Research Administration Careers| Burn Out or Fade Away
Is doing more with less helpful or harmful? Our Career Series Spotlight explores how increased workloads can contribute to burn out as research administrators face challenges that can affect their work as well as their physical and emotional well-being. How can managers alleviate the warning signs?
Burn out is a serious concern among research administrators. As the volume and complexity of work steadily increases, the overall staffing volume has not kept pace. Individuals are asked to do more with fewer resources. How is this global trend affecting the field? Are we causing ourselves more burn out? Are there reflexive actions that can mitigate this?
A cursory review of submission data from several leading academic institutions suggests that the volume of external proposal submissions has substantially increased over the past five years, yet pre- and post-award staffing capacity has not been proportionate. Part of this can be attributed to the pandemic, which has exacerbated ongoing recruitment issues such as under-market salaries, difficulty in attracting newcomers to the field, and hybrid work environments. Existing staff are required to expand their capacity to handle the larger volume. This, in turn, leads to experienced research administrators leaving the field because of burn out. Or at best, leaving one institution for another in the grass-is-greener-hope that the situation will be better somewhere else.
In this context burn out is defined as increased physical, emotional, or mental stress triggering a decreased interest in work. This results in lower productivity among the workforce, as well as a rise in mental and physical ailments. Staff are becoming tired and disengaged. The inevitable result is attrition – a poor outcome for both employees and the institution.
One solution is engagement. As a manager in a department or institutional level, recognize this trend and identify tools to begin re-engaging staff. Improving engagement and finding ways to remind staff of the larger mission reinforces the purpose of their work and helps ensure a deeper connection to the institution.
Another solution is mindfulness. Make sure that staff have the resources and time to take care of themselves and each other. Be it goat yoga, therapeutic programs, reserved time for play, or encouraging more time away from the office, mindfulness comes in many forms and can help decrease stress levels.
A third solution is to encourage the institution to track data, including climate surveys, to be able to quantify relevant levels before they become severe. With this data, leadership can be encouraged to act. It is much less expensive to retain existing staff than consistently replace burned out employees.
A fourth solution is incentivization. Staff are keenly aware of their increased workloads. Identifying ways to raise compensation levels, provide a clearer career path, offer training and certification, and develop metrics of when to add staff members are key elements.
A fifth solution is advocacy, for both oneself and for the institution. Managers need to recognize when it is time to ask for additional team members, backed by climate and proposal data. While every unit would enjoy heartier staffing, at what point does the threshold cross from want to need? The varying complexity of research administrators’ work functions underscores how important it is for institutions to create metrics to better support staffing growth. This proactive practice is essential to documenting workload size against staffing levels. The proof is indeed often in the numbers.
Finally, managers should train themselves to actively check in with staff and provide listening and counseling. This issue cannot be ignored. Don’t wait until it is too late, and another staff member has quit. Recognizing the signs of burn out and mitigating them early on may alleviate the symptoms. While staff are proud to contribute to the greater whole, their efforts need to be recognized regularly.
Neil Young famously sang, “It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away.” However, in hindsight, that’s the innocence of youth talking. Burn out leads to longer-term health and mental conditions. It is best to recognize these early on and reduce them, so that research administrators can have satisfying and long-lasting careers, allowing them a well-deserved fade away upon retirement.
Research Administration Careers will be an ongoing column this year. The Catalyst wants to hear your thoughts and articles on all of our topics throughout the year:
- Office Structures
- Career Ladders/Tracks
Submit article or requests for collaboration to email@example.com.
Heather Brown, Grants and Contracts Administrator
Duke Human Vaccine Institute
Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer
University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Neurobiology