From the Director: Can we de-stress yet?

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Can we de-stress yet?

It is that time of the semester again. After Spring break, everything seems to speed up, particularly for those with heavy student advising loads.

This year I’ve been hearing a lot about stress and busy-ness from my faculty colleagues. Many perceive that our workloads have grown more intense over the years, and there is research that confirms that perception (see Easthope & Easthope, 2000). Recent economic turmoil in the U.S. introduced the concept of the “new normal” in academia; institutional belt-tightening has meant fewer faculty lines in many universities and produced higher demands on faculty productivity. Our professional lives have become tightly scheduled, and some days feel overwhelming.

My look at the literature on faculty stress provided little that was new in the area of , but revealed some interesting ideas for long-term strategies to cope with increasing workloads.

  • Janie Crosmer studied faculty burnout for her dissertation; when asked what might reduce burnout, she suggested that academic departments focus more on building community and “collectivistic values”: “If faculty members didn’t feel like they had to do it all, that they had someone within their community to turn to, I think that would help.”
  • Along similar lines, Rosalyn King cites faculty feelings of isolation as a contributor to stress. When workloads increase, opportunities to connect with colleagues become scarce (see King’s article in our Found Wisdom section). As a remedy, think about building into your professional life opportunities to partner with others, such as team-teaching an Aquinas Scholars course or pursuing a Faculty Partnership grant from Faculty Development.
  • If you are a department chair or dean, think about ways to distribute work more equitably across faculty. Faculty members are often advised to maintain balance by “learning to say no” to increasing demands, but this expectation leans too much on individualistic thinking. In addition, some may use this strategy to avoid shouldering part of the burden, while others pick up the slack. Department chairs are in an excellent position to diagnose this problem within a department and can take steps to address it, ensuring more equitable sharing of tasks and burdens. The “just say no” strategy can be unfair to untenured faculty, who may find it uncomfortable to do so. Senior faculty and chairs are better positioned to intervene on behalf of their younger colleagues.

Stephen Brookfield describes teaching as “the educational equivalent of white-water rafting. Periods of apparent calm are interspersed with sudden frenetic turbulence” (1990, p. 2). I think this sums up our life within the academic calendar, with periods of calm becoming less available over time. The “new normal” in academia calls for renewed attention to purpose, to building community, and attending to expectations about how work gets distributed. In the meantime, please consider getting away from your desk and taking a walk outdoors. I recommend it.

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