Don’t Blame the Pandemic for Worker Discontent

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In March 2020, Chris Smalls organized a walkout at the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, N.Y., where he worked. The lack of safety measures as his co-workers fell ill with Covid sparked the protest, which ultimately cost him his job. But the circumstances that turned that spark into something much bigger — a successful grass-roots campaign culminating in the first union in Amazon’s history — had been present for much longer. Because a fire needs more than a spark; it also needs fuel.

The fuel came from years of incredibly difficult working conditions. On a recent podcast, Smalls described the physical toll of working in a warehouse: constant bending and lifting, stifling heat from conveyor belts, and demanding productivity quotas. Workers clocked 12-hour days on top of long commutes. He talked about applying for a salaried job 49 times and watching white co-workers, including people he had trained, get promoted over him. Let’s just say there was plenty of dry kindling when Amazon told workers to keep fulfilling orders even as, in Smalls’s telling, “the virus was in the building.”

For the college leaders reading this essay and wondering what it has to do with higher education, my message is simple: The pandemic alone didn’t cause the low morale and turnover you might be seeing among your faculty and staff members just as the lack of personal protective equipment didn’t solely give rise to the Amazon Labor Union. Yes, today’s workers are re-evaluating their workplaces, seeking reassignment within their institutions, and in some cases resigning from jobs altogether. But they are doing so for many of the same reasons they did 20 years ago — poor working conditions.

I’ve spent the past few years writing and speaking about all things Great Resignation in higher education. I’ve interviewed faculty and staff members in a range of positions, from residence-hall directors to chancellors, at all types of institutions. Countless people have emailed and messaged me about their experiences. And I’ve read a lot. When I reflect on the stories I’ve heard and research I’ve read about burnout, demoralization, and disengagement, I see organizational problems that require organizational solutions. And if these problems predate the pandemic, they aren’t likely to disappear when case counts drop.

Let’s start with burnout. The World Health Organization, known as WHO, defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. Although it is identified and measured using individual characteristics like exhaustion, cynicism toward work, and reduced professional efficacy, WHO makes clear that burnout is an occupational phenomenon. Unlike mental-health issues that can crop up anywhere, burnout is discussed by WHO only in the context of working within organizations. A Gallup survey of 7,500 workers found that the top five causes of burnout were unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workloads, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from managers, and unreasonable time pressures. So burnout isn’t just about people struggling to cope with stress; it’s about people struggling in workplaces where stress never subsides.

I see organizational problems that require organizational solutions.

With demoralization, we similarly see workers fighting forces outside their control. Doris Santoro has researched demoralization among elementary- and secondary-school teachers for over a decade, describing it as occurring when “the conditions of teaching change so dramatically that moral rewards, previously available in ever-challenging work, are now inaccessible.” Demoralization happens when teachers feel that policies and practices prevent them from upholding the values that brought them to the profession. In the context of academic libraries, Kaetrena Davis Kendrick has found low morale to be an experience stemming from repeated, protracted workplace abuse and neglect.

In my own interviews on morale, higher-education workers have talked about leaders who aren’t listening, low compensation, and understaffing. When faculty and staff members saw their expertise disregarded, when they were asked to make accommodations for students but saw their own requests rejected, and when they saw investment in productivity-tracking systems but not mental-health resources, they might have asked: Is this a place where I can do good work? Is this a place that cares about me?

Disengagement is inextricably linked to the workplace — after all, you have to disengage from something. And helping people re-engage often depends on organizational culture. Researchers conceptualize disengagement as distancing yourself cognitively, emotionally, and even physically from work. One way disengagement differs from burnout and demoralization is that it can actually be healthy. As Brad Shuck, a professor of human and organizational development at the University of Louisville, told me, “Engagement isn’t a boundless reservoir from which we can just draw all the time. But instead we go through these natural ebbs and flows, and those cycles are healthy because they allow us to heal and to rest and to reflect.” Shuck explained that engagement at work is a product of healthy organizational culture, but it also requires that workers feel included.

One theory posits that disengagement is about whether conditions are in place for you to feel as if you can invest fully in the work. These conditions include whether the work is meaningful, whether employees feel safe and can bring their true selves to work, and whether there are sufficient resources. Faculty and staff members stop investing if they aren’t invested in.

So burnout, demoralization, and disengagement aren’t really about individuals waking up one day and feeling depleted or as if their professional values are being thwarted. They are outcomes from individuals interacting with our organizations and experiencing unfair treatment, excessive workloads, chronic stress, inadequate resources, and threats to physical and social safety. For this reason, I’ve advised college leaders to think beyond self-care, wellness weeks, and tokens of appreciation. I’m not here to argue against taking a walk or giving out free coffee, but neither of those strategies rises to the level of organizational change necessary to make a dent in the underlying causes driving people to quit.

I’ve also heard college leaders acknowledge that the past two years have been difficult, and praise faculty and staff members for their hard work and resilience. Although I value that recognition, many people would say it’s been a tough two decades. I started my first full-time job in higher education at the height of a recession, in 2009, and quickly learned the meaning of the word “furlough.” Well before the pandemic, scholars were writing about the travails of Black faculty members navigating white spaces. Years before we were talking about Covid, researchers were chronicling the challenges of academic mothers. In the years leading up the pandemic, I saw colleagues experiencing so much work-related stress that their bodies were breaking down.

To be clear, the pandemic created a unique set of challenges. Few of us in higher education were prepared to teach, house, and feed students in the presence of a deadly virus. Remember the plexiglass? But the pandemic largely dialed up existing stressors — or, as one interviewee told me, it “shined a light on existing cracks in the foundation.” I like to think of that light as a heightened level of awareness among higher-education workers. More of us experienced burnout, and our understanding of it has increased. We are less willing to blame ourselves for an inability to cope or rise above obstacles. Simply put, we see our workplaces differently, and our tolerance of poor working conditions has evaporated.

We see our workplaces differently, and our tolerance of poor working conditions has evaporated.

When I’ve shared these ideas with audiences, some people have pushed back. Were things before the pandemic really so bad? They weren’t bad for everyone. As a matter of fact, I’ve had a pretty good experience in my job, but that’s not particularly newsworthy as a white, cisgender man in a tenured faculty position. It doesn’t take much searching to realize that things were far from peachy for many others working in higher education. I think about administrative assistants working complex jobs and long hours for $30,000 a year. I think about faculty and staff members with disabilities and chronic illnesses who were passed over for promotions because they couldn’t be constantly available. I think about the many staff members who have contacted me but want to remain anonymous out of a fear of reprisal. If you were thriving in higher education before the pandemic, count yourself lucky. Then start looking beyond your own experience.

College leaders can chalk up the Great Resignation and its various manifestations to the pandemic — they can choose to see only the spark, not the fuel. Doing so would mean not only subscribing to magical thinking, but also failing to address the real causes of employees’ dissatisfaction. And the organizational consequences of inaction will be more dire: more conflict and mistakes, searches without deep pools of applicants, searches that don’t end with a hire, abnormally high turnover rates, interim titles all over the organizational chart. Not to mention all the ripple effects of this organizational turbulence.

And if leaders don’t pursue organizational changes, I fully expect higher-education workers to turn to collective action, just as Chris Smalls did. Unionization efforts are increasing across the country as workers grow impatient with poor working conditions. Many faculty members have said that this past spring was their hardest semester yet, even if many college leaders believe we have “returned to normal.” Here’s the thing: Normal wasn’t working for a lot of people in higher education. Now that the supports, flexibility, and grace that were put in place during the pandemic have started to dwindle, faculty and staff members are left with the same old organizations, plus the cumulative effects of the past two years.

If after the masks came off and the temperature checks stopped, Amazon sent workers right back into the same warehouses, would we wonder why they’re organizing?

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