Higher Ed Institutions Facing Increased Turnover Due to Burnout During Pandemic

Plan sponsors can use benefit offerings to decrease their staff’s constant struggle with work/life balance and offer transition help to those who insist on retiring.

Higher education institutions are experiencing a higher rate of turnover as professors and employees leave the workforce due to growing burnout aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new Transamerica report finds the pivot to online education in the past year has augmented employee turnover, as 35% of higher education institutions report higher movement within their employee base. Thirty-three percent of institutions disclosed they are facing higher student-to-faculty ratios.

The turnover is likely due to employees struggling with their work/life balances in the past year, which can then bring on career dissatisfaction among workers. According to a recent study by Fidelity Investments that surveyed 1,100 faculty members, more than half (55%) of faculty at higher education institutions have seriously considered changing careers or retiring early, including 35% of tenured employees. Sixty-nine percent of faculty said they felt stressed last year, compared with 32% in 2019, while 35% felt angry in comparison to just 12% in 2019.

“There has been a lot of discussion about the impact on the student experience, but our questions were on the faculty who play such a critical role,” says Debra Frey, head of tax-exempt marketing and analytics at Fidelity Investments. “We were surprised to see the level of stress that many faculty members reported. A lot of that is due to feeling overworked, seeing workload increase and really as work/life balance gets worse due to that stress.”

Such a change brings adverse effects to higher education institutions, Frey notes, especially since colleges and universities often tout strong faculties to attract potential students. “Institutions are making sure they have the best talent—a diverse and strong representative workforce,” Frey says. “As you see some of these important faculty members choose to leave, the question becomes ‘How do I look at this impact and find a solution?’”

This question is especially important for retaining female faculty members, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, as many reported feeling overworked and overwhelmed, according to Fidelity. Seventy-five percent of female faculty members reported feeling stressed, and 82% said their workload had increased as a result of the pandemic, compared to 70% of their male colleagues. Additionally, 74% indicated their work/life balance had deteriorated in 2020.

Throughout the pandemic, women have fared worse than their male counterparts and often been forced to juggle more. Because two out of every three caregivers in the United States are women, many women are forced to leave their careers. In September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 865,000 women had left the workforce.

“Like so many of us with challenges, they are either dealing with changes in child care and elder care or worrying about families and themselves, but also facing a dramatically changing professional experience,” Frey says.

To keep this workforce, institutions need to react and adapt based on their faculty’s needs. Start with acknowledging what your institution demands, Frey suggests.

“We are seeing colleges and universities reassess what they offer and looking at a total well-being perspective. They’re asking, ‘Are we providing access to things that will help mental health and well-being incentives? For professionals struggling with child care needs, do we offer backup child care services?’” she says.

On the retirement front, Wendy Daniels, vice president and not-for-profit practice leader at Transamerica, recommends employers and their retirement plan providers offer services to help faculty transition from full- or part-time work to retirement. According to the Transamerica study, 36% of institutions are extremely concerned that their faculty is unaware of the amount they’ll need for retirement.

“If faculty or staff are considering leaving the education system or retiring early, plan sponsors can help provide insight on issues participants may not have considered,” Daniels says. “Helping participants understand how to transition into retirement and creating a sustainable retirement income strategy are key.” She says sponsors should also stress health care costs in retirement and make sure their employees understand Social Security and Medicare programs.

Placing a greater emphasis on financial wellness tools and communications will also help employees and could help prevent high turnover rates. If a plan’s participants decreased or stopped contributing to the retirement plan or took a loan or distribution over the past year, sponsors would benefit from having a strategy to get them back on track, Daniels says. “Along with enhanced financial wellness programs, employers should also reinforce any employee benefits that may be available to ensure faculty and staff have the benefits they need to protect their savings from unexpected life events,” she says.