In the past several months we’ve seen the emergence of a trend called “The Great Resignation” sweep across job sectors in North America. In a recent study (March 2022), 44% of employees in the USA are now defined as “job seekers.” Of them, 33% are active job hunters who looked for new work in the fourth quarter of 2021. This is a trend that is not just limited to the US Labour market: the “Great Reshuffle” affects Canadian businesses and organizations as well.
The Post-secondary education (PSE) sector is not insulated from these trends but is (arguably) affected in different ways, which varies based on intersectionality, region, size of institution, and a multitude of other factors. Two articles shed light on the systemic and structural challenges that are contributing to this trend: “Higher Ed: We’ve got a Morale Problem – and. Free T-shirt Won’t Fix It” by Kevin McClure, the most read article of 2021 (EdSurge), and “Leadership in the time of the Great Resignation” by Ray Schroeder (Inside Higher Ed).
McClure argues that “Morale can absolutely be improved in higher education, but it requires the type of sustained attention necessary to shift organizational culture. Leaders need to be ready to put in the work, starting with admitting there is a morale problem and actively listening to what staff and faculty are saying.” He goes on to assert that “many definitions of ‘morale’ focus on collective sentiments, equating it to esprit de corps. Low morale, like demoralization, means a group is struggling to maintain belief in an institution or goal, especially when times get tough. As such, it provides a stronger push for people thinking about leaving their jobs. If burnout means driving while drowsy, demoralization means seeking the nearest off-ramp.”
Schroder proposes that the global pandemic did not cause the deep disruption but instead provided people with space to re-think their relationships to work: “Given the time and distance that the pandemic has provided us for reflection on our lives, meaning and mortality, it appears that many workers realize that they want more than money out of their careers. We have known that for a long time in higher education.” While these pundits are writing about American PSE, their warnings should inspire us to be attentive to the risks we are facing on campus and across our communities.
What is at stake? The great resignation will look differently in higher education. People won’t quit in the same numbers that we see in other job sectors. Instead, the great resignation in higher education is more likely to take the form of withdrawal or disengagement. At universities that rely on the goodwill and deep generosity of all community members (staff, faculty, managers, directors), all of us are invested in creating relationship-rich networks and individualized support beyond the classroom, whether that is cheering on student-athletes, attending vernissages, going to dramatic productions, or supporting student poster sessions. The pro bono work – independent studies, case competition mentorship, internship and co-op supervision, co-designing summits and conferences – is precarious in the time of the great resignation; if we lose the joyful spaces of transformative and reciprocal learning, everyone’s morale suffers. These learning moments – animated by curiosity, creativity, and imagination in communion with one another– are what make our universities so remarkable, and we must be mindful of where and how we value and support these, especially when everyone is exhausted.
The first step is to recognize and sit in the discomfort of our current moment. The next step is to be attentive to the systems and structures that are causing burnout. Once these systems become visible, we need to think about the interventions that can help to build more resilient systems. And we must double down on making space for open conversations where it is okay for people to say “I am sad,” or “I am tired,” or “I am exhausted.” Ultimately, we must commit to the principle that individuals don’t have to bear the burden of resilience. It is up to the structures and systems to create spaces for human flourishing. Dr. Terri Givens recently delivered a Donald Lecture on radical empathy and bridging the racial divide (April 4, Bishop’s University); in her talk, she suggested we think about the following:
A willingness to be vulnerable;
Opening yourself to the experiences of others;
Becoming grounded in who you are;
Practicing empathy; and
Creating change and building trust.
We should be willing to talk about how to anchor these values in practice at every table, from senate to board, departmental meetings to working groups and taskforces. "Hope,” Freire tells us, “is rooted in men’s [sic] incompletion, from which they move out in a constant search—a search which can be carried out only in communion with others” (Oppressed 91). Communion with others is a common theme running through the hundreds of conversations I have had in writing my book on Hope University. These do not always start as hopeful encounters, and indeed some of the most productive conversations are animated by unprocessed grief, rage, and despair. And yet, taking a page from bell hook's All About Love (1999) she wrote “rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.”
~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities