Superhuman workloads cannot become the new normal

The amazing work of university staff during the pandemic has created unrealistic expectations, argue Martha Diede and Michelle Pautz

August 20, 2021
Source: istock

For university faculty and staff, the past 16 months have been a series of cascading changes masquerading as crises. So much has changed, in fact, that many wonder whether a “return to normal” is at all possible in the near future.

But while university administrators mull how this coming academic year will play out, it is important to stress that the goodwill and extra effort that faculty and staff offered their institutions during the first wave of the pandemic was…extra. It is not representative of a new possibility for how much work each person can produce. To expect that is ludicrous, even cruel.

This kind of thinking has roots in misunderstandings of faculty and staff responsibilities and how much time and energy various tasks require. To be clear, no faculty member “has summers off” or “works only 9 to 12 hours per week”. No staff member sits at a desk devoting hours of free time to their social media accounts.

Such perceptions seem to reflect how those who make decisions about what must be done often do not fully appreciate how the decisions are implemented. Against this background, the Covid response demands pushed faculty and staff to the limit. Faculty who already did not have time to attend three days at a conference because it would require them to complete their usual duties at 1am, or at a stoplight, suddenly found themselves with a week (lucky ones) or a weekend (reality) to transition their teaching, research and service activities entirely to an online format.

This effort accompanied a wide variety of new and expanding demands from students including, but not limited to, tech support, social and emotional support, learning support for transitioning to new patterns of engaging with material, and providing appropriate instruction globally across time zones and varying levels of internet bandwidth.

During the pandemic, which many faculty and staff had not experienced, they were willing to draw down their time, talent, energy and emotional resources. Most, if not all, faculty managed their personal and professional lives with aplomb. They held office hours on Sunday evenings before exams, then regularly; they opened their Zoom rooms 30 minutes before class and stayed 30 minutes after class to check in with students and to answer questions about anything and everything. They worked hard on their teaching, marrying new techniques and new technologies. Concurrently, they tried to figure out how to continue their research projects, especially those faculty for whom their employment and advancement prospects depended on research productivity.

Staff adjustments paralleled those of the faculty. Janitorial staff added new steps and new risks to their cleaning routines. Teaching and technology support staff increased their hours and availabilities, holding consults and regularising support offerings at a dizzying pace early into the morning and late into the evening. Student services staff became masters of online engagement.

Most people became facile at online meetings, and many noted that getting to and from meetings became much easier. Like executives who built “travel days” into their schedules, however, faculty and staff noticed that hopping from Zoom to Zoom without breaks wore them down. Yet, faculty and staff looked more “productive” in traditionally understood ways; perhaps they were.

Now, as higher education moves into what might kindly be called a new normal, we see that these adaptations came at a rather high cost. A recent survey suggested that 55 per cent of faculty are considering leaving higher education. Like workers in many industries, faculty and staff wonder why, if they can work from home, they must physically report to campus, particularly when parking permits are rather expensive and “rises” do not approach increases in the cost of living.

Higher education employees at all levels have worked countless hours to support the students about whom they care deeply and to maintain the organisations that employ them, but have not been met with willingness to reward their work. Instead, some institutions offered employees a 0 to 2 per cent salary increase when the cost of living increased to about 4 per cent .

Some faculty who had been told that they would have an extra year to pursue their research and would not be penalised for “low productivity” were asked why their research had not reached previously expected levels – as if Covid were not such a disruption. Such dynamics do not bode well for maintaining a workforce, particularly not one that is under-rewarded and overtired.

While individual campus ecosystems differ widely, this challenging moment is an opportunity for institutions of higher education to address expectations for faculty and staff that no longer match what is human(e)ly possible.

To adjust to this new normal, institutions of higher education would do well to maintain the urgency of caring for their people first, and this focus may encompass a hard reset for institutional expectations from faculty and staff. Ignoring the unbalanced expectations, especially if they existed before the pandemic, leads to burnout. Superhuman effort is not a sustainable strategy.

We must acknowledge and reward the hard work that faculty and staff have accomplished and then clearly and intentionally reset expectations so that this level of work is far outside the norm, not the new normal.

Martha Diede is director for the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at Syracuse University in New York. Michelle Pautz is professor of political science and assistant provost at the University of Dayton, in Ohio.

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