Gearing Up or Burning Out? Survey Findings Show Wellbeing is Top Concern for Higher Ed Faculty

As we enter a second academic year with the coronavirus pandemic clearly here for the long haul, it is worth reflecting on how university faculty have been feeling. Academic staff have been working harder than ever, and after an incredibly tough 18 months they are now prioritizing their wellbeing as a top concern. What can academic publishers learn from this, as we think about our role in serving higher education faculty and their students?

Toward the end of 2020, I shared findings from our SAGE Publishing faculty survey which showed a high level of overwhelm among faculty. The survey had developed out of conversations with SAGE’s UK Pedagogy Advisory Board (PAB), as we were interested to further understand the feelings of academic faculty through the pandemic, and to uncover their key priorities, challenges, and resource needs. The information we received helped us to reflect on our own role as a publisher in this time of incredible change, and in the spring of 2021 we re-ran the survey, interested to observe any differences. (SAGE is the parent of Social Science Space.)

Our latest survey secured 888 respondents, the majority of whom are lecturers based in the UK or Europe, with other contributors from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Here are some of our key findings.

Individual Wellbeing is A Top Priority

Graphic showing current top priorities

Understandably, faculty’s topmost priority back in 2020 had been ‘setting courses up online.’ Whilst this still remains a significant focus for half our 2021 respondents, the highest priority this year changed to a focus on individual faculty wellbeing, with 67 percent of respondents registering ‘my wellbeing’ as a high or top priority (and an additional 24 percent choosing wellbeing as a medium priority).  

Indeed, personal wellbeing was the only upward trending priority compared to last year, ranking higher than implementing best pedagogical practice, wellbeing support for students, and finding resources to use online. This feels understandable, with staff having already done so much work in these areas over the last year, despite the huge challenges faced (including research challenges to determining good pedagogy).

So Tired

The wellbeing theme is not a surprise. Our fall 2020 survey had seen 67 percent of respondents express high rates of feeling overwhelmed, concerned and tired, with understandably far fewer (22 percent) claiming to feel excited or welcoming of changes to teaching during the pandemic. That negative feeling has dropped to 59 percent in our spring survey. However, while feelings of overwhelm and concern were down, there has been an increase in the level of tiredness (up from 17 percent to 22 percent), which fits with our PAB members’ own experience and other reports of exhaustion and stress given the sheer amount of work that was required to speedily transition to virtual classrooms.

There was, however, a small uptick in the number of people welcoming changes in teaching, from 12 percent in fall to 16 percent in the spring.

Blended Learning Here to Stay

Graphic showing expected scanarios over next 2 years

Across the fall and spring surveys we have seen a continued expectation that the pivot to online teaching or blended learning is here to stay. This was felt by 62 percent of fall 2020 and 63 percent of spring 2021 respondents, and chimes with feedback from faculty members on SAGE’s Pedagogy Advisory Board, who clearly feel that we shouldn’t ‘snap back’ to 100 percent face-to-face teaching, or equating contact time with quality. These findings are interesting in comparison to the recent student survey from the Higher Education Policy Institute in which students emphasized their dissatisfaction with online learning and a desire for more in-person contact and more communication — areas that seem lower on faculty’s priorities in our survey.

PAB member Wendy Garnham of Sussex University confirmed the need for balance: “The push to online learning has forced us to develop our pedagogy and re-think our teaching in ways we might not have done otherwise. It will be important to retain the good things we have developed going forward and not to just return to pre-pandemic methods, some of which were outdated and less fit for purpose.’’

Chris Headland of the University of Lincoln commented, “The lockdowns through the last two academic years have arguably been the largest disrupter to the sector in the past 50 years. For better or for worse, we know more about blended learning than we ever have before”.

It is interesting to see a decline in the percentage of respondents who felt e-book availability would be mandatory for course texts – the rate remains notable at 44 percent, but this is down from a high of 55 percent in fall 2020.

In both surveys, just under half (47 percent) of respondents expressed concerns about research funding as a result of the pandemic.

Biggest Challenges?

When we asked faculty about current challenges they are facing, over half mentioned workload, followed by conducting research. Other challenges continue to be those that the COVID experience has exacerbated, such as student engagement, online teaching, and communication with students.

The Role of the Publisher

Our final focus in the survey was to ask faculty about the resources they prefer to get from publishers, and here open educational resources and eTextbooks emerged as the two top priorities. Support for online teaching best practice and provision of case studies were the next most sought-after resources, followed by print textbooks and video. All of these had been the top responses in 2020, though the demand for print textbooks jumped significantly from 25 percent to 34 percent, perhaps as faculty start to expect some kind of return to normalization.

There is much for publishers to learn from these findings, and part of our response at SAGE has been to develop open access teaching resources, an online teaching hub, a new approach to the provision of eTextbooks via SAGE Catalyst, and refining our digital learning platforms with faculty’s needs in mind.  As the new semester gets underway, academic publishers must continue to work closely with faculty to provide the resources and support they need.

Summary

Our two faculty surveys have been incredibly insightful alongside conversations with our Pedagogy Advisory Board. The feedback shows a consistent view that the pivot to online is here to stay, and that eTextbooks will remain a part of the pedagogical ecosystem, even if print textbooks are becoming front of mind again. But the biggest change we are seeing is faculty wellbeing, which our surveys show is of greatest concern. University leadership will need to pay attention to this general trend and ensure they are finding ways of supporting faculty as we get ready for the new academic year.

Our PAB member Danielle Tran of UAL had this to say: “As colleagues and students prepare for a new academic year, spaces for dialogue and reflection will be significant in supporting wellbeing as we navigate an environment of the familiar and unfamiliar. To ensure wellbeing remains a constant priority, it’s important to question how plans and delivery of work across and at all levels of a university are considerate of student and staff wellbeing.”

So, here’s to the start of a new academic year, wishing faculty and their students a positive return to campus, be it online or in person.

We are grateful to all those who contributed to our surveys, and hope these results are insightful. We’re interested to hear your own reflections in the comments below.

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