Leaders must transform universities into healthy workspaces

15 Jun 2023 | By Desmond Thompson
15 Jun 2023 | By Desmond Thompson

Universities should make staff well-being a strategic priority in order to counter the epidemic of burnout that is on the rise in higher education, Dr Tessie Herbst of Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) told university leaders.

Herbst, a registered psychologist and accredited human resources professional, works in the office of the deputy vice-chancellor: teaching, learning and technology at TUT, Professor Ben van Wyk, where she is responsible for academic leadership development.

She was a keynote speaker at a university leadership workshop on 22 March in Cape Town, South Africa, organised by Higher Education Reform Experts – South Africa (HERESA) and hosted by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

HERESA is an Erasmus+ capacity-building project for higher education in South Africa, which was awarded to the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa, or THENSA, and OBREAL Global, an association promoting South-South-North cooperation, in 2020. It was inspired by a similar initiative in the European Union that has been successful in influencing policy change in that part of the world.

Herbst spoke to University World News this week about her presentation.

“There is a global crisis regarding well-being,” she said, pointing to many publications in this regard in the past few years.

The most recent report, that made headlines in February, was The State of Workplace Burnout 2023 by Infinite Potential, an Australian think tank. It was based on research conducted in 40 countries, including South Africa, in which 2,065 respondents participated.

Burnout on the rise

The key finding was that the burnout rate continues to grow. In 2020, it was 29.6%, a year later, it rose to 34.7% and, last year, it went up to 38.1%. Of the 2,065 respondents, 57% reported being less productive and 47% reported producing lower quality of work.

At the same time, feelings of wellness are decreasing – from 49% in 2020 to 45% in 2021 to 42% in 2022.

Burnout is not just being tired because you work hard, Herbst explained. According to the World Health Organization (2019), it is “a syndrome … resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Burnout has three main symptoms:

  • Exhaustion: Feelings of energy depletion or emotional, mental and physical fatigue;
  • Cynicism: Mental distance, alienation and feelings of negativity or pessimism; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy: Diminished ability to produce work at usual speed or quality.

Herbst said that, while the state of workplace burnout report did not focus specifically on higher education, burnout is probably at least as high, if not higher at universities.

In 2018, Times Higher Education reported a study by Gail Kinman, a professor in occupational health psychology, which found that university staff experience stress-related illness at a greater rate than even police or medical personnel.

And, last year, a Gallup poll found that educators reported the highest level of burnout of any industry, and 35% of university workers reported “always” or “very often” feeling burned out at work.

This is borne out by the results of the academic leadership impact survey that Herbst conducts at TUT annually. In the most recent survey, 93 academic managers and 997 other employees participated. Both groups were asked the same question: “If you have to choose just one word to describe how you are feeling most of the time at work, what would it be?”

Image removed.

A ‘word cloud’ representing how staff at TUT feel while at work.

Herbst explained the findings: “Some members of both groups felt good and happy – it is important to acknowledge that – but a large portion said they felt anxious and overwhelmed, I would say 40%.

That is not good for anyone, but it is even worse for leaders, considering their role to create emotional safety for others. How can you do that if you, yourself, feel overwhelmed and anxious?”

Causes of burnout

The leading causes of burnout identified in The State of Workplace Burnout 2023 report are the following: unmanageable workload, lack of organisational support, values misalignment, unfair or inequitable treatment and toxic leadership behaviours.

Herbst said that these findings hold true for higher education institutions as well. Other organisational stressors in academia include inappropriate deadlines, growing student numbers, pressure to publish, administrative tasks, lack of resources, poor working conditions, job insecurity, lack of promotion opportunities, poor interpersonal relationships, inadequate remuneration and lack of autonomy.

Top management communication that is disconnected from employees’ daily reality has also been identified as a negative for well-being in academia.

“Staff members complain about not being consulted. Decisions are made about them without them. That is how environments become toxic. People feel undervalued and disrespected.

“To prevent burnout, the number one thing that’s been shown all over in the literature is giving people more control over their work.”

The impact of burnout among academics

Herbst listed such consequences of burnout as declines in mental and physical health, low morale, drug and alcohol abuse, weakening of interpersonal relationships, deterioration in teaching and research performance, increased absenteeism and, ultimately, considerations of leaving the profession. Also, the burned-out educator might negatively influence students’ well-being and performance.

They might display negative attitudes towards their students and colleagues, treating them as objects (depersonalisation). Or they might develop callous attitudes towards their work, to such an extent that they might lose interest in research or do not prepare adequately for class.

How not to respond

“Typically, management’s response is to take disciplinary action against the staff member, and to send university leaders on courses about maintaining discipline. But absenteeism and presenteeism – basically ‘quiet quitting’ – are just symptoms of underlying issues. And if we just respond by disciplining staff, it’s making things worse,” Herbst said.

“The other way in which universities and other organisations, including businesses, respond is to focus on individual wellness and resilience by organising wellness days, offering gym membership, having lunchtime yoga sessions, and so on.

“This approach is all good and well, but it doesn’t deal with the systemic issues. And when you are burned out, you can’t self-care yourself out of it. The system needs to change. The individual resilience narrative is allowing the system to remain toxic.”

Root causes and how to fix them

Herbst said there is rising evidence that directive performance management approaches are counter-productive to the output, efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation and also to staff well-being and mental health.

She cited Andrea Brady, who says academia has become an “anxiety machine”, producing neurotic academics.

“Professor Liz Morrish and Brady and others argue that the root cause is the neoliberal agenda, which we know is very prominent. In other words, the corporatisation of higher education, entailing, among other things, managerialism and the business model of higher education nowadays.”

“We need to shift our thinking from what is wrong with us, to what is wrong with the system,” Herbst said.

“If the system doesn’t change and you push the responsibility to the individual, you’re telling the individual ‘there’s something wrong with you – you are not resilient enough’. That creates stigma and leads to people not wanting to say they feel burned out.

“Instead, we need a strategic approach. Universities should prioritise staff well-being, and I am happy to say my university has now listed it as a strategic priority.”

What leaders can do differently

“I often hear leaders say: ‘I don’t do emotions,’,” Herbst said.

“How can you lead people if you are not in touch with your own emotions and don’t connect with others emotionally? Leaders should let people talk, and also say they, themselves, struggle sometimes. Because, we all do. Leaders need to show vulnerability. That is how you make space for people to say they are not coping – they need help.”

There is a perception that senior leaders should get the job done, no matter what. Deloitte found in 2021 that among senior leaders:

• 82% regularly finish work feeling mentally and physically exhausted;

• 43% report increased irritability;

• 59% are unable to relax;

• 38% have reduced energy; and

• 49% have difficulty sleeping.

“So, how many leaders sleep seven to eight hours? Because that’s what neuroscience tells us you need. Otherwise you don’t get enough REM sleep. You can’t solve problems. You remain in a state of anxiety and stress, and it leads to burnout.”

Stop glorifying being busy and slow down

Mental detachment is just as important. Staff and leaders alike need to take weekends off and regularly take leave, and when they do, disconnect from work completely. And there should be no stigma about it.

“When we arrive at work on a Monday, we start telling people how much we worked over the weekend. Leaders can break that by saying: ‘I rested this weekend, I slept, and I hope you did the same’. But also by making sure staff are not overloaded with work requiring them to put in extra time.”

Herbst pointed to the 2016 book by Professors Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy.

“Slow scholarship prioritises caring and allows us time to think, plan and work well, and has the transformative potential to make higher education institutions places where the whole learning community can collectively and collaboratively thrive,” she said.

“And, in this case, the individual needs to take responsibility and push back against the system. The authors speak of ‘professorial activism’, which entails saying no to unreasonable demands. Staff should speak up and speak out.”

Take the first step

Herbst said she knows it’s extremely complicated to run a university nowadays, but university leaders should prioritise wellness.

“Just start somewhere: put one protective factor in place, and invite others into the conversation. You don’t need a large budget for that; you just need a change of heart.

“Leaders should co-create wellness solutions with staff and students. Don’t try and do it alone. Use the creative and collective intelligence in the system.”