Why Academics Suffer Burnout

April 14, 2011

The days when academe was a low-stress working environment are over, with "burnout" levels now comparable with those in other service sectors, according to an international study.

The analysis, which is based on 12 peer-reviewed studies in the United States, Britain, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands, likens levels of burnout among those who teach in higher education to those of schoolteachers and health professionals.

The authors also attempt to pinpoint the key factors that push some academics into a state characterized by "the depletion of emotional reserves (emotional exhaustion), an increasingly cynical and negative approach towards others (depersonalization) and a growing feeling of work-related dissatisfaction."

The study, "Burnout in university teaching staff: a systematic literature review," was published in the journal Educational Research. The research project was led by Noelle Robertson, senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Leicester, and a master's student there, Jenny Watts. Robertson and Watts, who describe their work as the first survey of the extent of burnout among full-time, non-medical university teaching staff, report that younger staff appeared more vulnerable, suffering from greater "emotional exhaustion."

This could be because younger staff have more contact with students, but also because more experienced colleagues have developed better coping strategies.

Gender seemed to have most impact on the way burnout revealed itself, the study suggests. Male lecturers typically had higher depersonalization scores, for example, while their female peers tended to suffer more emotional exhaustion.

This probably reflected, the authors suggest, the draining effect on women who were having to "juggle multiple roles at work and at home," on the one hand, and their reluctance to adopt "a distant, indifferent professional persona" on the other.

The researchers also report that "staff exposure to high numbers of students, especially tuition of postgraduates, strongly predicts the experience of burnout." However, they suggest that lecturers with qualities that might make them particularly suited to the job suffered more than their less engaged colleagues. The quality of "openness" may "make [academics] appealing tutors, encouraging greater interaction with students," but it also appeared to "predispose teachers to burnout," the paper says.

The findings come as staff-to-student ratios and contact hours seem likely to get more burdensome. At the same time, rising tuition fees – set to treble at many universities in England in 2012 – are expected to make students more demanding.

So how can universities and academics prevent ever-greater incidence of burnout?

The first step, said Robertson, was "recognition that stress is an issue, that the demands of certain roles can overwhelm the resources that people have to deal with them."

"Counseling services, stress-busting activities, alternative therapies, peer support and active mentoring" could all help, she added. It was also imperative to "foster and enhance collegiality, which used to be at the heart of university life." In particular, teaching, which typically came a distant second to research in terms of prestige and promotion criteria, had to be "explicitly valued."

Robertson also suggested that distance and e-learning might be more stressful than face-to-face teaching, pointing out that “being at the end of an email chain might be less satisfying than reciprocal interaction.”

With students increasingly consumerist, it was important to "set the boundaries of respectful discourse on both sides." But she added: "We academics have to toughen up."

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