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‘Educators hurt when their students are hurting’: College faculty experience rising rates of stress, burnout due to COVID-19

"When our students are stressed from other things like social isolation or living at home that interfere with their learning, we are stressed.”

Donald Wargo, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, in his home office in Radnor.
Donald Wargo, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, in his home office in Radnor.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

When Temple University transitioned from in-person classes to virtual in the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Wargo knew immediately that he had to reassess his goals for what he wanted his students to accomplish.

As virtual classes continued into the fall, Wargo, an associate professor of economics, tried to capture the atmosphere of an in-person classroom to the best of his ability — using icebreaker questions at the beginning of the semester to engage freshmen and assigning students to Zoom breakout rooms for small discussions. But it has been difficult to recreate that learning environment, he said.

“It’s our job to get students to learn,” said Wargo, who also serves on the executive board of the Temple Association of University Professionals. “And when our students are stressed from other things like social isolation or living at home that interfere with their learning, we are stressed.”

While the early days of the pandemic were undoubtedly hard for college faculty members as they dealt with campus closings and uncertainty about the fall semester, research shows that burnout rates and anxiety are still increasing 10 months later due to worsening student mental health and increasing fears of job loss.

A survey published in November by Course Hero, an education technology website, found that, out of 570 respondents who identified as full-time or part-time faculty at two- and four-year colleges and universities, more than half reported a significant increase in emotional drain and work-related stress or frustration from the beginning of the pandemic. Nearly three out of four respondents identified the transition to online teaching as a source of significant stress, and more than 40% said they have considered leaving their positions as a result of the pandemic-related changes.

One major factor is compassion fatigue, said Tara Graham, vice president of educators at Course Hero.

“That has everything to do with educators having to carry the weight of student stress,” Graham said. “Students have been depending on educators to provide help and advice, as well as make the right decisions regarding COVID. Educators hurt when their students are hurting. The stress of faculty is deeply linked to stress of students.”

» READ MORE: As need for mental-health services rises for college students, suburban Pa. campuses face lack of psychiatric providers

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, it didn’t take long for faculty members to notice that students were experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, said Jamie Martin, a professor of criminology and criminal justice. She said that many of her colleagues were having difficult conversations with students about mental health during their office hours.

“In a situation like that, burnout can happen because you go in every day trying to make a difference, trying to help,” said Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF). “But then it feels like you’re swimming against a huge tide. It feels like you’re not making a difference, and you can’t leave that baggage at the office. It gets to a point when you’re just overwhelmed. That’s leading some people to question, ‘How long is this going to go on? Is this something that’s still meaningful to me?’ ”

Dave Kutzik, a psychology professor at Drexel University, heard similar issues from his peers, with one colleague reporting that up to a third of his students had expressed having a hard time coping. Because of this, faculty members are having to do more emotional labor on top of their regular workload, Kutzik said.

“We don’t know, frankly, to what extent students are using the counseling services offered by the university,” Kutzik said. “My impression is that a lot of them are having real difficulties juggling multiple courses online and living in different family situations. Many of us are very concerned about the students.”

Some universities have expanded their employee assistance programs in recent months, recognizing that faculty members may be dealing with increased stress. Drexel offers five free counseling sessions per year to university employees and their dependents, and Temple has partnered with Magellan, a behavioral health company, to provide an online program with tips for employees on managing stress.

In addition to student mental health issues, a number of colleges and universities around the country have announced staff cuts and layoffs as a result of COVID-19. In October, five universities in Pennsylvania’s state system announced that they would lay off more than 100 full-time faculty. In September, Rutgers University eliminated dozens of adjunct positions, citing “unprecedented pandemic-related economic pressures.”

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s state universities move to lay off more than 100 full-time faculty

Martin said 81 faculty members at Indiana University of Pennsylvania were informed that they may be let go through letters of retrenchment. That has caused morale to sink to an all-time low, she said.

“I’m concerned about my colleagues,” Martin said. “I spoke with a friend who received one and they basically said, ‘I’m done. Even if they withdraw this letter, I don’t want to work at a place that would treat faculty like this.’ ”

Wargo, the Temple professor, said his peers also are worried about how the decrease in student enrollment will affect them.

“People are worried about their jobs,” he said. “We’re all thinking about how many professors are needed next year, and it seems like there will be fewer adjuncts, fewer full-time teachers.”

At Drexel, faculty members are frustrated with how the pandemic has changed the decision making process, Kutzik said.

“Like many other universities, we’ve seen a lot of emergency top down changes that have been commanded by administrators,” Kutzik said. “These things include what courses will be offered, how they will be offered, how grades will be administered, what have you. These top down changes represent a shift from faculty control to managerial control.”

It’s hard to determine how this will ultimately affect the future of higher education, Graham said. But it’s clear that faculty members — “the heartbeat, the pulse of this system” — are struggling and need additional support from their institutions, she said.

“For many of them, they’ve been asked to do something they haven’t tried to do before and they had to do it nearly overnight with very little support,” Graham said. “Professors are experiencing stress and burnout. They are questioning the quality of their own instruction at this point.”

But Graham said the situation has also created room for meaningful change.

“The upside is that it is an opportunity to look at these challenges head-on and finally begin to address how we can make our campuses more supportive places where we put the human first.”