Workload Overload

Written by Bob Hackett, January 2012

“Is the workload of SFU faculty members manageable? Are we able to balance our professional responsibilities with a healthy personal, family and home life? What are the implications for faculty well-being, and the functioning of the university?”

According to the SFUFA sponsored Faculty Workload report, workload clearly is a problem for faculty members. For instance, over half of respondents report unmanageable workloads; 80% report consistently working evenings and evenings; work weeks average 48-55 hours; over 75% are frequently stressed; nearly half report attendant psychological or (in a separate question) physical health problems; over two-thirds feel that the amount of work does not allow for sufficient time to devote to family, friends, personal interests and home responsibilities.

But faculty are not whining. They know that their students, and all employee groups, are hard-pressed in today’s public universities. Moreover, the survey reveals a high level of faculty job satisfaction, related to interesting work, passion for research and teaching, autonomy over intellectual agendas, and other factors.
The apparent contradiction between high stress and high job satisfaction is actually consistent with similar surveys elsewhere. Our focus group discussions suggested an explanation: faculty members are engaged and committed to their scholarship and teaching, but are often frustrated by the institutional conditions within which we must practice our professional vocation.
And there’s the rub – the relationship between faculty workload, and the university’s core mission of teaching and research. There’s a variety of implications for all the campus groups that contribute to that mission.

To technical and office support staff – professors appreciate all the assistance you can muster. They are feeling an incremental increase in technical and clerical tasks (photocopying, expense reimbursement forms, grade inputting, and ongoing technological change); one of the dynamics at play is a tendency for cash-strapped departments to shift tasks from hourly-paid staff to salaried faculty.

To graduate students – the survey should help dispel any lingering perceptions that a PhD is a ticket to a leisurely lifestyle! But it also offers comforting reassurance that there is still great satisfaction to be found by those who pursue scholarship as a vocation.

To the administration – the survey is consistent with a national picture that poses a significant challenge for the university as an institution. In their article, “No time to think?”, Menzies and Newson suggest that faculty find their time and attention increasingly stretched due in part to the impact new technology has had on communication and interaction. Workload has increased for many, not diminished. As a result, they suggest, engagement with scholarship, their peers and students is becoming increasingly superficial and “There is an urgency for academics to take up these issues because of what they portend for the future of the university as a site of creative and critical reflection."1 Further, a recent study published in the International Journal of Stress Management, indicated that academic staff surveyed across 56 Canadian institutions reported high levels of stress in categories ranging from workload to role ambiguity to fairness in relation to administration and reward2.

So SFU is far from unique in that regard – but that’s no reason to avoid remedial action. The Faculty Workload report includes a set of creative recommendations (pp. 5-9) toward effective approaches to faculty workload that would improve faculty’s ability to further the University’s core mission. I hope it will be widely read.


1 Heather Menzies and Laura Newson. "No time to think?" Academic Matters (Winter 2006): 12-15. (accessed December 28, 2011)
2 Laura Lozanzki, et al. "Occupational stress in Canadian universities: A national survey." International Journal Of Stress Management 17, no. 3 (August 2010): 232-258. PsycARTICLES, EBSCOhost (accessed January 18, 2012).