Stamp out burnout early on: how to spot the signs and what to do about them

Academic life has always been a breeding ground for burnout. Şerife Eyüpoğlu of Near East University points out the warning signs of extreme exhaustion

Şerife Eyüpoğlu's avatar
23 Nov 2023
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A row of matches becomes increasingly more burnt out

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Because of the academic world’s distinctive pressures, burnout is a dominant issue for higher education staff. Heavy workloads, the pressure to meet both management and student expectations, job insecurity, administrative responsibilities, performance-based academic evaluations and particularly a lack of work-life balance can physically, mentally and emotionally exhaust staff to the point of burnout. No matter their position, academics are often exposed to these issues and the resultant high levels of prolonged stress.

Management can also position some academics to prioritise institutional tasks, which can be at the expense of focusing on the needs of students and faculty.

While digital technology has made education more accessible than ever before, academics are now expected to be online constantly, ready to respond to messages from students, co-workers and management.

Establishing a healthy work environment is essential and managers at higher education institutions play a key role in doing so. But how does a manager, concerned with the well-being of their staff, recognise the early signs of burnout – and what steps can be taken to address it effectively?

Encourage open communication

Make an effort to provide faculty with opportunities to open up if they need to. Pop into their office and engage them in a short chat, for example. By communicating with my academic staff, encouraging them to be open and comfortable in conversations with me, I show I am willing to listen in confidence and help them with any concerns they might have.

Keep an eye on changes in behaviour

Be perceptive and observe your academic staff on a regular basis. Watch out for any changes in behaviour or attitude that could indicate the start of burnout. These could include increased absenteeism or withdrawal, or a lack of interest in their dealings with students. If a staff member’s behaviour is changing in this way or is otherwise a cause for concern, arrange a meeting with them and just discuss how they are in general.

Perhaps ask them to make suggestions for a work-related issue you’re facing yourself, to help boost their sense of identity and belonging to the institution. Include them in a team activity or event. Not only will this help to reduce feelings of loneliness, but it will also encourage them to open up to you.

Help staff maintain a work-life balance

Most importantly, encourage a healthy balance of work and rest. People experience burnout when they take on too much work and become exhausted.

Discourage consistent long working hours and monitor workloadseven rescheduling them yourself if necessary. Make sure responsibilities are equitably distributed among staff and that the work assigned is aligned with the abilities of each individual staff member. Encourage the use of annual leave whenever possible and give academics the opportunity to take a personal day or two if necessary, to allow them to recharge.

As a manager in a higher education institution, I have experienced that burnout can come at a high cost for both the institution and the academics. It’s therefore in the best interests of the management staff to recognise the warning signs of burnout and take appropriate action to eliminate it. By detecting the signs early on and taking steps to prevent it, management staff can reduce the impact on both individual staff and the institution itself.

This can not only work to keep academic staff physically and mentally healthy, and performing effectively in their roles, it can also help to retain staff and ensure a sustained high quality of work, reflected in teaching, research and administrative responsibilities. As a result, this will build a more positive, well-balanced working environment.

Şerife Eyüpoğlu is the dean of the faculty of economics and administrative sciences and the chair of the department of business administration at Near East University, Lefkosa, North Cyprus.

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