I recently read a post on LinkedIn where Sophie Scott, medical reporter at the ABC, discussed the social psychology of burnout.

Her words echoed much of what we have heard over the past 3 years via the STARS Network for Psychological Wellbeing in Higher Education, national fora (e.g. NCSEHE, ORYGEN), and across #AcademicTwitter.

Ask any staff member ,“what should we do about students’ wellbeing?” and very quickly the conversation turns to a pained, often exhausted, “what about me?”

The signs are clear, burnout is here.

Pressures, exacerbated by COVID, leave staff with limited choices to avoid a breakdown: #slowquitting, presenteeism, absenteeism, or leaving academia all together. The problem is real, and it is undermining the future of our sector and the quality of education in Australia.

Here is a Leader Action List:

balance demands and resources to achieve valued outcomes

It is not enough to continually scrape through. People need to feel they have what it takes to deliver on meaningful goals (personally and/or organisationally).

Great leaders need to listen and really understand what deliverables are valuable, for both the organisation and for staff, and then collaborate with colleagues to develop a shared understanding of demands and priorities.

This is not easy. It requires:

* conversations to understand individual circumstances, resourcing, and agreed goals

* policy and practices to support achievement and growth, especially when staff have on-going diverse or complex life challenges

* changing ways of working to protect/free up energy, focus, and creativity

* relationships of trust

* making work visible, celebrating each small goal met (before they are forgotten in the inevitable ‘next thing’) and

* often, doing fewer things.

support autonomy to help people experience meaningful work

Being free to innovate, take on new challenges, and connect to personally meaningful work is essential for mental wellbeing. In higher education this should never be a problem, but failure to deliver on point one often means that it is. Empowering staff to feel they are agents in their own story, able to tackle meaningful challenges and make a difference, is a key leadership activity. Because when it comes down to it, all work is voluntary.

refocus on relationships

Humans are wired for relationships. Our need for belonging is not met by “awkward cake” in the lunchroom or over Zoom (although shared rituals can help). Performance pressures and competition can undermine belonging and have to be actively countered.

We need to understand how shared social identity impacts on leadership (who “we” are matters) and how we can promote self-efficacy, emotion regulation, collegiality, and compassion. We need to foster peer and mentoring relationships because it is within these relationships that we learn to prioritise demands, say “no” when needed, seek help and feel confident to innovate and tackle meaningful problems.

This Leader Action List will improve the wellbeing and mental health of all staff and students! And let’s take a moment today to thank those who are already doing this work.


Associate Professor Lydia Woodyatt, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work, Flinders University [email protected] @LydiaWoodyatt


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education