5 Tips to Avoid Instructor Burnout

Instructors facing burnout? Here’s what you can do about it.

stressed out teaching leaning on wall

Burnout. It’s an “occupational phenomenon” caused by unmanaged, chronic workplace stress. It manifests itself in many ways, including exhaustion, disengagement, and cynicism. And while burnout as a concept is not new, it is certainly gaining new attention as the pandemic continues into yet another academic year.

Burnout among students is on the rise. From overloaded schedules and overwhelming workloads to financial concerns and the decline in face-to-face interaction during the pandemic, students are experiencing burnout in record numbers. It causes exhaustion, lack of motivation, and disengagement – from family, from friends, and from their courses. And with more classes going online, the need to keep students engaged becomes more acute. And this pressure falls on the shoulders of their instructors.

But instructors are feeling the effects of burnout as well. In a study conducted by The Chronicle and underwritten by Fidelity Investments, 75% of faculty said their workload increased since the beginning of 2020. The majority also said their work/life balance deteriorated. And just 10 months into the pandemic, research showed that burnout and anxiety rates among faculty and staff continued to rise amidst worsening student mental health and fears of job loss.

As we enter our second full academic year in the midst of a global pandemic, instructors continue to face challenges. Institutional demands and expectations continue to rise. Workloads are unsustainable and outcomes feel out of their control. And the pressure to keep students engaged both online and in the classroom, to meet them where they are, to give them extra time for assignments when they need it, and to help them stay on track during challenging circumstances adds a layer of emotional workload never felt before. Simply put, it’s “the perfect storm for professor burnout.”

But despite the grim reports about faculty burnout, we are learning how to better manage and cope with these feelings of overwhelm, emotional-drain, and frustration. And what we’re finding is that there are steps you can take to manage your own wellbeing and stay ahead of burnout.

5 Tips to Avoid Instructor Burnout

Here are five proactive tips to help you and your colleagues manage stress and hopefully avoid burnout before it starts.

  1. Plan far (far!) in advance: planning ahead in an unstable, constantly-changing world may seem counterintuitive. But when you define long-term goals for your course – and how you want to evolve and change it over time – you’ll be able to consider change in the context of where you want to go and adapt better to short-term changes as they come your way.
  2. Break your work down into management time blocks: as we all juggle various work and family obligations, it’s not always realistic to set aside hours every day to complete your work. Instead, find small pockets of time where you can chip away at your to-do list. Break up your work into smaller tasks that take less time to complete. And celebrate when you cross a few off your list! This feeling of accomplishment can do wonders for your mental health, and help you feel productive.
  3. Just get started: many times getting started is the hardest part. So what do we do? We procrastinate. But instead of delaying the inevitable, think about starting small. Create an outline. Or make a list. And if your energy or concentration wanes, step away for a bit. Putting some distance between you and the task at hand may be useful. And when you return to it, you’ll bring a fresh perspective.
  4. Take time for you: self-care is getting a lot of attention these days. And it’s for good reason. Taking time to focus on you – and only you – is critical to preserving your energy and your mindset. You must fill your cup first before you can fill the cup of others.
  5. Talk it out: if you’re feeling stressed, frustrated, or burned out, tell someone. Talking to colleagues or your dean can be therapeutic, and they may have resources to share that can help you cope.

As campuses head into the winter, new challenges will emerge and change is inevitable. Remembering to take care of yourself, to be patient with one another, and to be positive and understanding. This will help all of us to navigate today’s ever-changing world.