3 min. read
Right now, colleges and universities are at risk of losing more than half their current employees. According to the 2022 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey, a staggering 57% of higher education faculty and staff members are at least somewhat likely to quit their jobs within the next year.
The study cites burnout, lack of flexibility, and salary issues as some of the most pressing reasons for the mass exodus of educators. (Sidenote: we use the term educator to refer to both faculty and staff at colleges and universities. This aligns with what we’ve learned about student-ready institutions, where everyone is considered a potential educator – from admissions staff to campus security.)
As higher ed leaders scramble to figure out how to both engage existing employees and train incoming personnel, they’ll need to think creatively. One suggestion is to apply what leaders have learned about student retention to educator retention.
Consider this: if student retention rates indicate academic excellence, then perhaps educator retention rates indicate institutional excellence. Of course, it’s more nuanced than that. There are other considerations, such as persistence. In general, however, educator retention has enormous potential as a marker of success. So how can higher education and human resources leaders increase retention of faculty and staff? Here are three essential things educators need:
Educators need to experience psychological safety at work
When Google researchers conducted Project Aristotle, they found that psychological safety is the most important factor in team success. In work environments with high psychological safety, people do their jobs better and are more engaged because they’re confident no one will embarrass or punish them for offering a new idea, asking a question, or admitting a mistake. Within departments (and the campus as a whole), psychological safety must be prioritized.
And because psychological safety is rooted in trust and inclusivity, this means that provosts, deans, department chairs, and other institutional leaders will need to learn how to be inclusive leaders. Interestingly, inclusive leadership requires something that many colleges and universities try to instill in students: soft skills. Namely, communication, empathy, humility, adaptability, and self-awareness. Here are some examples of what inclusive leaders do, all of which help build psychological safety:
- Encourage open communication
- Actively listen to diverse perspectives
- Address any discriminatory or exclusionary behaviors
- Model inclusive behaviors and hold others accountable
- Value and respect the contributions of all team members
- Set a tone of openness, flexibility, mutual understanding, and belonging
- Create an environment that promotes fairness, transparency, and equal opportunities
Educators need help with burnout and their mental health
Mental health issues are on the rise. In fact, more than 60% of college students meet criteria for at least one mental health issue. Considering that one in five adults also experiences mental illness first-hand, it’s safe to say educators are affected by this too. While there can be many causes, mental health issues are often exacerbated by stress and burnout – two things educators overwhelmingly experience.
In fact, two-thirds of higher education employees work well beyond full-time hours and are also expected to absorb the responsibilities of colleagues who leave. Much of this stacked workload is done in the name of institutional excellence, which is inarguably one of higher education’s most important objectives. However, there’s no excellence to be had if educators are stressed to the point of burnout, or are so mentally unwell that they can’t do their jobs thoroughly.
The same can be said for students. They can’t thrive or commit to academic excellence in an environment that ignores their mental well-being. Clearly, the higher education ecosystem is incredibly connected.
Leaders who truly want to increase educator retention need to consider that when employees stay, they often receive more work (and the same pay) as a “reward” for their loyalty. Instead, it helps to consider strategies that reduce the workload, increase compensation, or allow schedule flexibility. Brandon L. Wolfe, who’s the Associate Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, also offers this advice to institutional leaders:
- Offer self-care or mental health days
- Enhance parental leave policies and childcare subsidies
- Initiate more robust holistic health programs that address racial fatigue and trauma
- Embed well-being and self-care components in leadership and employee competencies
Educators need access to financial wellness tools – and to be paid fairly
According to the latest trend report from the Financial Health Network, 54 percent of Americans are just barely getting by, and 17 percent are struggling in all or nearly all financial areas. It makes sense that higher ed employees are searching for roles with better pay. In fact, financial issues are one of the core reasons why student retention rates drop as well.
As inflation continues, institutional leaders must think strategically about how to go above and beyond traditional retirement savings plans and insurance packages for employees. Initiatives or workshops around financial literacy can certainly be helpful, though some employees may question the source – or simply prefer more practical financial help.
Wolfe, who specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), says that colleges and universities would do well to offer more real-time financial assistance: “An example could be increasing employee access to financial resources to cover their needs. In one survey, 15 percent of human resources professionals noted that their institution offered emergency funds—typically in the form of payroll advances or emergency savings funded through payroll deductions—and each of those organizations has since reported higher employee satisfaction ratings.”
In the next blog post, we’ll go over a few more ways institutional leaders can improve educator retention. In the meantime, you may find these blog posts interesting:
- More Than Half of Higher Education Employees Want to Quit. Here’s Why
- To Increase Retention, Higher Education Must Focus on Persistence First
- Six Ways Colleges and Universities Can Support Mental Health