Students, Faculty Experiencing Burnout in Colleges, Universities

Over the past few years, we’ve seen evidence and data regarding faculty and staff burnout, a decrease in leadership morale and high turnover within colleges and universities. At the same time, there’s been a student mental health crisis. This has had a tremendous negative impact on both student and teaching success.

“Just in the past year, faculty members have reported that they are anxious, stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted, in addition to being grateful, hopeful and inspired. At the beginning of this school year in September, students reported feeling tired and stressed, overwhelmed and anxious. They also expressed that they were feeling a loss of connection and difficulty feeling a sense of meaning,” said Dr. Mays Imad, who is currently teaching in the biology department at Connecticut College and conducting equity pedagogy research. Imad also is a Gardner Institute Fellow for Undergraduate Education and an AAC&U Senior Fellow within the Office of Undergraduate STEM Education. Her research focuses on stress, trauma, self-awareness, biofeedback and self-regulation and how these impact student learning and success.

Dr. Imad delivered the keynote address, Harnessing The Resilience Within: Supporting Online and Digital Learning Through Plasticity, Sociality, and Meaning, to kick off the OLC Innovate virtual event, April 3-5.

“When we experience trauma or anxiety of traumatic or chronic stress, when we experience something that shocks our nervous system, it doesn’t just impact the nervous system here and now. It also impacts the view of the self and so we internalize so much, Dr. Imad said. “Many students blame themselves, and they feel defeated, deficient and incompetent. It also shatters or challenges our view about the world so we think the world is that people can’t be trusted and the world is unpredictable.”

Many students come to college and university with serious mental issues including anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness. Peers and professors pick up on that energy because we’re empathic. “We experience secondary traumatic stress (STS) because we are in the company of someone experiencing trauma and because we want to help,” Dr. Imad explained. Risk factors for STS include repeated exposure to others’ adversities and trauma, our own trauma, chronic stressors and heavy workloads.

Although professors may be well aware of their own and their students’ issues, they still need to teach. To help students deal with their trauma, we can look at polyvagal theory and examine the scientific basis of emotional regulation and resilience and then consider practical examples of polyvagal-informed self-care and wellness. Polyvagal theory explains that the evolution of individuals’ autonomic nervous system helps them adapt behavioral strategies.

“The polyvagal theory is a way of looking at the nervous system and how it processes sensory information and how our social connection can help us calm down,” Dr. Imad said.

The concept of core regulation is also important. Core regulation is when we’re in the presence of someone who is grounded and centers, our nervous system can start impacting others’ nervous system and both can self-regulate. This translates into whether you log in to answer emails from students or show up in a classroom, students can feel the state of and are impacted by your nervous system – even through an email. In order to cultivate an environment in which students feel validated, seen and empowered so they can dare to continue to learn, even in the midst of ongoing uncertainty and stress, professors need to make sure they feel grounded, solid and connected.

“Biological resilience is our ability to bounce back from adversity and from being triggered,” Dr. Imad said. “A healthy nervous system can react to stressors and bounce back from triggers. However, when we experience traumatic stress, we can become stuck in an activated state. This is like a student who walks around with his or her alarm system activated all the time. They’re exhausted or they can be disengaged and catatonic, showing up but not really there. In both cases, they’re using a lot of energy.”

Creating resilience requires interventions and the community. The literature tells us it’s multi factorial and requires us to look at energy renewal, said Dr. Imad. “Taking a week off won’t affect the feeling of burnout, but will help with reducing sensory overload. We need to revisit the role of rest. Rest is part of learning. It’s not being lazy but allowing the brain to renew.”

Different factors that can help students and faculty develop resilience include self-care for energy renewal; social support for co-regulation; meaning and purpose for framework and structure; problem solving to help develop plasticity and agency; and a positive outlook, leading to self-regulation.