Now that the pandemic seems much more in our rear-view mirror, many observers assume that the low morale, disenchantment and burnout that fueled the “Great Resignation” among people who work on college campuses are pretty much in the past, as well. But the issues still persist, and faculty and staff members in the academy continue to struggle to find their footing. Several factors have been exacerbating those issues, including leadership turnover at the highest levels in the academy, the continued “ratcheting up” of performance expectations and consistent requests coming from the institutional administration to do more with less.

Meanwhile, most recommendations concerning what should be done about the problems still point to individual-level responses. We also hear many people blaming the employees who have low morale for not being suitably engaged in their work—for what’s been referred to as “quiet quitting.” But I agree with the observation of Jim Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, that it’s a misnomer to characterize what’s in fact a rational response to poor working conditions, a lack of support and being overworked. Rather, what we are seeing is individuals trying to recalibrate so they can re-establish boundaries and focus on well-being in ways their colleges and universities are failing to foster on an institutional level.

The big takeaway is that this is not an individual-level problem, one for which faculty and staff members simply need to manage their calendar and work responsibilities more effectively to solve. Institutions must also ask themselves hard questions, such as: In what ways are our institutional infrastructures compounding the problem? What can we as institutional administrators do to ensure more equitable workloads for faculty and staff? What policies, practices and action steps must be created, implemented and assessed to establish boundary-setting and people’s well-being as core institutional values?

In this essay, I highlight the importance of institutional actions to support and encourage boundary-setting and well-being, starting with the need to create a much-improved institutional culture and corresponding infrastructures.

Needed: An Institutional Response

Higher educational institutions and their leaders are facing varied challenges, including dwindling resources and the need to re-envision enrollment and retention strategies. They also must meet the needs and expectations of critical stakeholders, such as representatives of accrediting bodies, prospective students and their guardians, and members of the public, whose continued mistrust of higher education continues to rise. No doubt these realities place immense pressure on campus administrators and put many in a defensive position rather than a proactive one focused on advancing strategic priorities and aims. Institutions thus frequently respond to the challenges by introducing new policies and practices that require faculty and staff to continually adapt, often with little to no clarity about why the change was needed or how it advances the institution’s strategic imperatives. Working in an environment characterized by a constant state of chaos wreaks havoc on well-being and boundary setting. I propose a few actions that institutional leaders should consider to avoid such a situation.

Action #1. Clarify the purpose of the “Ask.” As someone who coaches faculty and administrators across the academy and as a department chair myself, I know the very real angst of being constantly inundated with institutional requests for reports and departmental data—often seemingly repetitive—or of being informed about new institutional platforms being adopted that require immediate changes to how work is to be done. Most of those requests come from the administration building without any accompanying explanation about what prompted the change, why this change (or information) is important, how it will be used and will support more efficient workflows, and how the outcomes from this change will advance institutional strategic priorities. Even more problematic, such changes are often made with little, if any, input from the very individuals who now must adopt or adapt to these changes in their everyday work—and are also charged with training others how to do so.

Communication is a necessary building block to boundary-setting and cultivating a culture of well-being. I urge all campus leaders to take a step back before implementing a change that impacts workflows. Ask yourself: Why is this change necessary? How will this change improve efficiency and effectiveness? What supports—such as training—will we provide to enable individuals to navigate this change? How will we assess the success of this change and report those findings back to everyone at the institution?

If you do not have answers to such questions before rolling out a change that’s perceived to be needed, you should stop and reconsider that change and/or the planned strategy to enact it.

Action #2. Conduct pulse surveys. Faculty and staff members are struggling to manage all their work responsibilities. They need help. Sometimes that help is as simple as providing a venue in which grievances and concerns about workload can be aired, heard, and acted upon. As a management professor, I believe the only thing worse than not asking for feedback is asking for it and doing nothing with it.

Creating opportunities for more regular feedback helps to promote an institutional culture in which faculty and staff members feel empowered to speak up, with boundary-setting and well-being at the core of their concerns. Realizing that cultivating a new culture takes time, and that time is also a challenge for administrators, I recommend the use of pulse surveys. A pulse survey is just that: a targeted feedback gathering tool that helps one take the pulse of the institution on a given issue or need.

For example, a provost seeking to understand the time it takes for faculty and staff members to manage a new expense tracking and submission system might conduct a pulse survey to ask questions such as: “What is the most time-consuming aspect of the new expense report submission system?” and “What changes do you recommend that would help lessen the time required?”

The outcomes of implementing more regular but targeted feedback-gathering tools allow campus leaders to foster communication channels. Additionally, the approach above models the importance of creating structures that help institutional leaders identify the key issues and obtain actionable feedback to address effectively people’s most important needs.

I say this with the caveat that some workload responsibilities are necessary for the stability of an institution. Assessment data and related reports, for example, are nonnegotiable given the impact that data and reporting have on student learning and institutional accreditation. All higher education institutions have some degree of challenges, and it is important that they encourage faculty and staff members to offer possible solutions to those challenges, fostering a more collaborative approach to advance needed change.

Action #3. Avoid performance punishment. A prior provost once told me that they were well aware that 30 percent of the faculty members at their institution did about 80 percent of the work. I was appreciative that they had verbally acknowledged that reality. Yet, I was also deeply disturbed that they had taken little, if any, action to change the inequitable workload; a workload that greatly impacted the well-being and boundaries of close to a third of the faculty who were being overworked and under-supported.

I urge all campus administrators to be cognizant of performance punishment: of “rewarding” excellent work and institutional contribution by placing even more work tasks on the individuals who are effective at their jobs. Doing so comes at a cost to the physical and emotional well-being of strong institutional contributors. Building in more explicit accountability measures for those who are underperforming and appropriately compensating those who are consistently contributing at a high level—with, for example, financial and human resources—are crucial steps toward supporting boundary-setting and well-being.

In sum, higher education as an industry, and those employed within it, feel the very real tension of working in a challenging environment. Individuals have all but lost any sense of personal-work boundaries due to the demands of 24-hour accessibility and the need to manage multiple roles in understaffed and under-resourced departments and units. As individuals attempt to re-establish those boundaries and make well-being a priority, their actions are often received negatively and deemed as quiet quitting or disengagement. However, if employee well-being and boundary-setting were viewed as an institutional responsibility—as they, in fact, are—the academy would be better positioned to attract, retain and engage diverse talent who work collaboratively to effectively address current and future challenges.

Vicki L. Baker is the E. Maynard Aris Endowed Professor in Economics and Management and chair of the economics and management department at Albion College. She is also a co-founder of Lead Mentor Develop, an academic career and professional development consulting group that helps businesses, nonprofits and higher education in the areas of mentoring, faculty development and leadership.