University Mental Health:  The Connection Between Faculty and Student Wellbeing

It may not come as a surprise that burnout is on the rise across higher education.  What is surprising is the correlation between the mental health and wellbeing of faculty and staff, and student success.

What is causing burnout in higher ed?

In our latest research, we take a look at the cause of rising burnout, much of which is attributed to increasing workloads and a lack of time off for rest and recovery by faculty and staff.  The increasing burnout is leading university employees to seek employment elsewhere – not just at other universities, but outside of higher ed altogether.

As faculty and staff exit to try to repair their mental health, those that are left behind take on increasingly heavy workloads, leading to greater strain on their mental health and more stress, which eventually leads to burnout.

How does faculty burnout impact students?

When faculty burns out, it has a big impact on students and their success.  Our research uncovered evidence of teacher depression impacting student wellbeing, as well as student performance.  It’s no wonder since students are taking their cues from faculty and also taking on too much themselves.  

When faculty and staff suffer from burnout, it decreases the ability for students to successfully regulate stress and learn how to navigate it.  And since students take their cues from faculty, when they see professors pushing themselves to the point of burnout, they’re more likely to follow in their footsteps and end up burned out themselves.

In fact, student burnout increased from 40% to over 70% in 2021 and three-quarters of undergraduates who drop out cite stress as the top factor.  

What can be done to prevent burnout?

Bringing awareness to burnout is the first step.  Many people don’t realize they’re headed for burnout until they hit a breaking point, and don’t feel they can recover from it without withdrawing from their work or school.  Creating a culture where it’s okay to admit when you’re feeling burned out and talk about it, is the first step in creating the psychological safety needed for people to seek help before it’s too late.

Inspecting workloads to allow faculty and staff to find better work-life balance is critical to ending burnout.  Empowering employees to set clear boundaries and make time for life outside campus is crucial to giving them the rest they need to avoid burnout and produce their best work.

When faculty and staff are empowered to push back against burnout, students are likewise empowered.  Witnessing workers who are equally committed to the university as they are their own life gives students the chance to see that rest and recovery need to be part of the path to success.