Professor Burnout: Implications for University Leadership

By Michael Pittaro

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

We are college professors, each within different disciplines, and we both agree that teaching is an incredibly rewarding career, especially with the knowledge that what is being taught in the classroom has the power to positively influence an individual’s life in so many ways for years to come.

A college education is not just intended to prepare students for their respective future careers but also intended to help them grow as individuals on both a personal and professional level.

We do our very best to instill the knowledge and skills needed and, as required of our university curriculum, to prepare them for their careers; however, we truly believe that in order to produce exceptional graduates, we must go well above and beyond the standard expectations in creating future leaders, not just professional entry-level workers.

However, like other service-oriented professions, teaching can also lead to burnout. Professor burnout is often overlooked, even though it is more common than some might think, yet surprisingly few research studies have been dedicated to how and why this occurs.

This article examines professor burnout from the vantage point of university professors in the hopes of increasing awareness regarding the specific signs and causes. It will serve as an introduction to basic leadership strategies that are both practical and cost-effective in addressing burnout among the faculty.

Signs of Stress

According to Essential Ways to Cope with Stress, the most common physiological signs of stress include the following:

  •         Emotional numbness
  •         Feelings of sadness, frustration, and helplessness
  •         Recurring feelings of fear and anxiety
  •         Anger, tension, and irritability
  •         Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  •         Reduced interest in usual “enjoyable” activities
  •         Wanting to be alone and avoiding others
  •         Loss of appetite or eating too much
  •         Irregular sleeping patterns
  •         Nightmares
  •         Headaches, muscle pains, and stomach problems
  •         Smoking or increased use of alcohol or drugs

The Stressors

In her article, The Day I Knew I was Burned Out, Valarie Strauss described her teaching journey by saying, “Everything felt like an emergency… There was no time to think.” The often-puzzling maze of increasing administrative responsibilities, time-consuming committee work, endless hours of grading, and an ever-changing university culture can only add to the daily complexities of a professor’s job.

Like most professions, work-related stressors often trigger burnout, yet at the university level, most of them consistently point to university leadership as a contributing factor.

Surprisingly, there is very little information within the research literature concerning stress as it relates to university faculty burnout, both within and outside of the United States. The research indicates that the causes or sources of stress have remained constant for the past 25 years, yet no one is doing anything about it.

The few studies that have been conducted point to a common theme outlined below in a recent Contemporary Issues in Education Research article as contributing factors to professor burnout.

Salary Increases

Salary increases and merit pay are often too small to be truly effective long-term motivators. Universities neither provide a great deal of monetary nor nonmonetary recognition to faculty for their accomplishments.

Salary increases and merit pay are often sporadic and cannot be assumed as guaranteed on an annual basis. Salary raises, when provided, are usually within the 2%-4% range. Seldom do salary increases, or merit pay keep up with inflation on an annual basis over a three to five-year period.

Suggested Solution: University leadership must adopt salary increases that are competitive and include realistic annual pay increases based on growing inflation and cost-of-living expenses.

Faculty Salaries

Faculty salaries in many university disciplines do not often justify the cost, time, and effort of obtaining terminal academic degrees (i.e., Ph.D.) required in maintaining long-term faculty careers. In the words of one survey participant, “We are among the most educated people, yet as a profession, we are paid poorly.”

Suggested Solution: It is recommended that university leadership provide financial assistance through doctoral scholarships or tuition assistance programs that are designed to offset the increasing costs associated with pursuing a doctorate degree.


University retirement benefit packages are modest or less than modest in meeting individual economic needs.

Suggested Solution: University leadership must adopt retirement benefit packages that are competitive in meeting individual economic needs and comparable to other service-oriented professions.

Lenient Admission Policies

Open or lenient admission policies allow ill-equipped students to enter the classroom. Many incoming freshmen lack basic, yet necessary, university skills in writing, speaking, math, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

The consequence is that faculty find themselves teaching down to the lowest skill level. In doing so, faculty begin demotivating the more talented students because the focus is on those students deemed at-risk.

Some faculty often become frustrated because the majority of their students do not intellectually challenge them, and they often feel that they are not doing an effective job of teaching.

Suggested Solution: University leadership must strengthen existing admission policies by identifying and requiring ill-equipped students to participate in remedial courses prior to their first semester to strengthen their deficient skill sets and adequately prepare them for university-level academics.

Teaching Loads

Teaching loads at universities that primarily have a teaching mission are frequently more demanding (e.g., 4 courses per semester) than institutions that support lesser teaching loads due to time allocated for research (i.e., sabbaticals) or other service activities.

Suggested Solution: The research has consistently shown that a professor’s teaching load and the number of students within each course, along with counseling advisees, is directly correlated with burnout, particularly when coupled with committee work, producing research, and presenting at professional conferences.

Therefore, reducing teaching loads and the number of students in each course can be a preventative approach to burnout and allow time for professional development.

Erosion of Academic Freedom

Faculty often feel that their academic freedom is eroding due to college administrators not providing them the courtesy of collegial discussion and involvement in solving university issues that influence their specific programs or course instruction.

Suggested Solution: While not popular among university leadership, it is suggested that the creation of faculty senates or committees that include representatives from each university program be implemented so that each program/discipline has a voice in important university-related issues.

Unclear Goals

Newly hired / junior faculty often work in an ambiguous environment containing unclear goals, fuzzy guidance on what one needs to do to obtain promotion and tenure, and a culture that lacks a well-defined mentoring process for promotion and tenure.

Suggested Solution: Assign experienced and engaged faculty to mentor new faculty and provide the mentoring faculty members with reduced teaching loads.

Glass Ceiling

Career progression provides an inevitable glass ceiling for all faculties once they receive their full professorships. Promotional opportunities beyond a tenured full professor rank do not exist in U.S. universities unless one decides to pursue a university administrative position.

Suggested Solution: This is something that should be considered on a larger, nationally wide scale.

University Bureaucracy

University bureaucracy and stilted policies often subdue faculty and institutional innovation, motivation, and creativity.

Suggested Solution: The creation of a faculty senate or committee that includes representation from the individual programs who work closely with the university’s leadership can assist in increasing and improving institutional innovation, motivation, and creativity because the faculty will have a voice and feel empowered concerning the direction of university policy.

Insufficient Budget Support

Budget support for faculty development is often insufficient for faculty to develop and expand their professional skill sets.

Suggested Solution: University leadership should earmark a realistic amount of money each year for professional development. A highly credentialed faculty is advantageous to the university’s social and academic presence among competing universities and appeals to incoming students.

Activity Traps

University strategic planning efforts can become activity traps for faculty involvement. Faculty often perceive these efforts as pseudo attempts by the administration to make faculty feel like they are helping in the management and direction of the university’s strategic efforts.

Suggested Solution: University leadership must adopt an open-door, transparent type of transformational leadership approach to keep the faculty involved in university strategic planning efforts.

Committee Work

Committee work is often perceived as unproductive with fruitless outcomes.

Suggested Solution: Committees must be formed from the start with clear goals in mind, concise mission statements, strong direction, and realistic expectations as to the desired outcomes. It should be clear and concise as to how the committee’s work will have a positive influence on the university, the faculty, and the students.

Unrealistic Expectations

Administrator expectations of faculty can be unrealistic in light of budgetary constraints, the lack of resources, and increasing market competition.

Suggested Solution: Eliminate the “do more with less” attitude and approach, which has consistently been tied to burnout.

Overburdening faculty will only lead to burnout, resentment, and low morale, and in some cases, may cause the faculty member to seek employment elsewhere. One quote that we like to recite is, “Treat employees like they make a difference, and they will.”

In closing, the implications for university leadership are significant. Professor burnout can and will trickle down to the students who might feel that the instructor is simply going through the motions, does not have an interest in them or their education, and may contribute to students seeking out other professors who are more engaged, or worse, dropping out / transferring out of the university.

These are realistic concerns and suggested solutions that university leadership must address.

How Would You Deal with Professor Burnout?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Michael Pittaro
Michael Pittaro
Michael Pittaro, Ph.D. (candidate) is an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University. He is a 27-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings.

Pittaro has lectured in higher education for the past 14 years while also serving as an author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in public safety/criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.
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