May 3, 2011 Conscientious academics who try hard to keep in regular contact with their students are the most likely to suffer from work-related "burnout," a new study has found.
Positive traits that can make lecturers more appealing teachers, such as openness, also make them more susceptible to suffering feelings of weariness and emotional exhaustion.
The problem could be getting worse as more students join part-time, distance and online learning programmes and other flexible study options that increase their need for learning support.
In the first systematic review examining the extent of burnout in full-time non-medical university teaching staff, University of Leicester researchers found that burnout was partly linked to exposure to large numbers of students, especially postgraduates.
As well as feeling weary and exhausted, people experiencing burnout also suffer from disinterest and reduced performance, feelings of depersonalisation and a growing sense of work-related dissatisfaction.
Noelle Robertson, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Leicester, and PhD student Jenny Watts, reviewed 12 studies of academic burnout in seven different countries and found high student numbers were related to increased evidence of these characteristics among academic staff.
Teachers of postgraduates showed more emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation than those teaching undergraduates, while younger staff appeared most vulnerable, showing significantly greater emotional exhaustion than their older colleagues. Most of the studies reviewed found differences in the way men and women experienced burnout, with women reporting more emotional exhaustion and men more depersonalisation.
Dr Robertson said: "We found that burnout levels generally suggest that university academics are just as susceptible to burnt out as school teachers and other public and human service providers."
Studies of secondary school teachers have shown that experience of burnout -- especially emotional exhaustion -- makes teachers less effective, less able to manage their classrooms and less confident that they can inspire their pupils, while many also suffer ill health. Burnout is associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression and disturbed sleep and is linked to problems with the immune system, hormones and metabolism.
The Leicester researchers argue that the expectation on university staff to provide support for students makes them particularly vulnerable because interpersonal interaction is a significant factor in the development of burnout. They suggest that the risk may be magnified by the increasing numbers of students in higher education requiring support to mediate the gap between secondary school and higher education, and because more are studying part-time or on distance-learning programmes.
Dr Robertson said: "By monitoring staff burnout we can put in place strategies to help mitigate it. By the time people feel burnt out they may feel terribly isolated and disassociated from their host institution so it is worthwhile finding ways of dealing with it much earlier."
Staff counsellors at the University of Leicester have introduced a training programme to help academics identify and tackle the symptoms and causes of stress that can lead to burnout.
Veronica Moore, manager of Leicester's staff counselling and well-being service, said: "Often burnout is caused by people putting too much pressure on themselves. Frequently we find that people who are already stressed take on more commitments, which can lead to a downward spiral."
But students can also help. The research suggests that the better prepared students are and the more engaged they are in their learning, the less likely their teachers are to suffer burnout.
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