It's a tumultuous period for higher education in the UK, with many of the givens of university existence being chipped away. It feels like a good time to take the temperature of those who work in that sector. One indicator is the extent to which employees feel they are burned out – when everyday work activities become a struggle, leaving them weary, fed up and performing less effectively. Jenny Watts and Noelle Robertson at the University of Leicester have reviewed the literature to provide us a current account of burnout in university teaching staff.
Searching research databases using terms such as 'burnout' and 'faculty', Watts and Robertson pruned the results using strict criteria to arrive at just 12 English-language papers that tackled burnout in university staff, mainly dealing with Western institutions alongside papers from Turkey and South Africa. The review suggests levels of burnout in universities are similar to those found in professions like school teachers and hospital workers that are generally recognised as challenging; a far cry from the traditional conception of universities as a home for lower-stress work.
What seems to be driving these levels of burnout? Certain groups are more vulnerable, with younger staff more susceptible, possibly due to less developed coping mechanisms.
Consistent with the general burnout literature work, women were more prone to emotional exhaustion, whereas men were more likely to become depersonalised and distanced from their work.
Burnout was reduced when staff felt that their contact with students was valued, and was higher when staff faced negative student evaluations or direct conflict. However, non-student factors such as intensive time pressure appear to have greater effects, suggesting that the stressors are less about unbearable students than changes in work patterns, which may include mounting bureaucracy and more frequent classes. Several of the papers do indeed suggest that simply being responsible for more students leads to more burnout.
There is some evidence that social support protects individuals from burnout, although this was not found in all studies. Type of teaching also mattered, with teachers of postgraduates more likely to hang on to work satisfaction on the one hand, but on the other experience more exhaustion and distancing.
The authors are clear that this is a worrying picture, especially as university staff are responsible for pastoral care of students; hard to be a sympathetic ear when you can't wait to get out of the building. They call for more research into this area in order to form “strategies to enhance wellbeing, student success and teaching quality, particularly during a time of retrenchment in the university sector.”
Watts, J., & Robertson, N. (2011). Burnout in university teaching staff: a systematic literature review Educational Research, 53 (1), 33-50 DOI: 10.1080/00131881.2011.552235