Invisible Labor and Faculty Retention Since COVID-19

Woman stressed at desk


Though the research continues, what we know so far is the challenges of post-2020 teaching have brought on increased workloads and emotional burnout.  Many faculty feel pushed to find an exit from teaching – sometimes referred to as a component of the “Great Resignation” (The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments, 2020; Flaherty, 2022). Female faculty, faculty of color, and queer faculty experience this burnout to a disproportionate degree due to filling more roles outside the classroom and providing unrecognized emotional labor, also referred to as invisible labor, to students (The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments, 2020). Understanding how COVID-19 has impacted faculty is imperative for academic institutions to respond in a productive manner and for faculty to protect their own mental health and wellbeing.

Invisible Labor and Faculty Retention

The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and the underlying inequities within academia that it helped expose has weighed heavily on faculty members who are finding themselves with even more work, more emotional labor, and less support than before the pandemic (Gewin, 2021). Faculty are familiar with the spontaneous pivot to online teaching at the start of the pandemic, but the trials faced by faculty do not end there. The workload has gotten heavier, especially for faculty members from marginalized groups such as women, faculty of color, and queer faculty – and the demands on their emotional labor has increased as students come to them to discuss trauma, mental illness, and even suicidal ideation (Gewin, 2021; The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments, 2020).

According to a survey of 1,122 faculty members in the US conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education (2020), overall stress experienced by faculty increased from 32% in 2019 to 70% in 2020, with 75% of female faculty experiencing higher levels of stress compared to 59% for men (The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments, 2020). Additionally, 80% of female faculty reported an increase to their workload compared to 70% of male faculty and found their work-life balance, specifically as a result of the pandemic, had deteriorated in about 75% of women and ~67% of men (The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments, 2020). This deterioration of a healthy work-life balance and greater stress in the workplace can make it difficult for faculty to engage in self-care activities on their off-time, leading to a “pile-up effect” and, consequently, dissociation, worse health, and greater likelihood of burning out (Gewin, 2021; Boamah et al., 2022).

Faculty on the tenure track who are required to conduct scholarly research to progress through the ranks have faced interruptions that make it difficult to achieve the career advancements they hope for (The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments, 2021). Female faculty may see their careers stall due to their responsibilities as instructors, individuals who provide more emotional labor than their male counterparts, and as the individual in their family who, often times, is in charge of arranging for childcare (The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments, 2021).

The future seems to become bleak at times and less worth the effort tenure-track faculty exert in the present day, leading to a disillusionment with professorship and a hit to faculty retention (Flaherty, 2022). This burnout and stress affect tenured and tenure-track faculty alike. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s survey cites a shocking 69% of faculty wished to leave their positions to other non-teaching academic jobs, changing careers entirely, or retiring early and 43% of faculty seeking a career change were already tenured (The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments, 2021). 

The Future of Academia

The many pressures of academic life on faculty may seem daunting and impossible to push through, but there are still reasons for women, faculty of color, and queer people in academe to remain optimistic. As the “Great Resignation” thins out faculty numbers, Adrianna Kezar from the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California suggest that tenured retirees will likely be white men, making room for more women and faculty of color to receive tenure in their place (The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments, 2021).  Gewin (2021) advocates for those on the tenure track and faculty should stay on board as faculty who are retiring early will make room for new tenured faculty positions (Gewin, 2021).  

As for the workload, academic institutions will have to respond effectively to reduce workloads, hire more staff, and ensure there are resources for faculty members who are facing burnout or who are overwhelmed. Institutional responses can take the form of work-culture adjustments and finding ways to support faculty holistically including their financial, mental, social, and physical well-being, and making sure faculty feel valued beyond just being an employee or a means to an end (Flaherty, 2022). A management consultant, Christine Spadafor, told Flaherty that when the work culture is hospitable, retention improves – even when times are tough (Flaherty, 2022). In addition, according to Flaherty (2022), the culture cannot be improved through superficial means such as after-hours workshops and access to wellness services but must be cultivated through dialogue with faculty and sincerely working with them to improve work conditions.

Tips for Fighting Burnout

Throughout the process of advancing through academia, it’s important to discuss strategies to offset potential burnout. Below is a non-exhaustive list of ways faculty can reduce feelings of burnout and protect their own physical and mental health and wellbeing.

  1. Recognize the Signs. Burnout can sneak up on you. Signs that may point to burnout can be a decrease in productivity, lethargy, a desire to leave even well-paying jobs, and irritability (Fraga, 2019).
  2. Forge Connections with Peers. According to Gewin (2021), faculty belonging to marginalized groups could benefit from forging personal connections with those who share a similar background.
  3. Take Time for Self-Care. We are all by now familiar with self-care and how important it is to take time to recover from the day and relax. Even the smallest acts of self-care can go a long way, so make sure to create time for yourself when you can. Self-care can look like getting enough sleep, having a healthy routine of exercise, asking for help, taking medications, and so on as long as it makes you feel good and makes your life easier (Fraga, 2019).
  4. Set Boundaries. As previously discussed, a component of becoming burnt out is being overworked. Learn to say no to additional work requests, take regular breaks, and leave work at home (Drayton, 2021). It is easier to manage the stress of your job when you aren’t constantly immersed in it.


Boamah, S. A., Hamadi, H. Y., Havaei, F., Smith, H., & Webb, F. (2022). Striking a Balance Between Work and Play: The Effects of Work-Life Interference and Burnout on Faculty Turnover Intentions and Career Satisfaction. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public health, 19(2), 1-28.  doi: 10.3390/ijerph19020809

Drayton, M. (2021). Understanding and Avoiding Faculty Burnout. Routledge.

Flaherty, C. (2022). Calling it Quits. Inside Higher Education.

Fraga, J. (2019). A Guide to Burnout. Healthline.

Gewin, V. (2021). Pandemic Burnout is Rampant in Academia. Nature, 591, 489-491.

The Chronicle of Higher Education & Fidelity Investments. (2020). “On the Verge of Burnout”: Covid-19’s Impact on Faculty Well-Being and Career Plans. The Chronicle of Higher Education.