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Burnout can be defined as an emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It can make an individual feel completely overwhelmed by the smallest of tasks and can severely impact daily functioning. As the stress continues, this then makes the individual lose interest and motivation, resulting in the possibility of them questioning why they are taking on a certain task or job. Eventually, an induvial may feel like they have nothing more to offer and they will completely stop doing their job or task, or anything that they enjoy.
Academic burnout usually refers to burnout in relation to studying, so for example when a student is undertaking a university degree. The student may work themselves to the point where they cannot cope with the stressors related to studying and they will be unable to get themselves out of that stress cycle. At that point, support would be needed. In more recent times, I have heard academic burnout being used to describe the way in which academics may be feeling. Academics refer to people who work in educational settings such as universities (as lecturers, university teachers, researchers, support, or professional service staff), but it can also refer more generally to all educators and those who teach younger years such as primary and secondary school children.
There has been a lot of research on burnout, but more recently, burnout in academic staff. In 2010, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, research had suggested that there are a number of contributing factors to burnout, including factors like age, gender, amount of students taught, and while burnout in academics can be comparable to burnout in healthcare workers, we do need a lot more research in the area.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, university academics have had to change the way they work, moving from a campus educational environment to using their homes and personal spaces to support students in their studies. For many academics, this has become difficult as it has meant that the boundaries between work life and home life have become blurred. For me, I am currently teaching from the living room in my house and this is the space where I often relax and enjoy the time when I am not at work. I have found it very difficult to separate my home life from my work life and I have moved my home-office from one location to the next to try and help un-blur these boundaries. Now, I have resided within my dining area and have made my dining table my new home office (with the pens and post-it notes included just like my office desk). This has moved me away from my sofa and the area where I relax and has helped me in developing a sense of distinguishing between a ‘work environment’ (at the table) and a home environment (anywhere else except the table). I always make sure that I now take my lunch break and try to get out of the house and move away from my work environment, and this is something I would not always do in the office – the good old working lunch!!
Another element that may have contributed to the increased burnout rates in academia is the transition of in-person teaching to fully online teaching. Nearly every university and its staff will have had to go through this process. For academics, the time of preparing and recording a lecture is much greater than having to prepare and deliver an in-person lecture. When teaching during the first lockdown, it easily took me 4–5 hours to record a two-hour lecture as I had to keep pausing and giving myself a break from recording. I always thought that the recordings had to be perfect (like in a film) but now I understand that if we leave in the mistakes, it shows the students that we are not robots; like we would not be in a lecture theatre. Thankfully, it no longer takes me that length of time to prepare and record a lecture, but I do find that recording lecture material is more physically draining as there is no ‘real-life’ audience there to give me an indication of how I am delivering the content. In a way, it’s why I am thankful for software such as Microsoft Teams which allows us to provide live and engaging lectures to the cohort we are teaching.
Hopefully, as the lockdown restrictions ease then we may be able to return to in-person teaching, but in light of social distancing, we may find that we are delivering multiple repeat sessions so that each student will get that in-person tuition. In one of the modules I taught last semester, I repeated a one-hour lecture multiple times per week (only for a few weeks just to note). I found that I was fine at first repeating the content but as the weeks went on, burnout slowly crept in and I eventually needed a full weekend of not moving off the sofa; something which is not like me at all. Thankfully now, we have the possibility of using dual delivery where we can offer students the option of being online or in-person. While this does face challenges, it does offer less opportunity for burnout as repeat lectures are not always needed.
So, for me, yes COVID-19 has helped to provide more opportunity for further burnout, but I would not say that it is the major cause. I think it depends upon the individual themselves and how they manage stress; their other commitments (homeschooling commitments or looking after the family, for example); and the surroundings that an individual lives in. I think it also depends upon the support that each individual has available. If an individual has no access to support from family, friends or mental health services then they may respond differently to someone who does have access. All of these elements can be factors in the increasing rates of academic burnout bit it does not mean that they will be the direct causes.
Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University.