Why are Academics so Burnt-Out?
The exhaustion crisis at universities should concern us all.
Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today
Half of British academics suffer from depression, and 30 percent suffer daily burnout symptoms (Wray & Kinman, 2021). Two-thirds are planning to leave the field. Only doctors and nurses have a higher risk of burning out than educators. What is going on?
Schoolteachers and higher education staff are in the top ten professional groups most likely to suffer burnout. To put this into perspective, academics and teachers are in the same risk group as healthcare professionals, lawyers, corporate executives, chefs, social workers, and journalists. The statistics are disturbing. A shockingly high number of academics are not thriving. They are not motivated. They are not healthy. They quit the profession or suffer in silence, thinking that all of this is somehow their personal fault. But the surveys tell quite another story, one of structural causes. In 2021, a survey of nearly 1,200 employees from 92 U.K. universities revealed that more than half of the participants reported experiencing chronic emotional exhaustion, worry, stress, and poor mental health. Half of the staff surveyed (47 percent) described their mental health as poor. More than a third of staff members reported low life satisfaction (36 percent). More than a quarter of staff reported feeling as if the things they did in their lives were not worthwhile (27 percent). One in two staff members experienced high levels of anxiety (50 percent)—1.5 times higher than the national average (32 percent). One in three university staff reported low levels of happiness (33 percent) compared with a national average of one in seven (14 percent) (Dougall et al., 2021). We may think that these results are not representative because both surveys measured mental well-being during the pandemic, but in 2022 another survey conducted by the University and College Union (UCU) indicated that things did not get better again after the pandemic. Anecdotally and experientially, I see this confirmed everywhere. UCU established that two-thirds of university staff were considering leaving the sector within five years due to rapidly deteriorating working conditions. Nearly 88 percent of respondents in the 2022 UCU survey were not optimistic about the future of higher education in the U.K. In addition, many academics feel they cannot seek help, fearing that their requests may be perceived as weakness. Many experience shame and guilt about their condition and feel alone and isolated with their suffering.
Why does it matter? And what are the causes?
Why should the prevalence of staff burnout in higher education concern us? The well-being of university staff is intricately linked to the quality of the education and the support we can provide to our students. And our students are the future. They will make major contributions to and shape the workforce in a few years. Caring well for and inspiring our students is the reason most of us wanted to be academics in the first place. But how can we continue to pour from empty cups? You may wonder why so many academics suffer from burnout. From the outside, academic jobs still look quite attractive. But during my almost 20 years in British academia, the higher education landscape has changed dramatically. This summer, I decided to leave.
Most of us originally entered academia to do two things: to teach and to conduct research. Ironically, we now spend ever-less time on either of these tasks. We are now expected not just to publish world-class research and be 5-star rated teachers but regularly to attract external funding, take on leadership roles, support students with ever more complex needs, act as marketeers for our programmes, and ensure that our research generates measurable impact in the real world. In addition, we have to stay on top of hundreds of emails each week, attend endless efficiency enhancement meetings, and negotiate often terribly toxic politics. We are also encouraged to see each other as competition: for prestige, power, funding, promotions, students, influence, and jobs. Poor governance and leadership are another big issue. In recent decades, higher education has been forced to adapt to the laws of the market and universities compete for ever scarcer resources and students with customer mindsets. Most people in higher education are not trained to think entrepreneurially (nor do they want to). Most people who take on line-management roles in academia have had zero leadership training and also often have zero inclination (or talent) to perform these roles well. That causes a lot of suffering and grief, on both sides. article continues after advertisement
The Perils of Bad Management
Bad management is not a trivial issue. In fact, it is often one of the root causes of burnout and of our psychological suffering at work. Bad management kills motivation and engagement and can create toxic working environments. It also has repercussions for the wider economy. A recent CMI [Chartered Management Institute] study on the topic established that "Almost one-third of U.K. workers say they’ve quit a job because of a negative workplace culture...underlining...the risks of managers failing to rein in toxic behaviour.” The CMI survey also found that as many as “82 percent of new managers in the U.K. are what it calls 'accidental managers'—embarking on the role with no formal training in management or leadership.” Anthony Painter, the CMI’s director of policy, responded to the results.
“This stuff is dragging down businesses, dragging down the economy, and also stymying the ability of public services to do what we need them to do. Economists have looked at this and they think that something in the order of a third of the difference between us and the most productive countries is down to the quality of management and leadership.” He added: “In any skilled area of modern work, you would expect people in positions of competence to receive at least minimal training. You want your plumbers to be trained, you want your cybersecurity people to be trained—well, the same is true of managers.”
The Gap Between Ideal and Reality
Bad management has a lot to do with the burnout crisis in academia. But here is what I think is truly at the heart of academic burnout. In his wonderful book The End of Burnout: Why work drains us and how to build better lives(2022), the writer (and ex-academic) Jonathan Malesic argues that burnout emerges in the gap between our ideals and the reality of our work. The greater this gap is, the bigger the pain we experience in our jobs. Stress is usually caused by having to do certain things but wanting to do other things instead. What pushed me over the edge was definitely this growing chasm between what I wanted to do and the other things that gradually took up most of my working hours. It was a creeping process, making every year a little worse than the previous one, until one day, the bad stuff outweighed the good stuff. It felt a bit like having joined a hunter-gatherer tribe and finding, after a couple of years, that you now actually spend most of your time doing backbreaking farm work. When was the last time you were out in the wilderness pursuing an idea, finding unexpected treasures in the undergrowth, or felt truly alive hunting a compelling vision? When did you last manage to connect deeply with your students? If you feel burnt out and demotivated, remember that most of the reasons you feel that way are structural and not your fault. Remember also that you are not alone, and that it is possible to ask for help. Or to get out.
References University and College Union, UK Higher Education: A Workforce in Crisis. March 2022. Available online at: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/12532/UK-higher-education---a-workforce-in-crisis/pdf/UK_HE_Report_24_Mar22.pdf
Siobhan Wray and Gail Kinman, Supporting Staff Wellbeing in Higher Education, 2021. Available online at: https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/media/x4jdvxpl/es-supporting-staff-wellbeing-in-he-report.pdf
Dougall, Isla & Weick, Mario & Vasiljevic, Milica. (2021). Inside UK Universities: Staff mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic.