‘We are at the breaking point’: Survey shows faculty, especially women, facing COVID-related stress

March 17, 2021, 8:21 p.m.

Faculty members — juggling childcare, course adjustments, research, teaching and more — have faced significant stress compared to before the pandemic, according to findings from a Stanford women’s faculty group survey last fall. 

The takeaways? Women, caregivers and pre-tenure faculty members were among those who reported the greatest amounts of stress since COVID-19 began. This trend is consistent with national observations: American mothers have reported significant emotional and financial burdens due to the pandemic, magnified by factors including race and poverty

Despite the privilege that Stanford faculty may have, they are not immune to stressors induced by the pandemic. “The faculty are having to step up in ways they had not imagined at home, and to step up in ways they had not imagined at Stanford,” said Faculty Women’s Forum (FWF) Steering Committee member and Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law Anne Joseph O’Connell. 

“You can have the adrenaline going for a while,” she added. “But you’re kind of depleting everything that you have of yourself.” 

Eventually, “it’s going to take its toll.” 

Background on the survey

Late last spring, O’Connell began hearing about the additional stress her female colleagues were experiencing due to the pandemic. At a June event sponsored by the FWF, she heard faculty members craving more advocacy for them.

But without hard numbers, the climb to make change seemed a bit too steep, according to fellow FWF Steering Committee member and professor of medicine Sara Singer MBA ’93. “It became obvious that the data was important,” Singer said. 

The FWF sent out a quality-of-life survey to collect information on 1,547 faculty members between October and November, and O’Connell and Singer presented these findings to the Faculty Senate in February. 

A significant theme of the survey findings was the “profound impact” of COVID-19 on faculty members, according to Singer. “It was clear that they were really suffering,” she said. 

Stanford recognizes the “unprecedented stress” placed on faculty members, University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote in a statement to The Daily. He added that the “excellent feedback” from the survey helps the University pinpoint the areas of greatest need to develop solutions to mitigate challenges. 

Singer noted that while this survey was “an attempt to get a snapshot of what was going on” for faculty, other campus community members — such as staff and students — also suffered as a result of the pandemic. She added that many of the responses she received expressed worries for others, such as the needs of their students, postdocs and staff.

Over two-thirds of respondents identified as female. The survey was sent to all 710 women faculty as well as 837 male faculty (53% of total male faculty) with dependents on health insurance. The female response rate, at 53.5%, was much higher than the 16.5% response rate for males; these male faculty members may have thought the survey from the women’s forum was a mistake, according to the FWF.  

Nine respondents — 1.7% — selected either “Not listed. I describe myself as (please specify)” or “Prefer not to state” for their gender and are collectively listed as “unknown.” 

Survey findings

Nearly nine out of 10 respondents said that they have experienced “a lot more” or “little more” stress since COVID-19 began. However, there is a notable gender discrepancy: 60% of female faculty responded that they’ve had “a lot more” stress compared to 49% of males. Meanwhile, 13.2% of males said they’ve had “less/same” stress levels, and this percentage drops to 10.5% for females.

“The need/pressure to continue like everything is ‘fine’ is immense,” an anonymous respondent wrote. 

Female faculty members are also more likely to spend additional hours as principal caregivers due to COVID-19. More than half of female and approximately 33% of male faculty responded that they spend an average of an additional four hours as the principal caregiver. 

Faculty members highlighted the difficulties in managing both professional and domestic responsibilities, including caregiving for adult dependents. 

One respondent wrote about how they and their partner are cumulatively working about 140 hours per week while supervising distance learning for their children in different schools. 

“Everything has gotten so much harder to do. It’s not sustainable,” they wrote. “And yes, I’m female and I do almost all the child supervision at home.” 

While many public schools don’t have full-time in-person teaching, some private schools are reopening — a process that furthers inequities based on faculty members’ income levels, O’Connell said.

Faculty members who take care of children reported a significant increase in stress. 61.6% of faculty that care for children reported “a lot more” stress, while less than half of faculty without childcare responsibilities said the same.

One anonymous respondent noted that their daughter’s in-person kindergarten schedule — which meets for 2.5 hours in the morning — is “extremely disruptive” and requires them to arrange extra transportation and take care of her for approximately 10 hours a day. 

Another wrote, “no one asks about families with kids with special needs,” highlighting the unique set of challenges faced by some.

Pre-tenure faculty also reported higher levels of stress compared to their tenured counterparts. Respondents expressed worries about their inability to continue research, potential unfairness in assessment and financial struggles due to COVID-19. 

“I do not want to remain underpaid, job insecure and extremely stressed,” wrote one pre-tenure respondent. “If I don’t get tenure, I’ll find something else to do outside science.”

The vast majority of faculty, over 74%, reported having “less time” for research compared to before the pandemic. On the other hand, faculty members reported spending slightly more time on service, mentorship/advising and teaching. 

Respondents wrote about losing research, publication, funding, networking and other opportunities. With less time and limited ways to conduct research, some feared that postponement could lead to other groups reaching findings first. 

One explained that the increase in their childcare and professional demands virtually eliminated research and writing time, yet “there are still not enough hours in the day” to fulfill their “basic professional and family obligations.” 

“We are at the breaking point and this is far from over,” another wrote. “Something has to give.” 

Several respondents wrote about sacrificing potential future funding to provide for the present. “I didn’t pay myself summer salary from certain grants so that I could save that funding for my students,” one wrote. 

Others highlighted additional duties in supporting students, who have reported declining mental health since the beginning of the pandemic: “Students are incredibly fragile right now and it feels like I am mostly there as a therapist,” one faculty member wrote. However, they feel challenged in offering comfort: “I feel totally unequipped to provide the ‘therapy’ they need on an ongoing basis.”

More than one-third of faculty members said they were “dissatisfied” with Stanford’s response to the pandemic. Tenured faculty reported the greatest satisfaction, while pre-tenure faculty reported the least. 

One respondent shared concerns over the lack of institutional support: “At the time we need support the most, the University is taking away support rather than providing.” 

Another shared their frustrations about the University’s actions, writing that the “uncertainty, poor communications and seemingly arbitrary decision making not informed by all stakeholders” has been particularly stressful. Students previously shared similar sentiments — particularly following the University’s last-minute cancellation of on-campus housing for frosh and sophomores in January. 

Stanford has taken steps to help alleviate some burdens for faculty since the survey was administered, including implementing a tenure clock extension in October and a post-pandemic research quarter for current junior faculty in February, according to Miranda.

Over 30% of total faculty were “a lot more” or “little more” likely to leave Stanford compared to before the pandemic. Of those who were “dissatisfied” with the University’s handling of the pandemic, over half reported being “a lot more” or “little more” likely to leave; nearly 25% reported being “a lot more” and 27.4% reported being “little more” likely to leave. 

Mental health and social wellbeing are at risk due to overwhelming personal and professional responsibilities, underscoring the grave effects of the pandemic. “My family is falling apart,” one respondent wrote. “I am so stressed that I self-harm in ways that frighten me. If things continue, I will leave the profession.” 

Future steps 

Despite University efforts to support struggling faculty, issues remain. O’Connell noted that while Stanford has made some “great moves” to help faculty, including implementing additional sabbatical credits for senior faculty and freezing childcare costs at campus centers, more needs to be done. 

In February, Provost Persis Drell announced steps taken to address research and racial justice and equity. Miranda encouraged members of the Stanford community experiencing financial difficulty to see if they may be eligible for the University’s assistance programs

The University knows “there is more to do” and is committed to supporting faculty and all members of the community through the long and short-term impacts of the pandemic, Miranda wrote.

Childcare and education are key issues for faculty members. Singer said that while many aspects of the new normal have improved over time, such as adjusting courses to an online format, “the child care issue doesn’t go away.” 

Singer said that the University should also pay attention to inequities in the application of some of its policies because there is “a lot of discretion” that happens at the unit level. She hopes that more communication among chairs will allow for greater accountability and parity across departments. 

The pandemic’s disruptions will have effects “beyond next year” and the University should plan to support long-term research and recovery, O’Connell said. She added that pandemic’s mental health effects should also be addressed for students, staff and faculty. 

Singer said that while the findings on increased levels of stress were “not surprising,” the fact that nearly 60% of faculty are experiencing a lot more is an indication that action needs to be taken. 

“You know you have to do something,” she said. 

Anna Milstein ’23 is a desk editor for Vol. 259 Academic News and a Staff Writer. Contact her at amilstein ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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