It was 6:15 on a Friday night in May 2020, and Tony Dobies, senior director of marketing at West Virginia University, was starting to unwind from another week tackling the challenges brought on by COVID-19.
Dobies’ team manages more than 100 social media accounts across the Morgantown, U.S., university, and—like so many teams at institutions across the globe—had been in crisis control mode since the pandemic began.
On this particular evening, just as Dobies started to decompress, social media notifications began rolling in. The transition to remote learning amid the pandemic hadn’t been easy for some students, and parents were sharing strong opinions about online classes on a WVU Facebook group. This constant crisis management, the blurred work/life boundaries, the anxiety: that builds up, says Dobies.
“It’s not just a mental thing; it becomes a physical thing. It takes its toll,” he says. “I was already concerned about our team and their capacity and ability to work 24/7 before this, and then you put a pandemic in? It’s really tough.”
Dobies and his team aren’t alone in facing the strain, and their experiences underline a key reality: advancement has its unique stressors, but the pandemic has ramped up tension and anxiety across the world. Here, advancement professionals and wellness experts explore the particular mental health challenges brought on by the global outbreak—along with how teams can cope now and build resilience to face an uncertain future amid COVID-19’s long-term impacts.
Pressure and Burnout in Advancement
In 2019—before COVID-19 emerged—the World Health Organization defined stress in the workplace as a major global problem. The WHO defines burnout as, “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, resulting in feelings of exhaustion, mental distance from one’s job, and low personal satisfaction.” Nonprofit employees may be particularly at risk for burnout: While 84% of nonprofit staff say they’re strongly committed to their organization’s mission, more than half say they sometimes or often leave work feeling run-down, according to a 2012 survey by the U.K. nonprofit career development organization Opportunity Knocks.
Plus, advancement has unique realities that can induce stress and lead to burnout, be they long trips to meet with prospects and donors or extra hours spent planning major events. For instance, 84% of fundraisers, according to a 2019 Association of Fundraising Professionals study, “feel tremendous pressure to succeed in their roles,” and more than half (55%) feel or have felt underappreciated in their roles.
Like their fundraising colleagues, frontline communicators can also experience intense pressure—a fact WVU’s Dobies knew firsthand from managing social media channels as a team of one for years. But he was curious about stress levels for his fellow higher education social media managers. In April and May of 2020, he worked with WVU colleagues to survey 240 social media managers across higher education. The respondents indicated that, on an average day, they’d rate their mental health as only a 6.35 on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being very positive.