Five Tips for Promoting Faculty Wellness in Higher Ed

I heard once that being a college professor is, objectively, the least stressful job available. Looking through multiple lists from career resource sites highlighting low-stress jobs, the job of professor is almost always in the top 10. The flexible hours and work-life balance, connecting with students and building relationships with them, the enjoyment of inquiry and intellect, the access to academic and cultural resources, independence and freedom, all contribute to a pretty enjoyable, tranquil career. However, no job is without its stressors, and professors face some unique demands: pursuing tenure (with the possibility of losing their current position entirely if tenure is denied); pressure to bring in grant money for research funding; publishing academic papers to reach tenure, sustain their academic contributions and relevance, and highlight their institution’s name; and meeting the needs of a student body increasingly underprepared for post-secondary coursework (Hechinger Report, 2017).

“Faculty members balance multiple roles as teachers, researchers, mentors, and managers. Three-quarters of university faculty report stress levels of moderate or higher, with ten percent reporting serious levels of stress. Elevated stress is the best predictor of faculty deciding to leave academia.”

The Office of the Provost at Northwestern University writes that “faculty members balance multiple roles as teachers, researchers, mentors, and managers. Three-quarters of university faculty report stress levels of moderate or higher, with ten percent reporting serious levels of stress. Elevated stress is the best predictor of faculty deciding to leave academia” (2019). Similar to secondary teachers, high levels of stress sustained over a period of time increases attrition, a detrimental cost to schools and the success of students. With reported stressors such as anxiety, burnout, difficulties with students, work-life imbalance, alcohol or drug abuse, as well as personal stressors like family strains (Office of the Provost, Northwestern University, 2019), providing wellness resources for faculty may be a key investment for higher education institutions. Ideally, a multi-faceted wellness program would be accessible to all faculty with the goal of helping them be happier and more productive. A few ways to support faculty wellness are:

Coaching and Professional Mentorship

Faculty are experts in their field, but few to none have been taught pedagogy, or how to teach. The traditional approach of professors lecturing the information and students being largely responsible for mastering it—alone—are fading. A movement toward more interactive, collaborative, and constructivist teaching methods is on its way, and professors will need guidance in how to implement effective instructional strategies. Additionally, mentorship in their field as well as in research, funding, and publishing can make a huge difference in the professional and personal success of a newer faculty member.

Counseling Services

High quality counselors help prevent issues from escalating and can provide much needed relief during times of challenge. Counselors help us feel heard, provide insight, and work toward solutions. Faculty should have access to counselors who can guide them through personal and professional challenges gracefully and effectively.

Family Resources

Childcare on campuses will hopefully be accessible, affordable, and ubiquitous someday. Currently, even faculty members have to suffer long waiting lists for their institution’s childcare facility. In my own experience, even though my husband was a faculty member and I was a graduate student at our shared university, we spent years on the waiting list and never got to send our daughter there. Cost is another factor that creates significant stress to families. Making childcare a much easier resource to navigate would go a long way in easing professors’ stress.

Access to Fitness Facilities

Physical wellbeing is a crucial part of overall wellness. Fitness centers are commonplace, but institutions can go one step further by implementing wellness programs that provide incentives to faculty members for participating, providing a variety of classes and programs like meditation and bootcamp, and keeping the facilities clean and up to date.

Ombudsman Services

I was unaware of what an ombudsman was until I was a doctoral student. Jefferson University defines a college or university ombudsman as “a designated neutral or impartial dispute resolution practitioner whose major function is to provide confidential and informal assistance to constituents of the university or college community (this may include students, staff, faculty and/or administrators).” Their definition continues as “an advocate for fairness who acts as a source of information and referral, and aids in answering individual’s questions, and assists in the resolution of concerns and critical situations.” Faculty can go to their campus’s ombudsman for support and guidance with difficult situations. The main action for colleges and universities is to make sure they communicate that this resource exists so faculty can access them when needed.

Faculty wellness is important for both the faculty member and the students he/she serves because “faculty wellness is viewed as an essential foundation for developing responsive and integrated learning-centered curricula; for enhancing the quality of teaching and student learning experiences; for positive and productive learning communities; and, for effective communications and problem-solving at the institutional, departmental and individual levels” (Hubbell & West, 2008). For a happier, healthier, and more constructive faculty, wellness is a necessary and welcome priority.