Faculty Burnout Has Both External and Internal Sources, Scholar Says

Janie Crosmer
June 09, 2010

Janie Crosmer, who recently earned a Ph.D. in health management at Texas Woman's University, wanted to know more about what causes faculty burnout. So as part of her dissertation, she studied 411 full-time professors nationwide to find out. About half were tenured, 63 percent were female, and the average age of the respondents was 50. Not surprisingly, they reported that battling bureaucracy contributes to burnout, but they said professors also struggle to meet their high expectations for themselves.

Ms. Crosmer spoke with The Chronicle after presenting her research on Wednesday at the American Association of University Professors' annual conference on higher education. In a discussion of her findings, she explained senior professors' attitude toward burnout, how forming tight-knit communities of professors can help combat what has been called one of the biggest occupational hazards of the 21st century, and why some sources of burnout may sound familiar.

Q. What do you think most faculty members are trying to convey when they say, "Oh, I'm so burned out!"

A. Really what they mean is that they're emotionally and physically exhausted. They're talking about the exhaustion factor of it. They're just tired of everything.

Q. What are the key things that contribute to faculty burnout?

A. Lack of time, poorly prepared students, cumbersome bureaucratic rules, high self expectations, unclear institutional expectations, and low salary. Research shows that the sources of stress have remained unchanged for 25 years. We know about the problem, but we're not doing anything about it.

Q. I know what absenteeism is, but I've never heard of "presenteeism." What is that, and what does that have to do with burnout?

A. It means that you're there at work, but mentally you're somewhere else. It's easy to hide burnout in education because every day you show up to work, you teach your classes, you advise your students ... you've been doing this for so long that your mind can wander, and you can still do your job. When that happens, there's a good chance that you're burned out.

Q. Do faculty members who have been around for a while experience burnout the same as a new assistant professor?

A. The research showed that the older the faculty member was, the less burnout. They seem to be saying, "You know what? It is what it is." Just like with any job, you just get used to it.

Q. Females were more emotionally exhausted than men in your study. What do you attribute that to?

A. I really think it's all about gender expectations: You have to be a wife, a mother, a caretaker, and a professor all at once.

Q. What kinds of comments related to burnout did you get from professors that you surveyed?

A. People said students are increasingly entitled and lazy. My classes are too big, my service load is too high, my teaching load is too high. Almost every person mentioned something about administration or administrative issues. People really seemed to feel burdened by a lot of things.

Q. What one thing do you think would do the most to help reduce faculty burnout?

A. If departments would adopt collectivistic values. It's sometimes hard for professors to feel like they're in a community, a community where they can share the workload. If one faculty member is really busy working on getting a grant, for instance, maybe a colleague could step up and teach their classes. If faculty members didn't feel like they had to do it all, that they had someone within their community to turn to, I think that would help.