In universities across the country, faculty are feeling the effects of pandemic workload. It is especially true among female faculty members with young children who experience a larger burden of caregiving responsibilities. A survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education of U.S. faculty found that nearly 75% of female respondents said their work-life balance had deteriorated in 2020, compared with less than two-thirds of male respondents.
For Shelley Heaton, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of clinical and health psychology and the director of UF Health – Psychology Specialties, feelings of burnout came on gradually after an initial adrenaline rush in March 2020 when she led conversion of the practice’s 75-100 daily patient appointments into a telehealth platform – a feat completed in under a week. The rapid conversion to telehealth ensured the financial stability of the practice, but also created a variety of management challenges for her to navigate in the months that followed.
At the same time she has been managing work crises during nights and weekends, Heaton, a single mother, has been helping her school-aged children adapt to online learning and social isolation.
“Work was spilling into what would normally be my family time,” Heaton said. “At the same time, my parenting responsibilities spilled into my professional time when schools closed along with most childcare options.”
As the pandemic wore on, new clinical issues continued to arise that needed immediate attention. These included shifting COVID-19 clinical policies and coping with coverage when providers contracted or were exposed to the virus. The ongoing stress started to feel like post-traumatic stress disorder, Heaton said.
“You have these unexpected, very stressful situations that are outside of your control,” she said. “They are unpredictable, come out of nowhere and in the case of my job and home life they just kept coming.”
One of the personal consequences for Heaton has been the need to postpone professional development activities, including finishing board certification, a time-consuming process that she would normally tackle on weekends or evenings. Those hours are now spent handling work issues or helping kids with schoolwork.
“The ongoing stress and increased demands have compromised my multi-tasking skills and energy level,” Heaton said. “So although I have important professional goals that impact my salary and make me eligible for promotion, I just haven’t had the bandwidth to do that alongside all the other demands.”
Heaton recently took a short camping trip with her sons, the first vacation days she has taken in more than a year. She’s also implemented some other small changes into her work life, including ending Zoom meetings five minutes before the hour to allow mental transition time, working from different spaces to break up the Zoom monotony and finding opportunities to interact in-person with other people who have been fully vaccinated. These steps all make a noticeable difference, but full recovery from the year will come long after post-pandemic “normalcy” happens, Heaton said.
“Many of us are working at a net negative right now,” she said. “This calls on leadership to think flexibly about how to best support employees. For those of us who have accumulated this deficit it’s going to take a while to dig out, emotionally and productivity-wise. You can’t just turn it around overnight.”