Stress from the pandemic as well as other major societal issues is taking its toll on higher education institutions. The effects can be seen across college and university campuses as students, staff, faculty and leaders try to deal with rapidly changing circumstances. While students have access to counseling services, many higher education employees are feeling intense stress levels – and their job performance is suffering.

This podcast, which focuses on employee stress levels and what leaders can do, features Dr. Tom Marrs, a clinical psychologist and assistant director for client engagement for the Center for Executive Development at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.

A Continual Accumulation

Rather than adapting to change, people are finding that their stress levels continue to get higher as the pandemic continues. They are having difficulty dealing with so many challenges at one time; these challenges include isolation and problems that come with that, fear of illness and death from the pandemic, financial stress, political unrest, social discord, the overall lack of resources, and increased work demands. These various emerging and pressing issues are creating a bottleneck of stressors.

Additionally, people are getting tired from dealing with the continued stress, especially stress from unknowns. If something is stressful but there is a known end (as seen in a natural disaster such as a hurricane or wildfire), you know that you’ll be able to recover in the near future, even though going through the situation will be stressful. The pandemic, however, is so open-ended that people can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. This makes it increasingly difficult to function since humans have a low tolerance for ambiguity, which also leads to stress.

The confluence of all of these stressors at the same time is especially challenging. Colleges and universities are dealing with so many situations that couldn’t be predicted. Administrators are having to make hard decisions that have an effect on students, staff and faculty.

Additionally, so many institutions have a large influence on the quality of the economy in their community. Higher education’s financial impact is wide-ranging and includes tourism, research, an area’s economic development and student expenditures. Therefore, making decisions to send students home, such as what happened in the spring, have far-reaching ramifications that can lead to increased stress.

Survival Mode

Stress consists of physical, psychological and/or emotional demands that are placed on an organism. People have a set amount of bandwidth to use to deal with demands; however, if the stress of the demands being faced exceeds that bandwidth, the individual locks up and shuts down.

Individuals often go into survival mode when facing extreme stress. Maslow’s Hierarchy showed that people become very task-focused when under stress, leaving no room for higher order thinking and envisioning the big picture of where we’re going. Instead, individuals’ focus gets myopic, narrowing to issues relating to survival as well as those they can control.

The problem is that being in survival mode over a long period of time leads to burn out. The Yerkes-Dodson Human Performance Curve shows that people don’t perform well when they have no stress and also when they are under extreme stress. It’s only when people are in the sweet spot in the middle that they do their best work.

Currently, we’re fully in the far tail of the curve, which is marked by continual high stress. The repercussions can be seen in workplace behavior, employee performance and decision-making.

While people have a compensatory mechanism that can handle stress, they can only compensate up to a point, and once a certain threshold is reached, people start to de-compensate through burnout and stress behaviors. This can result in a low tolerance for frustration, even in minor situations – they can develop a hair trigger and become more rigid and on edge. They look for potential threats in the environment and develop a tall antennae that is sensitive to perceived slights. If someone is perceived as causing problems, that person is labelled as a trouble maker. There also can be increased forgetfulness, which is a direct result of being stressed.

Leaders’ Next Step

Not surprisingly, leaders are reporting having to deal with more difficult behaviors in the workplace, more infighting among teams, as well as more problems between the leader and team members. These behaviors are predictable.

The real challenge is determining what can be done about the situation.

Higher education leaders are primarily focused right now on the students. Fortunately, students have access to the student counseling center, and this generation is utilizing campus counseling services more often than previous generations. A report published about 15 years ago noted this increase is a result of the destigmatizing of mental health issues.  Dr. Marrs pointed out that he has seen studies showing a 300% increase in utilization in college student counseling centers over the years.

But … what are leaders doing to help the faculty and staff?

As a first step, leaders need to consider every option that is available to help employees lower stress levels. The challenge becomes how to financially make these resources available when budgets are being drastically reduced.

Dr. Marrs encourages leaders to use empathy when assessing how faculty and staff are functioning in the workplace. Leaders should be aware of their own as well as everyone’s stress levels and monitor their own expectations for performance. As people come under more stress, those closest to them bear the brunt of their anxiety and fear. Therefore, if an administrator is stressed, his or her emotions will roll downhill as part of the decision-making process. This leads to increased demands on the team while the administrator may not have any understanding of the increased stress that the team is under and how the team is functioning.

One challenge facing higher education is that many college and university employees have not had a chance to release their stress. For example, most have not taken vacations since the Christmas holidays. On top of that, many employees are facing other issues such as on-going child care issues or their own health issues, issues that have further increased their stress levels.

Gauging Ourselves

Higher education leaders are not immune to the increased stress—and the resultant behaviors are having an impact on how some administrators lead their institutions.

Dr. Marrs believes leaders need to focus on increasing their levels of understanding and empathy, but this requires the administrators to be self-aware. Administrators need to develop grace in working with people during these difficult times.

Leaders need to apply emotional intelligence to themselves to be able to lead during the current chaos. Most MBA programs in the United States now teach emotional intelligence because it brings tangible results; it is no longer considered a soft skill. Emotional intelligence becomes critical during times of extreme stress and uncertainty.

Leaders also need to pay attention to where the institution and employees are, e.g., they need to identify when they are being reactive to situations.  Having a high level of self-awareness, an awareness of others, and then being able to control our own reactions to both unfolding situations and others, will make more of a difference in the current environment than anything else we can do. And the best part is that these approaches are all free.

A Pandemic of Burn-out

People need to talk about and face the stigma related to burn-out. Many are experiencing burn-out, which is very predictable because of the large quantity of change present in our society. Humans are not wired to handle this much change this quickly.

We have had to change so many things and learn and adopt many new processes, such as moving immediately to online learning. Leaders need to recognize that people are doing the best that they can in these situations. Leaders need to monitor their own expectations and cut employees some slack.

Leaders also need to consider simplifying what they are doing in leading their teams. In order to try to maintain a sense of normalcy, many will try to find things they can do to feel they are still in control. This could mean that a leader might decide to roll out a new program or operating procedure. It might make the leader feel better temporarily, but will add to the already-high stress level of his or her team.

Research shows that when people are physically tired, they tend to make good decisions but those decisions are made more slowly. However, when faced with extreme stress, people make terrible decisions with a great deal of speed. Leaders need to consider this before reorganizing departments or rolling out new programs in the current environment.

The high level of stress across the college campus is difficult to deal with. When focusing exclusively on the needs of students, leaders often ignore the needs of their team–as well as their own needs. Having this much stress opens the door to bad behaviors. Leaders need to understand how to recognize these bad behaviors and identify the appropriate actions to take in these stressful times. This is where emotional intelligence comes in and why it’s important to consider what we’re reacting to.

Working from home also has become especially difficult. All employees—but especially members of Millennials and Gen Z—are experiencing a lack of boundaries separating work life and home life. Employees don’t know how to unplug and are often working during their “off” time. Therefore, it’s important for leaders to honor team members’ days off by not sending an email or text with something to do when they return to work. More often than not, the employee will respond that day, even though it’s their day off. This means they won’t experience the full break they need to reset and recharge.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Dr. Marrs suggested three takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • Take care of yourself. You are of no use to anyone if you are stressed out. You will be making decisions based on fear.
  • Have empathy for others. Be aware of your own emotional intelligence. Monitor the engagement and burnout of people who work for you. Give them time off or find other ways to compensate to help them regain their balance.
  • This is not a time to make unnecessary decisions that result in change. When in doubt, consult with others. Have a sounding board.

Bullet Points

  • Higher education institutions are facing huge amounts of stress in the current environment. These stressors include the pandemic, race relations, financial issues, the upcoming election cycle, and the institution’s own challenges of making changes.
  • While much—if not all–of the focus has been on helping students through these current issues, many faculty, staff and administrators are struggling with handling the current high rates of stress.
  • Being in survival mode over a long period of time leads to burn out. Once a certain threshold of stress is reached, people start to de-compensate through experiencing burnout and exhibiting stress behaviors, such as frustration, rigidity, being on edge, and having a hair trigger. They start looking for potential threats in the environment and become overly sensitive to what they perceive as slights.
  • Leaders need to use empathy when assessing how faculty and staff are functioning in the workplace. They also should be aware of their own as well as everyone’s stress levels and monitor their own expectations for performance.
  • A leader’s emotional intelligence is critical during the current chaos.
  • The current situation is not the time to start a new program, process or initiative. It’s far better to simplify than to add complexity.
  • It’s important to talk about and remove the stigma around burn-out.
  • When faced with extreme stress, people make terrible decisions with a great deal of speed.
  • Leaders need to focus on controlling their own reactions to both unfolding situations and others. This will make more of a difference in the current environment than anything else.
  • Employees have difficulty setting boundaries separating work life and home life. Therefore, it’s important for leaders to honor their team’s off-time and not text or email them with future to-do’s that might derail their recuperation time.

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