COVID-19, teaching online and burnout

COVID-19, teaching online and burnout

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Chatting (online) with a teaching colleague recently, we both commented that although there are still six weeks remaining until the end of the semester, we both felt exhausted.
Most significantly, we both ascribed the burnout to the pandemic, even though we did not get sick and all our children live abroad.
Indeed, working online and from home has meant working long hours seven days a week — for most people. The transition from office and classroom life to working at home has been stressful for everyone, but particularly for those with small children. Everyone, our students and bosses, but also colleagues around the world, assume that we are “available” since we are at home. I have never received so many emails and requests, from questions relating to the courses I am teaching to invitations to guest lectures, meetings, workshops and more.
Unsurprisingly, there are indications that women are paying the highest price for this digital life, with, for example, a decline in research productivity seen among female academics, though I hasten to add that everyone has been affected to some extent. And everyone agrees that this is due to mental fatigue.
Fearing a big drop in student enrolment — and thus in income — universities around the world have worked hard to convince students and their families that the online education they are providing is of the same (high) quality as the in-class, in-lab education they used to provide, and that it is worth the same (often high) cost. But who is pressed to provide the quality teaching that will convince the paying parents and keep the students coming? Professors, of course.
Teaching online requires much more work than in class. Although I update the material every time I teach a subject, there are topics that I can just walk to the classroom and teach. Online, I need to prepare the digital material, for each lecture and example, for each quiz and exam, etc. Most importantly, interacting with and keeping the attention of dozens of students online is difficult, to put it simply.

Working online and from home has meant working long hours seven days a week — for most people.

Nidhal Guessoum

Online exams bring their own suite of complications: How to set them up properly, how to ensure integrity (no hidden communication among the students, no access before or after, etc.), how to grade the electronic documents, and more. Professors have had to master various testing software, with various idiosyncrasies. And each time a glitch occurs during a test, students panic and bombard the professor with emails, even though he/she is often unable to solve the problem.
Speaking of the students, we must always keep in mind that they are facing their own pandemic-generated crises.
I do not mean that professors are the worst-hit cohort in this terrible pandemic. Front-line health workers have certainly been facing greater dangers, and public health officials have probably been under great stress, too. I only relate the difficult times and burnout that academics are experiencing because I am more fully familiar with that.
In fact, there is some evidence that burnout is a greater problem in academia than in other fields and careers. This may be because professors and researchers are under constant pressure to excel and “produce” (“publish or perish”), and the field is highly competitive. No wonder so many Ph.D. holders, after some years, leave academia for other jobs.
COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated the problem. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a widely read and respected online magazine, recently mentioned that a survey it conducted last month among more than 1,000 university professors found that more than two-thirds described themselves as “very” or “extremely” stressed or tired.
Another recent survey, conducted by the American Council on Education, listed the following as the three most pressing concerns for university presidents: Mental health of students, long-term financial viability of their institutions, and mental health of faculty and staff.
What adds to the general depression and gloomy atmosphere in academia is the realization that the pandemic will not disappear anytime soon, and lasting socio-economic damage has already occurred. Early on, it was thought that the forced move online may turn out to be a blessing, and working from home might replace many offices permanently, but now we realize that the social working and teaching environment is irreplaceable.
What steps can we take to remedy this difficult and wearying situation?
First, we need to lower productivity expectations, especially in terms of non-vital objectives. Spending more time on helping students must mean reducing our research volume, participation in international conferences, and such, and this should be fine.
Second, professors should be helped to deal with stress and burnout. For example, many universities, including my own, have set up virtual “lounges,” forums, and networks of colleagues where such topics can be discussed and tips shared to help relieve the pressures and anxieties that build up in one’s life, both professional and personal.
I am sure the burnout that professors and teachers at various school levels are experiencing as yet another side-effect of the pandemic is also felt in other areas of work and life. I wanted to bring attention to this effect so that we all keep it in mind when dealing with students, colleagues, parents, bosses, etc.
Let us hope that the pandemic subsides gradually — with everyone’s help — and that, in the meantime, we all take appropriate steps to deal with its various side effects.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum.
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