University faculty report high levels of burnout during pandemic

Nearly 20% of faculty at the University have reported a high level of burnout following the start of the pandemic, according to a faculty study.


Colleen Manchester poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Development Office.

by Hana Ikramuddin and Ethan Fine

A research study found that nearly 20% of faculty at the University of Minnesota have reported a high level of burnout following the beginning of the pandemic, according to a study completed by researchers at the Carlson School of Management, the University of Washington, and California Polytechnic.

The researchers collected answers from over 1,000 faculty in a study conducted the week prior to the start of fall semester, with a follow up survey being sent out in November to some of the initial respondents. Some faculty at the University said the increased workload associated with the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health. Co-author of the study and Carlson professor Colleen Flaherty Manchester recently presented her findings to a group of associate deans in November.

The study found that faculty, overall, spent substantially less time than average researching over the spring and summer semesters, with more time spent on teaching during those periods. Additionally, 14% of faculty reported experiencing a higher level of financial stress than before the pandemic.

The pandemic has also made it difficult for faculty with children who may also be learning remotely, said Carrie Henning-Smith, the co-chair of the Women Faculty Cabinet (WFC), a group of faculty who act as an advisory board to the Provost on women’s issues.

Phil Buhlmann, chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee and chemistry professor in the School of Science and Engineering, said the blending of private life and work has increased the workload for faculty at the University.

“I’ve been on around 1,000 Zoom calls since March and there’s so many where a child shows up,” Buhlmann said. “That double-tasking that people have to do really cuts into the ability to focus. I definitely see Zoom fatigue.”

One group who has disproportionately been impacted by the pandemic has been women, as childcare responsibilities have largely fallen onto women faculty, Henning-Smith said.

Manchester, a member of the Faculty Consultative Committee, also found that women faced higher rates of burnout than their male counterparts.

“We know that there has been a disproportionate impact on women because they tend to do a larger share of the child rearing, but the same is true for caring for older adults or anyone with a disability or a long-term health condition — women tend to do the lion’s share of that work,” Henning-Smith said.

To highlight the difficulties that caregivers have faced during the pandemic, the WFC has created an anonymous page of testimonials from faculty members who are caring for children.

“This semester has not been easy on anyone, faculty spent significant time and energy re-prepping their classes for new modalities, many teaching from their homes, while guiding their children’s education or caring for family members,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Rachel Croson at the Dec. 3 University Senate meeting.

In an interview with the Minnesota Daily in October, President Joan Gabel said the University has tried to get information about mental health resources and programming out to the campus community.

“We’ve been very focused on serving our students. And not only do our faculty and staff have needs, but their health is a big contributor [to] student health, they need to have the capacity to be in service to students in order to do what we think we need to be doing for our students,” Gabel said.

According to the University’s dance program director and FCC member, Carl Flink, the dance program has taken some steps to support faculty mental health, including non-mandatory Zoom meetings where faculty can discuss issues they have been having and help one another.

Part of the reason for the high rates of burnout has been that faculty did not have a traditional summer break to recharge due to the pandemic, and because teaching classes of different modalities can be more work for faculty, said Flink, who is also the artistic director of the Black Label Movement, said.

“One of the things we’re definitely wrestling with and doing a lot of work on is, is just burnout,” Flink said. “As a manager and a program director I’ve definitely seen the kind of energy and emotional costs of that extra work, people are tired. They’re tired physically, they’re tired mentally.”

Addressing mental health is crucial for the betterment of students and staff, said Colin Campbell, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology.

“You can’t even call it a crisis,” Campbell said. “We have a mental health reality. A crisis implies that it’s going to go away. This is just a feature on the landscape and there’s very little reason to think it’s going to change dramatically.”

Manchester expects to have a more comprehensive write-up of the faculty study in January.