Kacey Gregerson, Chair, Well-Being & Advisor Retention Advising Community
Liz Sutton, Co-Lead Research, Well-Being & Advisor Retention Advising Community
Olivia Miller, Co-Lead Research, Well-Being & Advisor Retention Advising Community
Self-care, well-being, Zoom fatigue, burnout—buzzwords heard since spring 2020 and the rise of COVID-19 when many were working from home. However, these themes and feelings are not new—research on job satisfaction, occupation burnout, and work-engagement has been steady for more than 100 years (Schubert-Irastorza & Fabry, 2014). In academic advising this has become a consistent topic, solidified with the creation of the Health & Well-Being track for the 2016 NACADA Annual Conference and the creation of the Well-Being & Advisor Retention Advising Community in 2020. It is no secret the work of an academic advisor is stressful. With caseloads in the hundreds, changing policies and demands from upper administration, and the wide varieties of emotions students bring to our office, it often can be overwhelming—and the field acknowledges this fact. The nature of academic advising and the importance of well-being for advisors and students are noted in the CAS Standards for Academic Advising (2005), the NACADA Core Values (2017), and the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies (2015).
The topics of job satisfaction, stress, and burnout have been consistent over the years in academic advising (Donnelly, 2009) and student affairs (Marshall et al., 2016) with one of the first articles published in 1987, “The Advisor Under Stress—Fired Up or Burned Out?” (Murray, 1987). Only recently have articles shifted to well-being, with one of the first being, “The Healthy Advisor” in 2007 (Kem et al., 2007). In this article Kem et al. address five areas where advisors can be healthy for themselves and as role models to students. The focus connects the dimensions of well-being to the field of advising, with acknowledging the nature of our work and how to maintain our emotions while working. Later, Huebner (2011) outlines more specific steps to cope with advisor burnout, specifically “promoting positive responses to stress.” These articles apply research from other professions to advising, yet there is a shortage of research dedicated specifically to academic advising.
The topic of stress and well-being is being discussed among advisors—specifically at conferences. Since creating the Health & Well-Being track in 2016, there have been 107 live, concurrent sessions with a record breaking 28 in 2021. Keywords associated with these sessions are personal well-being, stress reduction, emotion regulation, wellness, and work environment. Common themes in conference abstracts from the NACADA Executive Office reflect the trajectory in the research—the stressful nature of academic advising, how to manage that stress, and self-care to promote wellness and mindfulness. Often these themes reveal reactive steps in combating stress rather than preventative responses with advising training and maintenance. This is found at NACADA’s regional conferences as well.
One of the authors has led concurrent presentations and workshop sessions during NACADA annual and regional conferences, with the following themes emerging:
Volume of work. Many advisors expressed the sheer volume of work has a significant negative impact on their well-being. This could be due to a large advising load, offices and teams being understaffed, needing to balance other administrative duties, and (particularly during the pandemic) the volume of email. Conference attendees often express that because their highest priority is supporting students, they will work hours far outside the traditional 9 to 5, which may have cascading impacts on their stress levels outside of work. Advisors also expressed that workloads become more overwhelming in the present culture of immediacy, referenced in the 2020 annual presentation “The Slow Advisor: Taking a Principled Stand in an Age of Immediacy” (Scheckel, 2020). Students expect to receive responses almost instantaneously, a trend some advisors say extends to their colleagues and supervisors.
Burnout, compassion fatigue, and emotional labor. Other conference attendees say the emotionally exhausting nature of advising work is negatively impacting them. Each annual conference has featured multiple presentations about burnout. Maslach et al. (2001) describe burnout as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization with respect to students and colleagues, and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment at work. The emotional exhaustion of burnout comes up most often among attendees, specifically in the forms of compassion fatigue and emotional labor. Many advisors express they do not have the emotional capacity to appropriately respond to student distress.
Lack of institutional support and resources. Advisors express their departments and institutions do not provide the support necessary for them to effectively do their jobs, directly impacting their ability to stay well. According to attendees, the disconnect between administrators and advisors often means the impact on advisors of changing policies is not understood or acknowledged. Lack of appropriate financial resources was mentioned often during concurrent sessions—some had inadequate staff, others mention no raises or professional development funds, and others express the financial strain on students makes advising them even more stressful.
The themes above only encompass those most often endorsed by attendees—the determinants of advisor well-being vary widely among NACADA members. More importantly, sources of distress are interconnected. For example, the high volume of work means tasks fall through the cracks, potentially leading to reduced feelings of personal efficacy (a component of burnout). Add shifting institutional deadlines or policies and stalled compensation, and it is not surprising advisors are searching for relief from stress. These pressures are not evenly distributed—many advisors of color speak of the need to take on additional mentorship for students of color, in addition to the aforementioned competing priorities.
This is what attendees brought to the sessions—what do the presenters suggest in terms of well-being and stress relief strategies? While many stressors identified by advisors are structural or institutional, the vast majority of strategies presented to manage the stress response are individual. Mindfulness has been the focus of several presentations at each annual conference, along with other cognitive strategies, mindset shifts, or so-called hacks to interrupt the stress cycle. Other presentations suggest leaning into gratitude and appreciation given the scientific evidence that expressing gratitude both supports our own well-being and positively impacts others. Several presentations offered physical tactics for combating stress, for example incorporating yoga into the actual session or providing strategies for changing your workspace to support well-being. While filled with supportive resources, these presentations primarily address what advisors can do when they already find themselves stressed and burned out, rather than incorporating well-being into training and institutional structures.
Some presentations have taken a longer-term, more institutional approach—although they are in the minority. One presentation provided guidance for incorporating well-being into professional development planning with the goal of maintaining flourishing throughout your advising career. Examples include finding ways to increase self-efficacy in your work and connecting with your purpose or why in advising. A few have looked at ways to incorporate well-being practices as an entire office or unit, providing support for advising administrators who are hoping to shift the culture of their teams. Finally, a 2019 presentation looked at the institutional impact of well-being, proposing a shift from self-care to “communities of care” and providing a framework for examining the ways advising practices contribute to burnout, thus holding accountable the system that created the need for self-care (Lang & Morris, 2019).
With this growing interest at both regional and annual conferences, a group of advisors met in 2018, which led to the formation of the Well-Being and Advisor Retention (WBAR) Advising Community (AC) in 2020. The community seeks to promote research specifically on advisor well-being and to advocate for structural changes that support both advisor and student flourishing. To that end, the WBAR AC partners extensively with the Advisor Training and Development AC, seeing retention as complementary to the advisor training and development process and works together to integrate well-being practices into training and development. Perhaps most important, the WBAR community provides a forum for advisors to freely express their feelings and needs, providing continued support long after attending a single conference session—as seen last summer following an informal survey navigating a post-pandemic world.
In summary, advisors seek any well-being support they may access, whether it is through articles, conference presentations, podcasts, or advising communities. Authors and presenters have offered their skills and expertise to support advisors in recovering from burnout and maintaining their own well-being. Yet, there remain two voids in how we conceptualize and discuss well-being in NACADA: first, there has been little research specifically with advisors to understand the particular sources of stress and burnout for those in the advising profession; second, little support has been offered for advisors to improve well-being by changing institutional policies and culture. We have a wealth of resources and strategies focused on treatment; questions of prevention are rare. We have not asked “how do we design advising structures to support advisor well-being?” Better understanding of why advisors are struggling, with a focus on institutional impacts, will allow us to shift the focus towards prevention, hopefully saving advisors who may be struggling and helping retain more advisors in the profession. The desire to improve advisor well-being is evident, and the energy, resources, and expertise in the advising community are abundant. With more research and a focus on structural change, advisors—and by extension, their students—have a real opportunity to thrive.
Senior Academic Advisor
Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities
Director of Advising
Wharton Undergraduate Division
University of Pennsylvania
Senior Academic Advisor
Henry W. Bloch School of Management
University of Missouri-Kansas City
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Cite this article using APA style as: Gregerson, K., Sutton, L., & Miller, 0. (2022, March). From self-care to systemic change: The evolution of advisor well-being in NACADA. Academic Advising Today, 45(1). [insert url here]