Burnout in Higher Ed.
For the last seven months I have re-entered into the world of admission after being an Independent Counselor for three years. And as I have been catching up with old friends at college fairs, high schools and events, I have been reminded of a familiar theme I’ve seen in this field for years, even pre-pandemic: Burnout.
Let’s take a moment to define what exactly burnout is.
It was first coined as a technical term by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975 and was described in three components:
- emotional exhaustion– the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long;
- depersonalization– the depletion of empathy, caring and compassion; and
- decreased sense of accomplishment– an unconquerable sense of futility: feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.
Sounds a lot like just a regular old work week these days, doesn’t it?
I work for an incredible school and for an incredible boss. One that listens to us, that cares about us and that values our feedback and our mental health. Many others I know are not so lucky. But even us lucky ones still feel the relentless pressure that we are never doing enough.
Many of us got into this profession because we wanted to make an impact. We truly wanted to BE the change we wish to see in the world. Working in a field that advocates for student success and makes higher education more accessible? The ability to meld young minds and work with colleagues that have the same passion as you for students? Working in a school setting surrounded by high school age or college students? Sounds dreamy! It used to be.
What we thought would be sitting down with students discussing their hopes and dreams has turned into fielding angry and entitled parent phone calls.
What used to be space to think about new ways to serve our students has been taken over by mountains of paperwork and programming and protocols.
What used to be a simple recruiting process of visiting high schools and following up with students has turned into borderline stalker car salesman communication tactics.
50-100 high school visits to fit into an 8 week span, 20 plus college fairs over 4 weeks and hours of phone calls to fit in with the intention of reaching students who are already non-responsive. Nevermind that the rest of the world doesn’t know we were working an event/college fair until 9pm- they still want you to answer their call at 8am or come to that very important 9am meeting. Everything is important, everything is top priority.
Let me be clear, I am not complaining. I am simply describing the reality of many of our work lives and what I have observed the last several months. And it is a reality that more than a few have told me they are considering leaving for good.
A double masters degree professional choosing to leave after this year to bartend part time because she will make more money doing so and actually get a chance to breathe.
Another quitting before he has anything lined up because it’s just not worth the stress.
Another tells me that even in this covid world- he feels guilty taking a sick day when he is actually sick- because there is just too much to do.
These are the things I am hearing from my colleagues from all different schools on different sides of the desk. Exhaustion. Stress. Not doing enough, yet doing too much. Family relationships are suffering and mental health is suffering. We are lucky if there will be enough people to staff any of our schools next year. So, what do we do?
They tell us “just ask for help!” but the people we would ask for help are drowning too. So we keep drowning together. How do we speak up about our overwhelm to those who won’t hear us? How do we speak up about our dissatisfaction without looking lazy or ungrateful? How can we set boundaries when the ones who are leading the charge are emailing at all hours of the night and working all weekend? Is that the example we are supposed to follow?
How dare we even bring up the amount of work versus what we are paid, we do this for the students! That should be enough. This is a field that pays in passion. But what happens when that passion dies because your family, your relationships, your soul is dying along with it? Then what?
Here is what. We have to be brave. We have to stop saying “it’s fine!” when it is clearly not. We have to strengthen our boundary muscles. We have to have one hard conversation at a time. And everytime a hard conversation happens, a piece of the broken system falls off.
Talk with your colleagues, check in on them. You might think you are the only one struggling, I guarantee you are not. Share this with leadership. Or maybe just anyone who will listen. It’s a start.
If you are in a position of leadership reading this, I know the pressure you feel is real too. I know you don’t mean to work your people to the bone, you are also burned out and just trying to please the people above YOU.
Believe me, I get it. That very pressure is what caused me to leave working in Admission in the first place. But we must stop acting like enrollment goals are life or death and accept that it is okay to leave work undone. We must prioritize our PEOPLE over our numbers. We must be prepared to give and receive honest feedback and talk to our colleagues and staff.
“Without feedback there can be no transformative change. When we don’t talk to the people we are leading about their strengths and their opportunities for growth, they begin to question their contributions and our commitment. Disengagement follows.” – Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
What does feedback have to do with burnout? Everything. I think right now, it is common to be so busy and so overwhelmed that we are not even really talking one on one with our people and our staff. What their goals are, how they are doing, how their family is. So not only do they feel burned out- but they feel disengaged. So it is only a matter of time before they will totally checkout or leave altogether.
Yes, there will be busy seasons. But the level of busyness has risen and the level of feedback and engagement and meaning has fallen – which is a recipe for disaster. We cannot expect others to carry on with our mission just because it is a good one without checking in on them. That is not how human beings operate, that is how a robot operates.
I know this is complicated but it is important. If we want good people to stick around in this field, if we truly want to make an impact on student’s lives, we have to focus on our people. They are hurting. It will take breaking the status quo and foundation that this field was built upon. It will be hard. But it will be worth it.
Some recommended reading if this is a topic of interest: Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead by Brene Brown and Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski
**Also If you are attending the IACAC conference this year and want in on a deeper discussion of this and how we can better support the mental health of the people in this profession – check out the Wednesday afternoon session: “It Starts with You”