The Emerging Story of Burnout in Educational Design

Jan 27, 2020

The field of instructional design dates back to a 1940s training and development model used by the US military. But since then it has evolved—and in some ways sprawled—to become a standard role across higher education.

Today, if your title includes instructional designer or learning designer, you likely feel like a Swiss Army knife. You are expected to be an expert at everything, and you likely find yourself responsible for designing courses, building learning materials, making sure the materials function properly, doing some coding and managing course-building projects.

On top of all that, instructional designers are also expected to have in-depth knowledge of the learning sciences, instructional-design theories and faculty development. This results in working long hours, lacking time for professional development and constantly trying to just keep up.

Of course, many of us went into this profession because we wanted to do creative work and care deeply about the student learning experience. Instead, it’s easy to find instructional designers, or IDs, who describe their workplaces as “production shops,” and themselves like “cogs in a wheel" because of pressure from leadership to push out courses faster and cheaper with a focus on revenues and financial ROI. That leads them to work long hours to put out work they still feel good about.

Yet despite the scope of instructional design, it is not typically considered a profession, and is frequently looked at by professors as mere tech support.

This is increasingly leading to burnout in the field—just as colleges seek more and more instructional designers to build online and hybrid courses.

“When we go into ID we expect creativity, to work with faculty, and be treated with respect,” said Ella Epshteyn, a consultant working in instructional design for colleges. “People go in with passion, then get disappointed because they don’t get the care, professional courtesy or respect they deserve.”

Recently I was at a HAIL gathering for college innovation leaders, and the topic of burnout for instructional designers came up when I shared my feelings that ID’s are seen as unappreciated utility players. “The work can be very tedious depending on the work environment,” said Epshteyn. "I once left a job because I was so bored. A lot of us go into the field thinking we will do something engaging and fun. When it ends up being tedious, that is when we feel burnout.”

Why the Increase in Stories of Burnout?

The topic of burnout is not new, and it comes up frequently in teaching and nursing professions.

A recent study by Deloitte, 77 percent of respondents in a variety of fields said they experienced burnout. The major reasons given in the report include lack of support and recognition, unrealistic deadlines and consistently long hours and working weekends—all commonly reported by instructional designers I’ve talked to.

Clark Shah-Nelson, assistant dean for instructional design and technology at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, describes it this way: “When you don’t look forward to going to work, when [it’s] bad enough you don’t see the joy in going to work [and] don’t feel [a] connection to [the] larger workplace. In the context of a career, feeling stuck, no alternatives, not knowing where you want to be but knowing you don’t want to be here.”

Studies show that of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And that has become a problem in instructional design as a lack of time and resources for working on personally meaningful work has led many of us in the field to feel disillusioned.

“Jobs in academia are not easy to come by and location is often a luxury,” said Autumm Caines, an instructional designer at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, recently changed jobs due to burnout. “This in itself can lead to that feeling of being trapped. Uprooting families and moving is not always practical, especially for women. So, it is often easy to stay in a job that is not exactly fulfilling. Stresses due to shrinking budgets in academia, as well as outside market pressures, are not helping.”

“One of the biggest challenges for me,” said Epshteyn, “has been life/work balance as a mom with four kids. A lot of higher ed institutions have very rigid requirements—they lack flexible work opportunities and don’t allow remote work.”

Lack of mobility is another issue. The ID’s I spoke to talked of frustration around a lack of clear career path. More and more people are entering the field, excited, only to find there are few opportunities for career progression. They find themselves bored, doing the same job tasks over and over again. With no prospect of being rewarded for enhancing their job skills, and little autonomy—combined with feelings of lack of respect—results in people feeling burned out and leaving higher ed and/or the field, said Matt Crosslin, learning innovation researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Shifting from Burnout to Thriving

We can approach the issue of burnout from two directions. First we need to recognize it is an issue and educate people about how to recognize and handle burnout. According to Workplace Strategies for Mental Health the following our signs of burnout:

  • Reduced efficiency and energy
  • Lowered levels of motivation
  • Increased errors
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Increased frustration
  • Suspiciousness
  • More time spent working with less being accomplished

More importantly, we need our institutions to recognize the workplace environment that leads to this issue and begin to change the culture.

According to the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace feelings of their work not being important or appreciated can lead to greater instances of burnout. Many of the influential thinkers that have helped shape our educational systems—both historical, such as John Dewey, and contemporary, including Parker Palmer—have highlighted the importance of aligning one’s passions and personal values with academic and vocational pursuits. There is also ample evidence to suggest that finding purpose in one’s work produces better outcomes for students.

Supporting flexible work schedules, such as allowing work from home or work from anywhere can help, as can creating a documented career progression. As Caines suggested: “As leaders in a field, we can champion legitimizing remote work and collaboration opportunities. We can talk about burnout to try and raise awareness around it. Attempt to find ways of recognizing people’s work outside of the institution at a professional organization or collaborative project level.”

Clark Shah-Nelson, of the University of Maryland, described how some universities are moving beyond one level of instructional designer by adding a new category of senior instructional designer, and some institutions are even adding additional levels (similar to an assistant, associate, and full professor). Those levels can be tied to specific accomplishments, like learning new skills, completing professional development, publishing or making conference presentations. This gives people something to work toward—and the opportunity to align goals with personally meaningful work.

Making changes to job levels and descriptions can take time, as well as buy-in from leadership. Shah-Nelson described other, more “light-weight” ideas that could have a big impact. Make sure your team has down time for fun and to pursue their passions. He stressed the importance of not just suggesting people take the time, but making sure it is blocked off on people’s calendars.

A fun idea he described is to try adding a magnetic dart board and a big whiteboard for an asynchronous game of darts. People can play a round as they are passing through and mark down their score. There are a lot of ways to be connected where people don’t need to be there all at the same time.


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