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Understanding Faculty Well-Being

As supports for instructor burnoutstress, and burdensome workloads are becoming more widely discussed in higher education, institutions are beginning to recognize the importance of maintaining overall faculty well-being as a means of preventing these issues from emerging. The focus on wellness is not surprising considering that faculty well-being not only relates to the individual, but the health of the institution as a whole, “given faculty members’ central role in the sustainability and growth of the institution.” But to ensure faculty well being, one must first understand the “complicated interaction of personal, professional, and organizational challenges faced by higher education faculty and administrators.”

What Affects Faculty Well-Being?

In a recent article from the Journal of Higher Education, researchers surveyed over 500 faculty members across 13 Canadian universities, attempting to measure the relationship between a number of metrics (faculty perceptions, pressure and support in relation to academic tasks, work-home conflict, and workplace frustration of psychological needs) and well-being outcomes (engagement, commitment, burnout, and health). Their findings suggest several causal links, including the likelihood of educator burnout in conjunction with work-home conflict and low academic resources, and academic pressure creating basic need frustration (which they explain are autonomy, competence, and relatedness). A key dynamic of this research is the uniqueness of the academic system, which in order to study requires a reconceptualization of common workplace theories.

Dimensions of faculty well-being are likely connected to the structure of jobs in academia. An article from Research in Higher Education suggests an application of the Job Demands-Resource (JDR) model to further examine the nature of the academic environment. The JDR is a model for employee well-being created by Arnold Bakker and Evangelia Demerouti that offers a more holistic view with additional factors taken into account.

As applied by researchers from the Czech Academy of Sciences, “the JDR model proposes two broad job characteristics that relatively independently influence employee well-being: job demands (defined as job aspects that require sustained effort and that are associated with physiological and psychological costs) and job resources (defined as factors functional in achieving work goals, reducing job demands or stimulating personal growth and development).” They “argue that as long as the academics have available sufficient job resources (e.g., perceive their social environment as supportive and retain high influence over their work), they may be predominantly satisfied with the academic job regardless of the growing work demands.” This signifies well-being based on research-related aspects of academia, but what about the teaching aspects?

Faculty Well-Being and Teachers

Again, to consider the academic environment, there are different requirements for different types of faculty. While each country has their own system, there are generally different roles that require mostly undergraduate teaching and less or no research, and these may be referred to as “instructors”, “contract instructors”, or “teaching professors”, among other names. As a whole, these roles are referred to as non-tenure faculty positions. Matthew T. Seipel and Lisa M. Larson researched faculty well-being for non-tenure track faculty, applying self-determination theory (which hinges on the relationship between motivation and psychological needs), with an emphasis on administrative, departmental, personal and family supports. They note that there was an “absence of any significant, direct relations between the environmental supports and faculty well-being.” Stemming from this is the notion that there are often limited specific supports for non-tenure faculty, as they are typically offered the same supports as tenured faculty, even though their job is significantly different. The key difference is job security, an element that significantly impacts well-being. This article also highlights the need for more research into non-tenured faculty well-being, and the establishment of more direct support programs suited to their needs.

Faculty Well-Being and the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly complicated faculty-well being. The complete shift to remote education (or hybrid instruction) has brought with it a host of challenges to educators including online grading, how to handle remote learning for students without internet, using technology such as Brightspace or Blackboard to organize classes, managing student hardship and avoiding burnout. Moreover, for disciplines where in-person instruction is of great importance, the move to online harmed well-being. This was shown in a recent study, which surveyed music teachers about the pandemic and found that “collegiate teachers reported significantly lower levels of overall well-being and significantly higher levels of depression than published norms.”

While more research needs to be conducted regarding the effects of the pandemic on well-being, it might be useful to consider some institutional-wide approaches that have shown some efficacy. For instance, at the onset of the pandemic, Ohio State University worked tirelessly to promote a culture of wellness, offering an array of virtual programs–from mental health to fitness.This positive approach to showing care for faculty and finding creative ways to support them. This is at the core of faculty well-being, a responsibility of the institution to better support their educators with these difficult online issues.

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