Burnout in Campus Crisis Responders

Melissa DePretto Behan, Ed.D

June 10, 2019

I have worked as a crisis responder on a college campus for my entire career.  I have felt the exhaustion that comes from lack of sleep, the constant feeling of being “on” for the students, and the seemingly endless work hours.  In my current role, the responsibilities are different, but I hire and work with a team of folks that are serving in this capacity, and so I see the never-changing state of burnout that these roles produce.  Something needs to change in higher education, and folks that serve as hiring managers and department heads can start by acknowledging the problem, and then working towards systemic changes to support our crisis managers on campus.

Campus crisis responders have been, anecdotally, one of the most burned out populations in Student Affairs.  Most often working in Residence Life, these staff members live on campus, serve in an on-call crisis management rotation, and are expected to be constantly interacting with students to provide resources and build community.  Campus crisis responders are critical to ensuring the safety of students on a college campus.  However, attrition in student affairs and specifically in the field of residence life continues to be a concern (Marshall et al., 2016). Burnout is defined as ‘‘a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that results from long-term involvement in work situations that are emotionally demanding’’ (Schaufeli & Greenglass, 2001).  For campus crisis responders, the high touch personal connections, combined with expectations of long work hours has long been cited as a role that leads to burnout, and now my research shows that we cannot go on ignoring the impact on our staff.

For my doctoral research, I conducted a quantitative study using an anonymous survey that was distributed to staff members who serve as campus crisis responders at institutions of higher education.  I surveyed 233 people, all who serve in an on-call rotation on a college campus.   The survey instrument was comprised of demographic questions, as well as questions from the Live-In/Live-On Report (Horowitz 1997) and the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (Kristensen et al., 2005).

The result was that campus crisis responders were significantly higher on the burnout scale than nearly any other job occupation that was studied using that instrument, including occupations such as emergency room nurses and prison wardens.It can be easy, particularly for higher level administrators, to dismiss the claim of being burned out as poor time management, or being a whiny millennial, but my research is clear that these staff members are burned out in a very legitimate way, and as a field, we need to intervene.  According to a recent article in Forbes, burnout is now an officially diagnosable condition which makes the implications all the more dire.

The data also showed that female-identified participants had a significantly higher overall burnout score than male-identified participants.  Consistent with burnout literature, the results showed a significant difference between females and males, with females having significantly higher burnout than males when it comes to one factor of burnout known as  “emotional exhaustion.”  This supports Puranova and Muros’ 2010 study, which cautions that saying females are more burned out than males is oversimplifying the data.  Female campus crisis responders may be more emotionally exhausted than their male counterparts, but both genders are overworked and generally burned out in their roles. 

Supervisors and hiring managers need to be cognizant that for their male employees, more support and resources might be required since the symptoms of burnout in males may not be as easily identifiable.  In addition, it is important to keep in mind that just because a female employee is exhibiting more recognizable symptoms of burnout does not mean she is more burned out than her male counterparts.  This perception could stunt a female employee career trajectory.

I also found that there is no significant relationship between job factors and burnout, this is quite concerning.  This indicates that despite generally accepted best practices in the field of student affairs regarding job amenities of this type of staff, those factors seem to be ineffective at ameliorating burnout, and so have no impact on the attrition that occurs as a result.   Factors such as whether a staff member is allowed to have a pet in their apartment, or a partner or dependent live with them, stem from an attempt at promoting work-life balance and so for the data to say that these controllable factors do not significantly impact burnout is disheartening. While I do NOT recommend that department heads disregard best practices with regards to certain amenities, it is important to note that these perks are just not enough to impact the severe burnout these staff members are experiencing.

An argument was posed to me during the course of this research that burnout is in fact, a good thing.  As in any organization, in student affairs, there are fewer senior level positions as compared to entry-level positions.  The argument was that burned out employees drop out of the field paving the way for stronger, more resilient staff members to take on senior leadership.  While I agree that some attrition is objectively positive for organizational stability and momentum, the philosophy that burning staff out is the way to a stronger organization can result in staff management that can be described as hazing.  Staff members are leaving the field as a result of burnout leave because they feel they must for their own physical and mental well-being.  They are not necessarily leaving because they aren’t passionate about the work, or aren’t talented as staff in their roles.  If we are weeding staff members out by putting their mental and physical health at risk, then we are doing a disservice to those individuals as well as the field of Higher Education.

So, what does this mean for Student Affairs? Personally, I am concerned that we have staff across our institutions that are so significantly burned out, and the job amenities we have control over aren’t doing anything to help.    The burnout literature leans heavily on the benefits of a supportive work environment, particularly when it comes to the supervisor and colleague relationships.  Further research in this aspect of the position would be a great topic for another dissertation! However, I think it may be time for us to look at how we design these positions, and the expectations we hold regarding hours and balance specifically.  There must be a better way of structuring these positions and our organizations so that we can care for the staff members that work tirelessly for the students in our care.  

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