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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2016 / Winter 2017)

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Dim Screens: Fighting Burnout in Online Instruction

By Leah Panther, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Figure 1: Modified Burn Out Inventory (Freudenberger & Maslach)

Do you feel constantly tired? Yes Sometimes No 
Do you feel overwhelmed? Yes Sometimes No 
Do you feel suspicious of your colleagues or students? Yes Sometimes No 
Do you dread logging into work email or learning management systems (LMS)? Yes Sometimes No 
Do you go hours without laughing or smiling while working? Yes Sometimes No 
Do you frequently work on weekends, holidays, or beyond your contract hours? Yes Sometimes No 
Do you check your work emails frequently (i.e. first thing in the morning, right before bed, during social gatherings or meals)? Yes Sometimes No 

See a theme? If you found yourself marking “sometimes” or “yes” for the majority of the questions above, you may be displaying early symptoms of burnout. Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger worked with nurses and doctors in free health care clinics and noted that “the dedicated and most committed” are the persons most likely to leave the profession (Freudenberger, 1974, p. 161). This led him to research and define what he termed burnout, or the phenomenon of persons who “work too much, too long, and too intensely” until they leave the profession. The definition was later expanded by Maslach, Jackson, and Lieter (1986) to include three central characteristics: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. Emotional exhaustion, or unsuccessful coping with stressors, is the fatigued feeling that develops with drained emotional energies. Depersonalization within education is a teacher’s indifference, negative or cynical attitude, or complete ignoring of his or her students. Finally, reduced personal accomplishment is a sense of distress that teachers experience when they negatively self-evaluate their abilities. This manifests itself in a feeling that they have failed and, even to the extreme, are a failure. 

The problem of burnout within education is rampant. An estimated 90% of all teachers have experienced some level of burnout (Maslach, Jackson, & Lieter, 1986) with 25% of teachers currently experiencing it (Bas, 2011). Since educators who score high on the full Maslach Burnout Inventory are correlated with low student academic achievement, this becomes a problem for teachers who remain in the field without adequate support to mediate their feelings of burnout. In fact, many teachers cite the symptoms of burnout as a major decision to leave the profession: one out of four teachers will leave within their first three years of teaching. By year five, the number jumps to one out of every two (Lloyd, 2012; Ramsey, 2000). Employee turnover leads to institutional instability because of the financial and time investment to find, train, and keep employees. Being able to avoid burnout and mitigate its symptoms becomes a matter of student achievement, institutional stability, and mental health support for employees. 

Within the online environment, early research suggests burnout is especially high among online educators. Most studies point to a central culprit: higher workloads. Online educators are more likely to have higher student enrollment in courses, more assessments to compensate for less face to face instruction, and spend more time evaluating assessments due to the asynchronous submission rates (Kolowich, 2011). Additionally, online instructors report lower levels of institutional support and increased role ambiguity compared to their on-campus counterparts (Fives, Hamman, & Olivarez, 2007). Being off campus means increased isolation (Hogan & McKnight, 2007) which can in turn lead to feelings of being less competent or perceptions of less success (Timostuk & Ugaste, 2010). There are several characteristics that are not identified as causes of burnout including the years of experience teaching online, the gender of the instructor, their highest level of educational attainment, and level of academic training (McCann & Holt, 2009). The authors point out that the greatest predictor of teacher burnout is whether the instructor teaches online, not a personal demographic factor. This makes the problem one that all institutions with online instructors have an equal stake in—whether a two year or four year, private or public, vocational or doctoral granting institution. 

In this summation of the literature, there are recommendations at the institution, course, and instructor level to prevent burnout and mitigate its existing impact. 

Institutional Solutions

Institutions, schools, divisions, and individual programs may see the symptoms of burnout in varying degrees: low percentage of returning adjuncts, poor student evaluations for online courses compared to face to face counterparts, and feedback from focus groups of online instructors. But, what can deans, department chairs, and program coordinators do to attract and keep instructors while preventing instructors from burning out? 

  • Detailed job descriptions: Stating courses are taught online is essential before hiring the instructor. Also, include in the job description relevant information about the institution’s online courses, such as the Learning Management System (LMS), required trainings, and required continuing professional education. 
  • Formalized chain of communication: Many online instructors complain that they do not have a clear contact person on campus to go to with questions or concerns, do not know the correct contact people for specific concerns, or are unable to reach contact persons. Having a lead teacher on a course or including online instructor supervision in a program coordinator’s job description will clarify and formalize this expectation. 
  • Professional development activities: When professional development opportunities are offered, such as a brown bag lunch, guest speaker, webinar, or conference, are seats reserved for online instructors? Including online instruction as a professional development focus will support all educators in a unit, not just the online instructors. 
  • Frequent and complete communication to all instructors: Isolation from the everyday activities on campus can cause burnout. Consider the ways communication is fostered and encouraged: are online instructors invited to use office space on campus? Included in social gatherings? Do not let out of sight mean out of mind. 
  • Adequate resources provided: An online course does not mean an instructor has needed resources embedded in the LMS. Being able to provide instructors with materials such as a webcam, headphones, microphone, video recording software, office space to meet with students, and other potential resource needs will decrease the emotional exhaustion of having to seek out these resources. 
  • Capping course limits: The research is split on the impact of class size on instructor burnout. Interviews with online instructors note their desire to have this protection, but quantitative data does show a significant impact. 

Course Management

The first two weeks of an online course can be hectic—students adding and dropping, finalizing syllabi, and troubleshooting technology issues. The constant barrage of emails, questions, and tasks can be overwhelming and, if not done well, can lead to depersonalization of students who become a series of email requests rather than individual people. Here are some recommendations to prevent burnout during course management:

  • Organization: Organizing the online course site will prevent a barrage of questions and emails in the first week helping the instructor to focus on getting to know his or her students and working on the course content. 
    • Create a “Help!” discussion board where students can ask their question. The instructor only needs to answer it once, rather than fifteen separate times. 
    • Create a course tour video to show students how to navigate the course and use its most common features (e.g. posting a discussion board, submitting an assignment). 
    • If the LMS has a course calendar, input all the assignments to help students track important due dates.
    • Enabling or creating a notification if students have missed a due date, are failing the course, or as a reminder of important assignment due dates will remove that task from the instructor’s to do list and help students adjust to an online, more autonomous classroom environment. 
  • Clear Procedures: Consistency will make decision making easier since clear procedures have been in place throughout the semester and make common instructional dilemmas have clear answers. It also reduces students’ cognitive load so they can focus on course content. 
    • Ensure the late work policy is in place and aligns with institutional policy. If there is no policy, consider creating one (e.g. half credit if completed with 24 hours, one late assignment per semester is allowed, no credit for assignments submitted late). This will prevent an end of semester glut of late submissions. 
    • Instruct students on how to set up a system for looking for answers before contacting the instructor (e.g. the Help! Discussion board, a “study buddy”, giving a syllabus quiz to ensure it has been read). 
  • Time Management:
    • Set hours of availability that are appropriate and can stick (e.g. 8 am to 5 pm on weekdays, responses within 48 hours). 
    • Block out a period of predictable time to assess the assignments. For example, if all assignments for a particular course are due Monday at midnight, plan on assessing them Tuesday from 8 a.m. until noon. 
    • Build in feedback based on the criteria described in each column as you score. This limits the amount of feedback required for each individual learner and increases consistency in assessment between learners. 
    • Forgive assignments to catch up on grading.

Finally, there are self-care recommendations to mitigate burnout. 

  • Limit availability:  Instructors in an online course have the flexibility to set their working hours. But if not careful, it can overtake their entire schedule. Answering emails every time you hear the Outlook chime or grading a few assignments here and there actually takes more time than creating blocks of time. Instead of reacting immediately, create a schedule with blocks of time for lesson planning, assessment, and responding to student inquiries. In the schedule, create time and space for rest, relaxation, and socialization to decrease feelings of isolation and maintain a healthy balance. 
  • Unplug: Whether this means deleting work email off phones, not bringing tablets to the dinner table, or setting an out of office reply over the fall break, spaces where being unplugged is the routine. 


Burnout is not reserved for the educators at the end of their careers or the overburdened who have taken on the workload of several people. Burnout is common and currently affecting at least one out of every four educators; more so in the online education field. It is not a problem for the individual it effects, but a consequence of institutional and personal decisions that caused an educator to feel emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. It is also the job of institutions and educators to ensure burnout is prevented and mitigated to support online instructors, students, and institutions. 

Abel, M. H., & Sewell, J. (1999). Stress and burnout in rural and urban secondary school teachers. Journal of Educational Research, 92(5), 287. 

Freudenberger, H. (1974). Staff burnout. Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159-165. 

Hogan, R. L, & McKnight, M. A. (2007). Exploring burnout among university online instructors: An initial investigation. Internet and Higher Education, 10,  117-124.

Kolowich, S. (May 2011). Built for distance. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from:

Maslach, C, Jackson, S., & Leiter, M. P. (1986). MBI: The Maslach Burnout Inventory: Manual. Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press.

McCann, J. & Holt, R. (2009). An exploration of burnout among online university professors. Journal of Distance Education, 23(3), 97-110.

Moore, J. D. (2010). Running on empty: Exploring online educator burnout. American Military University. 

Skaalvik, E. M., & Skaalvik, S. (2009). Does school context matter? Relations with teacher burnout and job satisfaction. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 25(3), 518-524.

Timostsuk, I. & Ugaste, A. (2010). Student teachers’ professional identity. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 26(8), 1563-1570.  

About the Author 

Leah Panther is a doctoral student at the University of Missouri Kansas City where her research focuses on disciplinary literacy instruction, religious urban education, and high leverage literacy practices. Her journey has included middle school educator, college instructor, graduate research assistant, and advocate for culturally sustaining instruction in urban contexts.

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