“This whole thing started well before COVID” a friend of mine told me not too long ago. She followed up, we were headed for the great burnout and we just would not admit it to ourselves. COVID just accelerated this process. This conversation happened around the holiday break. I was struggling to the break finish line. I was struggling to keep focus on my work, I was tired all the time, and irritable. And quite frankly I was lucky. I do not have routine contact with too many people. I basically worked alone in my office and my work puts me in contact with very few students. On the other side, this friend has a high contact with students’ job. On an almost daily basis she needed to work with and advise students. We both felt the same way, tired.
This seems to be a theme right now. High burnout levels in many student affairs jobs. And we should not be surprised. For decades NASPA has been following student affairs professional departure and what they have found is about 60% of student affairs professionals do not even make it five years in the field before leaving. Now, many cite pay. After all, none of us will get rich in this work. But for many SA Pros there is also the crushing regulatory environment we are under, the lack of feeling really connected to the work, and something that I never really considered, vicarious trauma. At least I had not considered it until I sat on a dissertation committee for a student of mine, Dr. Lynell Hodge. She really opened my eyes to a real issue in higher ed, burnout and fatigue because of vicarious trauma. She outlines it in her really great dissertation you can find here.
First, we need to understand what vicarious trauma is. Vicarious Trauma is a condition that afflicts many fields. It is identified as the collective anguish and pain caused by being constantly exposed to the trauma your clients and co-workers (in this case students and colleagues) face and then pass on these feelings of pain, fear, and hurt. Over time we all tend to take on these same feelings as we empathize with the student or co-worker but without a way to shed the trauma and process it these feelings can build and really impact your career and life.
And in higher education we also have the added pressure of liability and regulations that come along with the general malaise of always being told that you are not doing the higher ed thing right and one can see why so many of us bolt for other work. In today’s world faculty and SA pros must be educators, counselors, coaches, employment consultants, you name it. And then the pressure to make sure that you are 100% perfect with each individual student and meeting the metrics of retention. This whole thing is a house of cards and for many these houses of cards come folding in on themselves at some point.
Now add COVID.
COVID-19 has made a pretty bad situation even worse. Our students are in worse shape then they have been in decades. Learning from home, masking rules on campus, and the lack of meaningful social interaction has made our students into zombies and the weight of these experiences is on us as educators. Now SA pros have had to become experts in food insecurity, the fair housing crisis, and financial aid. All of this while we have our own fears and worries. Afterall we get sick too, our families get sick, and so on. We have the same fears as our students and we also have the added fear of losing our jobs as budgets start to tighten.
So, many SA Pros are choosing to leave and find other work. Maybe to escapes from the trauma we all worry about but for many, its just because we are tired. But here is the important part, we can get better. By acknowledging we are tired and then facing our fears head on for many of us we can shake out of this funk and become more hopeful. It will not be easy, but it can be done. Here is what we need to do. We need to check in on each other and find ways to support our collective fear. We must not look to be superstars this go round and just try to our best. And we need to admit we all do not have the answers and we are scared and tired. I know our grad programs taught us to challenge and support but maybe until next fall we should just focus on support. Because these feeling started well before COVID and they will outlive the virus. But like masking and social distancing we have the tools and understanding to combat this and stay in the game.