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Three Ways to Deal with Exhaustion in Catholic Higher Education

Two emails, that is all I had to write.  They weren’t long or complicated, just providing simple information to colleagues who had asked simple questions.  I sat there, staring at the screen, for maybe ten minutes.  I couldn’t do it.  I shut off my computer and went home.  I was in bed by nine.   

I was talking to a senior administrator.  We drifted off topic and started commiserating about being tired.  He spoke about how many searches were going on, how important it was to fill these positions, and how, as soon as one position was filled, two more vacated.   

 I usually have good attendance in my classes, even with a lax attendance policy.  I work hard to make classes and topics engaging. This semester started out as it usually did.  Students were happy to be in class and engaged from the get-go.  After about three weeks, students became more erratic in their attendance.  It was like they were fading.  I asked them how they were doing.  They said “tired,” “stressed,” “anxious.”  They said everything was extra difficult, even just getting up and going to class.  

We are exhausted two years into a global pandemic, where we have kept on teaching, kept on trying to connect with colleagues and students, kept our small, Catholic liberal arts schools from falling apart.  While there are many factors that go into our fatigue, one is often overlooked.   

We are tired because there are fewer of us and so we are doing more work.   

This past fall, I worked with some colleagues analyzing employment data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for Catholic colleges and universities in the fall of 2020.  (IPEDS is a comprehensive, federal database of colleges and universities in the United States.)  In this semester, many schools were still remote, and those that were in person had mask requirements and limited, distanced seating in classrooms.   

The impact on employment was bleak for Catholic higher education.   

Catholic colleges and universities responded to the pandemic with a substantial decrease in employment in the fall of 2020. Administration and staff decreased by 4.3%, all faculty decreased by 2.2%, and contingent faculty decreased by 2.6%. This resulted in an overall decrease in employment of 3.6%.  

The greatest employment reductions were at smaller Catholic colleges (i.e., those classified as Baccalaureate Colleges by Carnegie). In these schools, the overall decrease of employment was 5.4% and of all faculty was 3.9%. Most shockingly but maybe not surprisingly, contingent faculty were hit the hardest at these schools. More than 10% of contingent faculty were cut.  

In short, in every aspect of Catholic higher education, there were fewer workers.  With fewer workers, there was more work to do.  No wonder we are exhausted.   

While the solution is to hire more workers, most of us are not in positions to do this.  Still, there are three things that we can do to alleviate our exhaustion.   

Be Kind to Ourselves  

Faculty tend to be people internally motivated.  It is not that we don’t respond to external motivations but that we are usually motivated by more than this.  We are motivated by our work and our students, by our beliefs and by our desires for a better world.  Even if we were motivated by money or career advancement, we would be in the wrong field.  These incentives are few and far between.  What tends to motivate faculty is finding meaning and purpose in their work, respect from colleagues and helping students learn.  This and our own internal motivation and we work and work and work and work.  We go above and beyond for our scholarship, students, and schools.  We give 110%.   

Add in the pandemic’s reduction of the workforce, and we are giving 150%, 170%, 200%, whatever crazy number that captures the unsustainable and miserable pace of our labors.  

At the very least, we should just acknowledge how awful this is.  In the midst of everything, all the challenges we face culturally, politically, economically, on top of our own personal struggles, and we continue to work at a capacity well beyond reason.    

Many of us might need to continue at this pace, to enable the survival of our small schools or to keep our jobs. One little kindness we can give to ourselves is just to acknowledge that the situation is bad through no fault of our own.  It is bad because structurally there are not enough workers.     

Perhaps an even greater kindness would be to intentionally scale back the pace of our work.  I know this is as simple to say as it is difficult to do.  Still, we can do less work, say no to more projects and more committees.  We can rework syllabi to make the work more efficient while maintain our effectiveness.  We can be intentional about finding ways to reduce our workload, so that we can just return to the 110% we were giving before the pandemic.    

Be Kind to Others 

If we are going through all of this, others are also going through this.  Others are also working hard to maintain their teaching and scholarship.  Others are also working at 200% of normal.  Others are also exhausted and anxious.  A colleague of mine keeps reminding everyone, “none of us are at our best.”    

It is true.  Even in the best of times, we get annoyed or frustrated with our colleagues.  In these times, even more so.  And the problems are not just our own.  Our colleagues will act out of ignorance or fear.  They will be petty and snarky.  They will act like we do as we struggle to deal with multiple work demands on top of our own personal struggles.   

And, these are the colleagues doing the best, the ones still working alongside of us.  Others – like the 10% of contingent faculty at small, Catholic schools – lost their jobs.  Even if they have since been rehired, they are even more aware of how precarious their employment is.  They were already in a situation where, because of contingency, they struggled to speak freely.  Now, it means being frustrated or saying something snarky is even more dangerous.   

I do not mean that we should put up with injustice or stay quiet in the face of wrongs.  Instead, we should show solidarity for each other, realizing we are all struggling in different ways.  And when someone is curt with us or doesn’t respond quickly to an important email, we should be kind to them.  

Share The Work 

So much of the practical and emotional work faculty do is done by women and minorities.  While they are often overlooked to chair committees, they end up doing the preponderance of the work. They are often expected to be mentors to minority students or new faculty, and then accused of neglecting scholarship for such service.  Women and minorities are often asked to serve on committees as representatives of whole constituencies.   

In the pandemic, with a decreased work force, this practical and emotional work expands. More colleagues and students are stressed.  The vulnerability of students is more pronounced.  Trying to negotiate the demands of the job in the midst of everyone’s struggles requires even more effort than usual.   

We should acknowledge this work, acknowledge what our colleagues are doing.  I don’t mean this in a superficial way, not in “have a gold star” for all you do.  I mean we should find a way to document and keep track of it.  Then, we can formally acknowledge this work and, with the information in front of us, find equitable ways to share it.  

In “Undoing Disparities in Faculty Workloads,” Kerry Ann O’Meara et al. found that a simple four step process could fairly account for and distribute work. First, a public moment – like a faculty meeting or workshop – to acknowledge the realities of disproportionate work done by female and minority faculty. Second, create a public document to view the work that people are doing.  Third, use the document to identify inequalities.  Finally, address the inequalities based on this data.  An accounting like this can help us to share the work.   


I’m not sure when the work situation in Catholic higher education will improve.  There are many forces facing Catholic colleges and universities that, at best, will necessitate change and, at worst, will exacerbate current working conditions.  In the midst of this though, we can help each other by being kind to ourselves, kind to one another, and sharing the work.   



John Hamilton, “Cash or Kudos: Addressing the Effort-Reward Imbalance for Academic Employees,” International Journal of Stress Management 26.2 (2019): 193-203. 

Lisa Hanasono et al., “Secret Service: Revealing Gender Biases in the Visibility and Value of Faculty Service,” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 12.1 (2019): 85-98. 

Jason King, Andrew Herr, and Julia Cavallo, “The Pandemic, Contingent Faculty, and Catholic Colleges and Universities,” Academic Labor: Research and Artistry 6.1 (2022): 60-71, 

 Kerry Ann O’Meara, Audrey Jaeger, Joya Misra, Courtney Lennartz, and Alexandra Kuvaeva, “Undoing Disparities in Faculty Workloads: A Randomized Trial Experiment,” PLOSE One 13.12 (2018): 

Lincoln R. Rice, “The Threat to Academic Freedom and the Contingent Scholar,” The Journal of Moral Theology 8, Special Issue 1 (2019): 75-91,