Education

Turnover, burnout and demoralization in higher ed

Colleges and universities, like many other employers, are seeing workers walk out the door in droves.

Are colleges and universities just dealing with the same issues employers in other industries are facing? Are there unique problems in higher education that campus leaders need to acknowledge and address?

Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, joined a recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, to discuss those and other questions.

An edited transcript of the podcast follows.

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Inside Higher Ed: How did you come to be spending time and intellectual energy on this issue of the higher ed workplace and issues around burnout? I’m guessing there’s a story there.

McClure: Had you asked me in February 2020 if these were the things that I would be talking about now, I would have said no. I generally focus on issues of management, leadership and finance. I have largely focused on regional public universities and recently started a research center focused on regional colleges, the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. Some of these issues were certainly on my radar, but it’s not something that I was devoting a ton of time to in terms of my thinking and writing.

Here’s what happened. It was March of 2020. At that point, I was working really, really hard. I had two young children and was exhausted. And then we went into quarantine. We were still fairly optimistic about this being a short-term kind of thing. We go into lockdown, and then maybe after that we can kind of get back to something that was closer to normal. So, without any inkling that this was going to become a multiyear experience, I just basically pushed ahead with the same stuff I had always planned on doing. I didn’t adjust my goals or my workload at all. My wife and I basically would split the workdays—I would work in the afternoon; she would work in the mornings. I was more or less trying to fit in a normal kind of 50-hour workweek into 20 hours. We were working weekends and at night just to get everything done.

And we get to May 2020, and there is nothing left in the tank. It wasn’t just that I was exhausted—there was also a certain level of detachment and even some cynicism connected to the job that I had never really experienced before. I had started to see some folks at that point having some early conversations around burnout, and what does burnout mean and what does it look like? And as I was reading through that, it was a checklist where I was like, “OK, this is what’s going on—I have hit burnout.”

I’m grateful that in my position, I had the summer months where things start to dial back a little bit, and I had the opportunity to reflect and, as a researcher, start reading and learning a little bit about what burnout means.

Around that same time, I put together a column aimed at an audience of college leaders and said, “Listen, this is what I experienced. I’ve been talking to other people in higher ed and people are telling me the same thing, that this was not kind of a unique experience, and you might need to get ready this fall for how folks are going to be feeling coming back to campus. The conditions are really ripe for this to be a big problem.” From there, it was just a matter of continuing to pay attention and listen to what folks across higher ed were saying.

I’ve probably talked to 45 or so people about what their experiences have been at work and interacting with leadership and what they’d like to see moving forward. It has been a rare opportunity to draw on some of what I had done in the past connected to finance and management but apply it to what for me has become a very personal, really significant set of questions around the academic workplace and what we do moving forward.

Inside Higher Ed: It seems like this became an area of inquiry for you primarily because of the pandemic. But I’m guessing larger academic workplace issues have been exacerbated. How do you view the impact of the pandemic here? Are these issues going to remain important?

McClure: For me, the pandemic brought many of these issues to light. But I have been talking to other people in higher ed about these things; there is a certain sentiment around, “well, yeah, welcome to the party, friend.” I admittedly am in an incredibly privileged position as a tenured faculty member and a white man, and by virtue of that fact, I’ve experienced the higher ed workplace in a way that’s specific to my position now.

It took me having just a different personal experience with my own work and my relationship to work before I started asking a different, more poignant set of questions. Many of the root causes of some of the problems that I’ve been writing about—connected to burnout or demoralization or disengagement—predate the pandemic. As you said, the pandemic probably revealed them in a different way. What that suggests to me is that they aren’t going to go away if we arrive at a place where we are post-pandemic or enter into a new phase of life. And so, unless something happens here in the next couple of years where we figure out how to address these problems, I suspect they’re going to be with us for some period of time. So I think that they merit our attention.

Having said that, there are some things that have very much changed that make paying attention to these problems even more important, especially if you are a leader of a college or university. We’re in the middle of an incredibly dynamic labor market. There are lots of companies and organizations that are looking for talent, and there are people in higher education who have had an incredibly difficult experience over the last couple of years that are looking at those opportunities in a different way. Even though these problems have existed for a long time, not paying attention to them now could have even more dire consequences for institutions than it did previously.

At my own institution, we have had an incredible number of searches going on; an incredible number of people are in interim roles. I’m hearing stories of searches where the pools of candidates are just not very deep, where we’re not able to identify a person who wants to take the offer. We just cannot afford to set aside some of these workplace issues and expect that we’re gonna be able to meet the goals that we have set for ourselves.

Inside Higher Ed: You shared some slides from a meeting that just took place at the UNC system Board of Governors—some data around faculty and staff departures and turnover. Tell us a little bit about what those data said and the issues that they reinforced for you.

McClure: To the credit of the UNC system, we as a system have always collected turnover data, and they make regular presentations connected to turnover. They do an annual engagement survey. For many, many years, the presentation has often been along the lines of “we’re doing pretty well.” Our turnover is about what we would expect it to be based on the national benchmark that they use. This year the presentation had a new set of slides [that] showed a significant spike in turnover.

This is one of those moments where I was seeing data that really suggested to me that while it may not be this huge wave of departures, there are people leaving. And we are going to feel and are feeling the consequences of that.

Inside Higher Ed: To what extent do you think what’s going on in higher ed is different from what we’re seeing elsewhere in the economy and the job market? If the situation is worse in higher ed, or isn’t worse, it’s just bad, are there particular things that would make it so? This might be a good time to acknowledge that there may be important distinctions to make for different groups—faculty, as opposed to staff, say. Where is higher education special for better or worse on this set of issues?

McClure: I don’t know that I’ve got a definitive answer. I’ve got some hunches around some unique features of higher education that I think could play into this conversation and potentially results in some different outcomes.

One, I think we’ve had for a long period of time some issues connected to inadequate pay within higher education, particularly if you think about the levels of education that are often expected of people stepping into many jobs within higher education, and the fact that salaries have often not been able to keep up with the cost of living increases in communities where you’ve got a college or university and the cost of living has generally been going up.

The second feature is that these are institutions or organizations that ostensibly, or maybe on paper, are dedicated to human growth and learning and equity. And as a consequence of that, you may have a set of workers or employers or employees who expect from these organizations something different than what they have experienced throughout the pandemic. And as a consequence, they may have a heightened sense of dissatisfaction. You’ve got an incredibly educated group of people who have a great deal of professional autonomy in many cases, and some have an inordinate amount of freedom to explore and research and critique their own employers. That brings in an additional layer of complexity to this.

The last thing I’ll mention is that you’ve got an incredible number of institutions, especially some of the public universities, that have certain vestiges of kind of a state agency model in terms of how they are organized and how they are operated. And what that means is that despite all of this conversation around higher education being corporatized, we’ve got a set of HR practices and hiring practices that are byzantine. They reflect a state-based bureaucracy more so than a nimble, knowledge-based organization. And it creates a whole bunch of problems where it’s just not keeping up with the pace of change that I think we are seeing and other knowledge organizations that are really dedicated to the idea of talent development and retention.

Inside Higher Ed: On the pay and compensation front, it’s reasonably well established that higher education institutions, like a lot of nonprofits, pay less compared to companies on the assumption that there’s a mission that maybe warms the soul if not fills the wallet, and some additional benefits like tuition benefits for children. And there’s been an assumption that colleges could get by paying somewhat less. Plus flexibility and maybe not working until midnight and the like.

And on the faculty side, it used to be that most faculty members were tenured or on the tenure track and had the promise of quasi-permanent employment status. It’s obviously not true for the vast majority of faculty members anymore. So is part of the problem that some of the noncompensation reasons people might have thought of higher education as a good place to work are less evident now than they used to be?

McClure: Absolutely. One hundred percent. First of all, on the job-security front, we’ve got a shrinking pool of people who get to enjoy that benefit, at least from the perspective of being a tenured faculty member. On the staff side, similar to other education fields, I think that there’s been an increasing tendency toward more managerial authority, more management being the locus of power. So professionals are not experiencing as much autonomy and instead encountering a lot more around accountability and surveillance, in some cases around their productivity and performance. Some benefits just don’t have the same luster that they once had. And there is a certain level of denial on the part of institutions around this.

I do want to make one thing very, very clear: I still think that working in higher education is a phenomenal career, and I invest a significant amount of time preparing future higher education professionals because I believe that you can still have such a wonderful and fulfilling, rewarding career working in higher education.

But we cannot rest on this notion of job benefits that is decades old. We’ve got to update some of our assumptions and do a much better job of thinking about the people that we bring in as talent, and how are you going to develop and keep that talent. Folks are waking up to a new reality where maybe they once thought that what they can do isn’t transferable. And they’re learning that it certainly is. And there are places that may be higher ed once thought it had an advantage over in terms of flexibility and benefits. And that advantage doesn’t exist anymore.

Inside Higher Ed: There’s been an assumption that the mission that the institution has, and the fact that the jobs are in purpose of a mission, was going to overcome some other limitations. Do you think that institutions have been overpromising or exaggerating the extent to which they are mission-driven? And is the larger public questioning of the value of a degree and of higher education’s contributions to driving socioeconomic and other equity being challenged more and starting to erode people’s own sense of mission in their jobs? Or am I overreaching there?

McClure: I do think there is some sense that there is the espoused values of our institutions and then the enacted values, and that there isn’t perfect alignment between those two. And increasingly, folks are coming into higher education, and they want to see the receipts. They want to see what are the policies and the practices and the actions that support this value that you have stated is central to the mission of who you are as an institution. And I think a number of our institutions are falling short when it comes to really being able to provide evidence of, for example, a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

What it has suggested to some folks is that there is a real values conflict that I’m experiencing right now between my personal values, my values as a professional and what I see are the values that seem to be guiding the institution.

And that right there is kind of the heart of demoralization. Demoralization sometimes gets framed as people just [in low spirits], and we can pick them back up with something to re-energize folks. But demoralization is really about people not being able to enact the values that brought them to the work. If you say, “I’m coming to this work with a strong ethic of care—I want to care for students, I want to care for my colleagues and I expect the same from my employer, but I’m seeing decisions in response to the pandemic that placed me in harm’s way or do not necessarily reveal or show that there’s a true ethic of care when it comes to our custodial staff,” it raises that question of, what is this place all about? What truly are the values guiding this institution?

It’s certainly the case that there are things happening in society that have dialed up our expectations of institutions. It could be that we’re asking too much, but at the same rate, I think the moment right now is calling for certain types of leaders that are able to step up and kind of respond to those expectations, in a way that signals to people that are very much motivated by the mission, that you can still do the work that brought you here.

Any time we see an example of a leader who does that, who pushes forward courageously in a very mission-driven, values-based kind of way, they become instantly sensations in the higher ed world. And it’s so strange to me that there aren’t more people who see examples of that and say, “Oh, there is a real appetite for that type of person that’s willing to kind of lean into a very strong values-based type of leadership. Man, it can be frustrating when you feel like there’s that potential for your organization or your leadership to demonstrate that, and you feel like it’s just not there.”

Inside Higher Ed: I wanted to go next to the distinction between burnout, which is what a lot of people have attributed much of the malaise and turnover to, and demoralization. You already touched on it a bit, but the reason it’s so important is if you write off all the turnover to burnout, you can probably more directly tie it to the pandemic and the stuff you talked about at the beginning about how it was kicking your butt, which a lot of us have been feeling. Whereas if it’s something more akin to demoralization, it may be more systemic and you might need to address it in a different way. Can you expand on that at all?

McClure: We’ve got tons of different types of institutions and tons of different types of people working in higher ed. So people are going to have really different workplace experiences by virtue of where they sit, the type of institution or even the state in which they are located. You’ve got a lot of people in higher ed who are doing fine—they are happily working, and they love their work. They are in it; they are engaged. You’ve got another set of people … that are burned out; they are depleted. They just don’t feel like they’ve got much left to give but are still trying to push ahead.

This is a big issue right now … because we are nearing the end here for many people on kind of a traditional semester calendar, and we’re just running low on gas. You’ve got the demoralization piece around values, conflict and wondering if this is the right place for you to continue working. You’ve got disengagement, so people just kind of pulling back cognitively, emotionally or physically from the work. Some of those are connected to one another, and you can have multiple simultaneously. The manifestations of them can look a little bit different. One big takeaway from this is that, for me at least, is not to walk into this with the assumption that there’s just kind of one thing going on here, that there is an epidemic of X happening in higher education, but instead that we’ve got lots of different things going on.

We’ve got to put some time in around collecting some data around this and putting some real thought and energy into understanding the workplace experiences of folks in higher ed, which I’ve come to realize just has not gotten the level of attention that it should. One of the drums I repeatedly beat is that we spend so much time thinking about student learning outcomes and student graduation rates, and we somehow don’t necessarily step back and connect that to working conditions at colleges and universities.

Inside Higher Ed: You’ve been good at acknowledging what we don’t know, but based on what we know so far, or what we suspect, what are some thoughts on what institutions’ leaders can and should be doing? Understanding the problem at their own institution is probably one of the first things. But what are some practices or some things you want leaders of units or organizations to be thinking about trying to start addressing the problem?

McClure: I repeatedly talk about the need for institutions to be collecting their own data around what their employees experienced during the pandemic, how they are feeling now and what they want moving forward. I’m just not convinced those efforts are happening. It’s very difficult at the institution level for us to come up with localized solutions. If we are not collecting the type of data that helps us understand what’s going on, we could have a significant number of folks at our institutions that are incredibly dialed into the work and find it meaningful and want to continue doing it. But they may not feel a sense of belonging at that place. There may be real issues around inclusion. You want to make sure that whatever solution you’re coming up with is targeting the right problems.

One of my colleagues, Margaret Sallee, has talked a lot about ideal worker norms and ways in which we structure jobs and job expectations within higher education and other professional spaces, as well. As if folks are constantly available, 100 percent loyal to the institution, do not have caregiver responsibilities, have bodies that allow them to kind of show up at the workplace unaffected every single day. And that ideal, that mythical person just does not exist. Or if they do exist, and that’s the person that’s constantly getting rewarded and promoted, you kind of set a standard for other people that I think can send the wrong message.

Trying to do some internal analysis and reflection around in what ways are we comparing people against this ideal that can be dangerous? We’ve got real workload issues and workload equity issues. And again, I would like to see institutions being much more intentional about trying to measure workload, understand those inequities in workload and ideally start addressing some of those problems. You’ve got some folks that are incredibly taxed. And oftentimes they tend to be people who are willing to put in the time to mentor people and willing to serve on behalf of the institution. Disproportionately some of those burdens are falling on women and people of color. So some of these issues connected to burnout, and people being stretched too thin, are landing on folks that are already marginalized within the academy.

We’ve got lots of really messy, complex problems in higher ed. A lot of these are things that we can fix, and there is a sense that we can’t do these things because they are hard or they are expensive, or we shouldn’t do them because these are problems that exist everywhere. The reality is that many of them are not that complicated. We can move the ball down the field. We can make progress that can make a difference in the lives of people. I really think that some of the most successful organizations in higher education over the course of the next 10 years are the ones that are gonna take workplace conditions and culture seriously and start doing that right now.

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