The Importance of Self-Care in the Academy

Despite numerous studies focused on burnout in the workplace, only a small amount of literature focuses on the perception of anxiety and burnout among faculty members in colleges and universities. The minimal amount of data we do have, therefore, provides a sliver of insight into the stress faculty members experience.

In one study published in The Higher Education Research Institute Undergraduate Teaching Faculty, 16,112 full-time undergraduate teaching faculty members at 269 four-year colleges and universities were surveyed about their academic lives (Eagan, Stolzenberg, Berdan Aragon, Suchard, & Hurtado, 2014). On the stress portion, only 37.5% of respondents reported achieving a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives “to a great extent.”

I have personally worked to find this balance for over 30 years; I transitioned into PA Education in 1991 after working several years in a clinical role as a Physician Assistant. At the time, there was very little faculty development available to ease my transition. Whether it was panic attacks in the classroom during the first year of teaching, self-monitoring every word I said, or fearing students’ questions would reveal my lack of knowledge, the stress and anxiety I experienced was excruciating. I felt like an imposter pretending to be a professor. Unfortunately, I learned quickly that showing weakness in the Academy was not an acceptable practice, so I rarely sought help.

Faculty members today are experiencing the same stress and the same anxiety. Pivoting to an online environment among college and university faculty hasn’t been exactly helpful, either. The level of stress experienced among these professionals should not go unnoticed.

More than ever, faculty members can benefit from practicing self-care activities—that is, activities deliberately done to take care of one’s mental, emotional, and physical heath. Self-care includes self-awareness—an ongoing observation and attunement to one’s experience, including risk factors and warning signs of on-coming challenges to psychological wellness (e.g., distress, problems with professional competence, burnout, secondary traumatic stress, etc.).

Is it possible the stress of a faculty role in higher education leads to serious issues involving burnout and distress? We don’t have enough data to know the strength of the correlation or causation, and the literature may be lacking because of the fear of sharing one’s experiences. What if I’m the only one who is struggling? What if the stress I’m feeling is my own fault? Shouldn’t I be able to handle the pressure?

While we worry what other faculty members will think if we admit feeling overwhelmed, they’re likely worried what we’ll think if they confess the same thing. Which is why it’s important for us to share—we’ll find we are not alone in our experiences.

Even after a decade in the academic world, I was personally afraid to open up about the stress and anxiety I felt. Maintaining a leadership role and remaining in clinical practice was difficult, and instead of seeking outside support, I found solace in alcohol. I didn’t indulge in any healthy self-care activities; my self-medicating through alcohol seriously impaired my work and life. In 2002, I finally entered alcohol rehab treatment. I was fortunate enough to be employed at a supportive institution that allowed me to return once I achieved sobriety. I’m blessed to have been sober since January 5, 2002.

The stress of the job was overwhelming to me because I didn’t know how to alleviate the pressure. Many faculty members focus on their professional life, instead of finding a healthy balance. Relentlessly focusing on achieving tenure and promotion can contract into an endless wheel of achievement and performance. It’s easy to ignore your physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual needs, which then leads to relationship challenges, unhealthy behaviors, and self-medicating in negative ways (overeating, drugs, alcohol, and other self-destructive behaviors, etc.).

Pursuing professional success is never worth sacrificing your mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. If you feel stress and anxiety are quickly leading you to burnout, consider reflecting on self-care practices and how they can enhance your quality of life. What can you do that will bring you peace, rest, and refreshment? How can you find a balance between growing professionally and maintaining a healthy mindset?