Burnout has become a buzzword in the workplace. While some people may jokingly use the term when speaking with a colleague, burnout can be debilitating for those experiencing it.
Occupational burnout is a psychological syndrome stemming from prolonged social stressors in the workplace (Maslach, 2003). The multidimensional model developed by Maslach (2003) involves three key dimensions of burnout: exhaustion, detachment from work, and lack of accomplishment. This construct is complex because there are infinite possible patterns of how people experience the three dimensions. Despite this complexity, academic leaders have the ethical responsibility to recognize common symptoms of burnout, understand the factors that may contribute to burnout in the workplace, and strive to create a work environment that minimizes those factors for all employees.
Spot the Symptoms and Identify the Causes
To reduce burnout in their institutions, academic leaders must first be able to spot the signs of burnout and identify the contributing factors. Some symptoms of burnout are physical and emotional fatigue, reduced ability to do work, and feelings of cynicism toward work to name a few (Shlenskaya et al., 2020). Many factors have been predicted to cause job burnout such as environmental, individual, and organizational factors (Zamini et al., 2011).
One study of professors and employees at a university indicated a significant relationship between organizational culture and job burnout (Zamini et al., 2011). In the study, participative organization cultures produced the lowest levels of burnout. This suggests that when faculty and staff feel depleted at work, they are less likely to produce quality work that contributes to the institution's mission. Burned-out employees will distance themselves from their work emotionally and cognitively from exhaustion (Maslach, 2003). Academic leaders cannot move an institution forward with employees experiencing burnout.
Another study showed that people reporting high levels of burnout state more emotional distress, difficulty sleeping, and lack of social support at work (Grossi et al., 2003). These characteristics could show in an employee’s work, attitude, or behavior as an indicator that they may need help. Coworkers and supervisors may interpret these characteristics as a lack of skill or knowledge to do their job.
Additionally, recent research suggests that gender norms in the workplace may play a significant role in contributing to burnout. Compared to men, females reported significantly higher levels of perceived burnout (Gewin, 2021; Redondo-Flórez et al., 2020; Rocha et al., 2020; Shlenskaya et al., 2020; Teles et al., 2020). For example, Redondo-Flórez et al. (2020) interviewed 470 university professors to analyze gender differences in stress and burnout-related factors. The researchers found personal fulfillment levels lower for women and higher teaching stress than for men.
Another study found female university teachers have higher levels of burnout in emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment than their male counterparts (Shlenskaya et al., 2020). Women showed the highest levels of burnout, which could be due to the psychosocial factors of double duties of work and home and gender-based discrimination. An example of this can be found in Jang et al. (2020) study of women expected to do more office housework which reinforces the expectations of societal gender-related roles. Women are often asked to do office housework (OHW) such as taking notes and organizing office parties, which are menial administrative tasks (Jang et al., 2020). Although findings from the study did not suggest such tasks lead to burnout, there was evidence of a positive relationship between men performing OHW and promotions but not for women.
How to combat — or prevent — burnout
Beyond individual approaches to addressing burnout, academic leaders can provide structure to foster organizational health. Researchers Kolomitro et al. (2019) found how the manager and institution/senior administration influenced educational developers’ wellness. Results showed how lack of feedback, recognition, and autonomy from the manager hindered perceptions of well-being. On the other hand, participants in the study recognized clarity in institutional goals, financial stability, and transparent decision-making processes were factors that enhanced their physical, intellectual, and emotional well-being.
To combat burnout in the workplace, employees have identified strategies such as participating in health-related activities, social connections, and implementing help-seeking strategies (Kolomitro et al., 2019). The same employees expressed that institutional practices such as free psychologist sessions and lunchtime yoga do not address the structural factors that cause stress. Although it is good to have physical activities and self-care programs, burned-out employees have a lower likelihood to engage. Researchers have suggested prevention strategies such as self-efficacy and stress management programs (Teles et al., 2020). Therefore, recommendations must go beyond wellness program initiatives. Empirical evidence suggests a higher success rate when designing interventions to build engagement rather than strategies to reduce burnout (Maslach, 2003). Academic leaders should identify the root causes of stress and understand it is a collective responsibility to implement organizational culture change. They can engage faculty and staff in generating ideas while practicing transparency in their decision-making.
Additionally, with the awareness of how gender role norms can contribute to burnout, academic leaders need to create an equitable work environment by implementing and executing policies for equal compensation for equal performance (Jang et al., 2020). Supervisors should be aware of unequal work distribution and consider how office housework is valued toward compensation and promotion decisions.
Academic leaders are charged with shaping systemic institutional change, however, they too experience burnout. Burnout is likely when frustrations and stress from multiple obligations and burdens weigh heavy on the leadership (Bolman & Gallos, 2021). Still, academic leaders should lead by example and hold other leaders accountable when they are not practicing the values of the institution that promote a conducive working environment for all. With human capital being the most valuable resource to an institution, it is critical for supervisors to pay keen attention to employee needs. Academic leaders must be able to spot signs of burnout, identify the causes, and respond with early interventions because once an employee mentally resigns, it is only a matter of time before they physically resign.
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Kolomitro, K., Kenny, N., & Sheffield, S. L.-M. (2019). A call to action: Exploring and responding to educational developers’ workplace burnout and well-being in Higher Education. International Journal for Academic Development, 25(1), 5–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144x.2019.1705303
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Teles, R., Valle, A., Rodríguez, S., Piñeiro, I., & Regueiro, B. (2020). Perceived stress and indicators of burnout in teachers at Portuguese Higher Education Institutions (HEI). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(9), 3248. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17093248
Zamini, S., Zamini, S., & Barzegary, L. (2011). The relationship between organizational culture and job burnout among the professors and employees in the University of Tabriz. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 30, 1964–1968. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.10.381