Michelle Maller, Oregon State University
Craig M. McGill, Kansas State University
I (Michelle) am a new PhD student. For over a year, I worked from home. From March 2020 until May 2021, my children were here with me, crammed into our living room with three desks and all our supplies. I often felt exhausted, burned out, and desperately wanted a break, and I was always unsure of when I would get one. For so many advisors, this was our new normal. For those of us who are parents trying to balance our work, our kids, and what is left of our social life, the pandemic increased our stress levels causing mental and physical health issues.
I (Craig) am a new assistant professor in Michelle’s PhD program. In the midst of the pandemic, I moved two states away, bought a house and started a new life at a new university in a new city. During the fall semester (in which Michelle was in my doctoral seminar), I contracted COVID and was sick for two months. The following article was born out of a conversation Michelle and I had after I read one of her class papers. Michelle discussed new levels of emotional labor required to meet the growing needs of students amidst a pandemic and the demands of her home life and PhD work. In this paper, we discuss the challenges of putting forth additional emotional labor as well as strategies to combat additional stress and promote advisor self-care.
Constraints on Self-Care
In the past year, the higher education community has experienced massive changes. As practitioners working in a helping profession, advisors may be experiencing burnout and pandemic fatigue. A recent survey by the American Council on Education found “the mental health of faculty and staff members as the third-most-pressing concern for college presidents, behind the mental health of students and their institutions’ long-term financial viability” (Turk & Ramos, 2020, para. 4). The increased stress of advisors has ushered in a crisis of mental health. While students are experiencing these same stressors and mental health challenges, advisors are also taking on the additional burden of acting as sounding boards for their students.
The increased levels of stress and anxiety are contributing to physical symptoms. People are experiencing “backaches, headaches, and even loss of appetite” (Queen & Harding, 2020, para. 7) due to the increased stress. For academic advisors, the increased stress levels are contributing to a variety of ailments and the potential for eventual burnout. “Over time, academic advisors may begin to experience emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion from constantly witnessing and absorbing the difficulties of students” (Ali & Johns, 2018, para. 1).
Like any helping profession, the work of academic advising involves a lot of emotional labor, “the management of feelings to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display (Hochschild, 1983, p. 7). When advisors are dealing with stress in their personal lives and then work with students who express the stress they are experiencing too, they must perform even more emotional labor than normal. In such times, “It is crucial for advisors to periodically reflect on their personal wellbeing as it will directly impact the quality of care they provide to their students” (Ali & Johns, 2018, para. 4). Without proper self-care, we are risking burnout and the possibility of physical and mental symptoms.
When I (Michelle) have a distressed student in my office, I tend to absorb their stress. My empathy for students affects how I interact with them. Offering empathy and relating to my students is why I am an advisor, but it does take a toll. This is empathy fatigue, which can cause
feelings of reduced professional efficacy, making it more challenging for advisors to manage tasks and assignments that once seemed simple. Advisors frequently have students who share their lives during the advising relationship, and when this is a constant occurrence, it can lead to feelings of fatigue and exhaustion as empathy stores are depleted. (Harman, 2018, para. 3)
Empathy depletion is “continuous exposure to stress due to excessive emotional demands [which] might activate the stress system” (Jueng et al., 2018, p. 190). Empathy depletion not only affects our mental health but can manifest within our physical wellbeing: “Excessive and long-lasting emotional demands could contribute to depression or anxiety and behavioral problems, such as alcohol abuse or physical inactivity” (Jeung et al, 2018, p. 190).
I (Michelle) have experienced empathy fatigue, as I am a naturally empathetic person, and the issues spurred by the pandemic and social changes are bigger than any I have had to navigate before. A pandemic is not something any of us could have properly planned for. Like many advisors, I do not have training in mental health counseling and I often do not feel equipped to handle some of the situations with which I am confronted. There is a feeling of powerlessness, and this can exacerbate the experience of feeling overwhelmed and underprepared for dealing with such tasks. As advisors, our students are struggling, and we are struggling right alongside them.
Surviving periods of excessive stress can be difficult on many levels, but having a self-care plan in place can help to combat the disruption. Knowing enough about oneself to recognize increasing levels of stress and pressure is increasingly important (McClellan, 2007), especially in relation to the current pandemic. The more advisors know about themselves and the better prepared they are, the better they can combat stressful situations.
Strategy 1: Plan for Stressful Times
To improve self-care, start by “creating a plan, followed by allowing for larger blocks of time for rejuvenation when needed” (Thomas & Morris, 2017, p. 7). Self-care can come in many forms: meditation, reading, being outside, listening to music, etc. Simple things like deep breathing and walks or more calming activities like deep meditation or knitting can also be effective. Furthermore, exercise has been proven to “counteract stress-induced inflammation in the body” (Pattani, 2020, para. 38) and is an easy addition to a day-to-day routine. The impacts of not having a self-care plan, “can affect not only the professional, but also the personal lives of advisors; identifying the need for self-care and implementing it into daily life is imperative to getting back on track and maintaining a sense of balance” (Harman, 2018, para. 1).
An additional strategy is to “plan for unanticipated stressful times” (Thomas & Morris, 2017, p. 8). This strategy might include carving out time in an everyday schedule for self-care. Simply knowing these breaks are there if needed can relieve some of the stress. It is also important to include quick stress alleviating activities that can provide a rapid response such as short audio meditations or affirmations.
Strategy 2: Be Kind to Yourself
It is essential to remember to be aware of your own feelings of stress and burnout. For us as advisors to help our students, we must first help ourselves. Being aware of how important it is to be kind to ourselves can help to alleviate our responses to stress: “Self-compassion lowered unrealistic expectations, developed more effective boundaries, and helped counselors self-correct when necessary. Self-compassion also improved psychological strengths such as happiness, optimism, wisdom, personal initiative, and curiosity” (Thomas & Morris, 2017, p. 7) These are essential skills for working with students.
For the last year and a half, making hard decisions about work and life balance has been a significant part of everyone’s lives, and it has been difficult to know if the right decision is being made. As defined by Brené Brown, the continual stress experienced by everyone is referred to as “collective vulnerability” in which “there is no way through without sacrifice” (McElvoy, 2020). As individuals balancing work and personal life, self-care sometimes involves making sacrifices involving the amount of or types of activities that constrain our energies and overall wellbeing. To really care for ourselves, we sometimes have to sacrifice things that add to our stress levels. These sacrifices can alleviate stress in our personal or work lives. Simply expressing how we are feeling in a professionally appropriate way to colleagues or supervisors, making us vulnerable but authentic, allows us to lead healthier lives.
Strategy 3: Know Your Resources
An essential element of personal self-care is to understand and to utilize available resources. Higher Education institutions have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) designed to provide employees with counseling, legal help, and a variety of other services. The ultimate act of self-care is to seek out resources when needed and to eliminate the fear associated with doing so. The continual stress from COVID and a pandemic has pushed many of us into health crises that require the assistance of a trained professional. Taking advantage of available resources can have a lasting impact on overall mental and physical health.
Incorporating self-care into an advising practice will benefit advisors by helping them to release or at least address some of their stress, which in turn, will allow for more mental space for working with students to address their own frustrations and concerns. All advisors need a break from the day-to-day emotional and mental toll that our advising work takes on our wellbeing, and self-care is the way forward. COVID impacted everyone’s lives, but with an awareness of how to combat emotional fatigue and stress, advisors can continue to provide excellent care for their students, their colleagues, and themselves.
Michelle Maller, M.S.
Internship & Education Coordinator
Department of Wood Science & Engineering
Oregon State University
Craig M. McGill, EdD
College of Education
Kansas State University
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Cite this article using APA style as: Maller, M. & McGill, C. M. (2021, September). Emotional labor and professional burnout: Advisor self-care in the age of COVID. Academic Advising Today, 44(3). [insert url here]