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Melissa Cumbia and Lauren Varboncoeur, Virginia Tech

Lauren Varboncoeur.jpgMelissa Cumbia.jpgLike many advising units, the advising center in which the authors work recently focused on creating primary role advising positions and emphasizing the benefits of primary role advisors for student success. As primary role academic advisors in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, we experienced the need to address increased demand for advising services and workload challenges after students and faculty embraced the primary role advising model. Advisors and administrators should be cognizant of issues related to increased advising workloads to safeguard the effectiveness of primary role advisors. It is critical to share strategies for managing workload so advisors can serve students in ways that are caring, empowering, inclusive, and consistent with NACADA’s (2017) core values of advising. Workload issues are relevant to the recruitment of prospective advisors, effectiveness and retention of current advisors, and the full range of institutional settings. We posit that advising practitioners and administrators must look beyond creating advising positions to identify ways for primary role advisors to offer services that are both exceptional and sustainable to ensure the continued success of primary role advising models.

Workload Increases: What Happens When it Works?

After our advising center successfully onboarded primary role advisors, the authors experienced expansions in role, increased demand for advising services, and workload difficulties. We began to provide additional services and outreach, answer more questions, see more students, and contribute to more resources. Caseload and frequency of contact with caseload increased as did work with colleagues, committees, and events. We also increased our efforts to support student recruitment, scheduling, and curriculum development. Advisors should strategically accept responsibilities to develop their role in personally and professionally meaningful ways, but, in our experience, advisors often accept responsibilities in a scattered manner. We believe strategic role development is intentional, directly related to the advisor’s purpose, and enhances the advisor’s work and the services provided. In contrast, we maintain scattered role development is unplanned, short-sighted, and addresses immediate needs but may not be directly related to the advisor’s position. When deciding what new responsibilities to assume, advisors should consider purpose (which tasks and services are relevant to your position goals), person (which tasks are best for you personally), and opportunity costs (what services might you be unable to provide due to this responsibility). This approach has served us well in managing role development and workload increases throughout our advising model transition.

Workload Issues: What Happens When There’s Too Much Work?

As our workload demands increased, we initially had difficulty maintaining and improving advising services and needed to limit the quality of our services to meet the quantity of services demanded. Due to workload challenges, we limited appointment services by shortening length and allowing for longer delays between appointment requests and meetings. We found we had less capacity for outreach congruent with our proactive advising philosophy and limited the support we provided high-need students, focusing instead on students who sought out advising. It is important to monitor the trade-offs of limiting services due to capacity; quantity vs. quality decisions should be made strategically based on goals rather than short-term demands. Workload limitations may diminish the quality of advising relationships as advisors are less able to individualize services and develop meaningful relationships with students when advising interactions are restricted due to capacity.

We agree with Harr (2013), who asserts, “When staff members are experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue, there will inevitably be a detrimental impact on the quality and effectiveness of the services provided” (p. 76). Advisors with sustained workload stress are more vulnerable to burnout as they find that busy times are now all the time, they can only offer the highest priority services, they must work overtime, and they must forgo professional development. Burnout is related to role development and workload challenges because it often stems from having too many duties and a diminished sense of professional purpose (Harr, 2013). As a result, advisors experiencing burnout are less able to work creatively and efficiently, less able to contribute toward proactive advising goals, and more likely to make errors. Feelings of professional frustration, pressure, cynicism, and exhaustion lead to a greater likelihood of decreased professional self-efficacy, diminished capacity for empathy, and less willingness to engage in teamwork (Harr, 2013, p. 73–74). Keywords describing burnout such as “fatigue, frustration, disengagement, stress, depletion, helplessness, hopelessness, emotional drain, emotional exhaustion, and cynicism” (Skovholt & Trotter-Mathison, 2016, p. 103) will resonate with advisors experiencing sustained workload stress. Although burnout is problematic in any profession, it is especially troublesome in advising because its outcomes are incompatible with the advisor’s role, which requires a capacity for positive regard, patience, and optimism.

Workload Strategies: Let’s Make it Work

It is crucial to assess workload challenges before addressing them. In our advising center, we track demands on time, document increases in workload, and evaluate the extent to which our workload aligns with our advising philosophy and role. We monitor student numbers, including caseload, percentage increase in caseload, non-assigned students seen, and university enrollment. Advisors in our center document appointment numbers and reasons, noting times with highest demand, and recording no-shows. We consider the number and types of meetings, events, and professional development sessions attended annually. We also note the number of advising resources we create and update annually as well as maintain a calendar of routine advising outreach. This documentation enables us to make informed decisions about workload management.

There are many strategies for addressing advising workload issues, prioritizing advising tasks, and serving growing caseloads. One strategy the authors utilize is reducing appointment numbers. We accomplished this by utilizing group advising when appropriate, which we found beneficial for students as well as efficient for advisors. While group advising works well for certain routine appointments, some advising interactions should be individualized. Limiting and prioritizing advising services is another option for reducing appointment numbers. For example, we prioritize students who have high, but not moderate, academic difficulty, such as those with low overall GPA but not those with a low term GPA. The appointment volume reduction strategy is sometimes necessary and often effective but provides a less supportive approach that is less compatible with proactive advising.

Another strategy we found useful for workload management is to fully utilize all personnel in our department by distributing workload. Our team has reassigned projects, reallocated some routine communication to come from central offices, and begun reassessing caseload assignments. Roles at events and on committees are shared across staff. Similarly, responsibilities and tasks that are not central to the advisor’s role have been delegated to other staff. This requires support from administrators as well as either the availability and willingness of other staff or funding for additional staff. One possible drawback of this strategy is that advisors with workload challenges may have fewer opportunities for role development and experience reduced visibility on campus.

To manage workload, we continuously strive to improve efficiency. We successfully developed systems and templates for efficient documentation as well as transitioned forms to an electronic format. We draft and use the schedule-send feature for routine emails to leverage quiet times for advising communications. Utilizing an appointment scheduling system has also been helpful for efficiency. Additionally, we created resources for academic planning and explored flipped advising strategies to allow students to independently access information and prepare for advising meetings. Despite the added efficiency of these workload management strategies, advisors should consider possible barriers they could create for students who are less inclined to seek advising.

Administrators play an important role in managing burnout. We suggest administrators anticipate and address workload challenges to promote employee well-being and self-efficacy, retain advisors, and maintain the effectiveness of advisors. To do this, supervisors must find opportunities to discuss staff stress, provide consultation, and allow for staff to engage in professional development to improve employee resilience (Harr, 2013, p. 76). Administrators should encourage advisors’ work-life balance by asking advisors about self-care plans during reviews, facilitate advisors’ use of leave, and allow advisors to adjust schedules when overtime is necessary. We have found it is helpful for administrators to facilitate regular meetings, such as quarterly reviews or monthly small group meetings, to ensure that they are aware of challenges and concerns and are able to offer consultation as issues arise. Administrators must support professional development by including it in employee goals, making a plan for managing workload to allow for it, and sharing a broad scope of professional development opportunities. Administrators can also advocate for the fair compensation of advising professionals. Finally, to convey appreciation, administrators should also create and leverage a variety of opportunities for recognition.

Conclusion: Toward a More Manageable Future

To support the future of primary role advising positions, advisors and administrators must anticipate and address workload challenges that arise when advisors are successful in their roles. In our experience working within a primary role advising model, unmanaged workload challenges and demand for primary role advising services may undermine the quality of advising and resulting positive student outcomes, as well as put advisors at risk for burnout. As primary role advisors, the authors encourage the advising community to engage in important conversations about effective workload management for primary role advisors. Short-term strategies may mitigate workload challenges, but further discussion and long-term solutions are essential for the sustained success of advisors, students, and models using primary role advising professionals.

Note: This Vantage Point article is based on presentations by Melissa Cumbia and Lauren Varboncoeur for the 2020 NACADA Annual National Conference and the 2021 Virginia Tech Advising Matters Conference.

Melissa Cumbia
Academic Advisor
College of Natural Resources and Environment
Virginia Tech

Lauren Varboncoeur
Academic Advisor
College of Natural Resources and Environment
Virginia Tech


Harr, C. (2013). Promoting workplace health by diminishing the negative impact of compassion fatigue and increasing compassion satisfaction. Social Work & Christianity, 40(1), 71–88.

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA core values of academic advising. https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreValues.aspx

Skovholt, T., & Trotter-Mathison, M. (2016). The resilient practitioner: Burnout and compassion fatigue prevention and self-care strategies for the helping professions. Routledge. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/10.4324/9781315737447

Cite this article using APA style as: Cumbia, M., & Varboncoeur, L. (2021, December). Workload stress in primary role advising: Our perspective on causes, effects, and resolutions. Academic Advising Today, 44(4). [insert url here] 


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