandemic has given faculty members an opportunity to reflect on what we want out of our work lives, and some of us have welcomed the opportunity to teach and attend meetings online. That has been liberating and empowering for many people, particularly women with young children at home, caregivers of people with disabilities or elderly family members, and those with long commutes and bad traffic. Some faculty members, who two years ago stood firmly against distance learning options, are now even shifting to online teaching positions.
Unfortunately, however, the embrace of online learning also has its downside: it has led institutions to assume that if faculty can work from home, they can work from home—even when they are sick. That includes both faculty who regularly teach online as well as those who teach face-to-face but can now do so virtually rather than cancel a course when they are ill. In reading faculty social media commentary, speaking with instructors from around the country and interacting with the faculty at my own university as the director of a school, it’s clear that faculty members face subtle pressure to teach online even when they cannot attend classes in person. In fact, many colleges have issued statements that suggest that if you are mildly ill and can teach, it is best for continuity and student education to move your class online. And the onus is again on the sick faculty member to have that modality change approved.
To be fair, most of us who are college administrators tell faculty to stay home if they are sick, to stop the spread of COVID and other illnesses. We plan and promote workshops on the topics of work-life balance and self-care. We send notes suggesting that they prioritize their mental and physical health. Many institutions even have sick-day pools for the faculty who have extended illnesses and have exhausted regular sick-leave allocations. Yet when individual faculty members are legitimately sick, or caregiving for someone who is, we often tend to vaguely encourage them to power through.
Should we be asking faculty to do that? Absolutely not.
We must stop the mixed messaging and actually support the physical and mental health of our faculty. Chairs, directors, deans, provosts and presidents need to encourage our faculty to not only stay home but also stay off-line when sick. To actually recover and be at their best in all aspects of their personal and professional lives, instructors need recovery time. Most of us allow students excused absences each semester. We should apply the same policies to our faculty. Sickness is a legitimate reason to cease all duties. We must recognize how our messaging can damage our faculty in the short term and our universities in the long term.
On a human level, we should care about the people we work with. What’s more, and pragmatically, our misguided approach is expensive for our institutions. Research on presenteeism, the notion that we are technically working when we are unable to fully execute our duties due to illness, shows that working while ill only postpones recovery and contributes to lower productivity overall. Further, prolonged physical illness can lead to dissatisfaction, mental illness, burnout and ultimately job turnover.
This has been dubbed the year of the Great Resignation. People will leave jobs when they feel unsupported. If faculty members are burned out and leave our institution or academe, we lose valuable academic capital, a significant investment in resources and important members of our community. Vacated position lines are often not reopened, particularly in difficult economic times. Moreover, extensive turnover is often a red flag to the best candidates we are trying to attract to our institutions, and they may not apply or, if offered the job, may go elsewhere.
It’s in our best interest to keep our faculty healthy and committed to staying in our departments and institutions. In a nutshell, healthy universities support healthy faculty, and supported faculty will support their institutions. To demonstrate commitment to faculty in a time when discontent continues to grow in all areas of our society, colleges need to make this message clear: we do genuinely care about you and we want you to be healthy, happy and, by default, more productive.
Now, in truth, many instructors may teach from home while sick because they believe that students’ education will be disrupted if they don’t teach and that “phoning it in” is better than nothing. Let’s disavow that notion, as well. Chances are they won’t be able hold enriching discussions or give compelling lectures. They will be putting in the bare minimum, and the students will be shortchanged.
Moreover, do we really want to be teaching the lesson that working while sick is a productive workplace behavior? No. Let’s remind faculty that we need to model what we want students to learn. Genuinely sick people have a right to recover, and the world will go on if a person misses a day of work. In fact, organizations have sick days to accommodate those legitimate times of needed recovery. We need to model the compassion and leadership we want our students in any major to take into the world—and that they will remember when they become managers and leaders, CFOs and CEOs.
The Role of Chairs and Other Senior Administrators
What steps can, and should, we as leaders take?
First, we need to be clear and unambiguous that if you are sick, you are sick enough to need time to recover. If you can’t effectively work face-to-face, you can’t effectively teach (or participate in meetings) by video. There are several plans academic units can put in place.
If your university or accrediting agency strongly discourages canceling or rescheduling classes, many departments have had great success with the teaching buddy system, where faculty work with someone who can easily step in and cover a class, knowing that the buddy will return the professional courtesy when needed.
When possible, we can also provide a small honorarium for faculty who step in and lead a class. This shows that we both support the faculty who are sick as well as value the contributions of all of our faculty who put in extra time. This is a great use of Zoom—the substitute instructor can limit travel time and exposure to illness of any kind by hosting the class that way while the faculty member of record recuperates.
Second, we can encourage faculty to build float days into their syllabi with lessons that can be activated through the online learning system and then designed as final days for new material in the course if they are not used earlier. I’m not talking about random movies that students can watch if the professor can’t show up that are only tangentially related to the material, but thoughtful educational activities that students can practice, critique or apply at various points in the semester.
Third, we can coordinate with the appropriate services at our institutions to cover one or two classes for the faculty. Professional centers on campuses often send notes to faculty to remind them of the options, but by the time they are needed, faculty are too tired and sick to reach out, so it seems easier just to teach through illness. This is where chair leadership truly matters. We can help coordinate those last-minute coverage options by engaging with people in such campus offices and setting up options. Sick faculty don’t need to be figuring out how to get coverage. At that point, they often find it is just easier to teach and get it over with—exactly what we want to avoid!
Fourth, we can establish a clear makeup policy that is communicated on the syllabus in the same way we establish attendance and makeup policies for students. For example, “If for any reason a faculty member cancels a class due to illness, they will schedule makeup sessions during reading days, and those sessions will be recorded.” Perhaps, with some very specific courses, only the faculty member really can teach the material. In those cases, it makes sense to have a makeup policy for faculty illness on the syllabus just as we offer those graces to our students.
Fifth, we must be keenly aware of how taking sick days may be much harder for those without tenure—instructors, lecturers, adjuncts and graduate students—as well as women and faculty of color. Research has demonstrated that the people who feel most vulnerable in their jobs are less likely to call in sick in any line of employment. We must take particular care to ensure that all our instructors know we value their contributions and will support them when they’re ill. Nearly every institution says, “We are committed to diversity, inclusion and equity.” This is the perfect opportunity for us to demonstrate that commitment in a real way.
I know that as administrators, we are stuck balancing multiple priorities, and often our long-term goals are at odds with our short-term needs. In this case, we certainly want teaching continuity; we don’t want students fleeing our majors or university. But if we are honest, students are resilient. They are understanding. And this generation has grown up thinking about self-care and openly sharing their own physical and mental health concerns. A teacher having a substitute, offering out-of-class lessons or rescheduling a class won’t make them run for the hills. But having burned-out, phoning-it-in, disenfranchised faculty will.