Burnout among online, adjunct instructors: What it is, how to recognize it, and how to prevent it

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The rapid growth of online higher education and subsequent hiring of adjunct faculty can lead to teaching burnout. A recent study revealed that online instructors experience moderate levels of burnout. It is essential for institutions to implement practical ways for instructors to avoid burnout and remain engaged with their students.


Dr. Rebecca Stout is the lead faculty for sociology within the General Education program at Colorado Technical University. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Cornell College in biology, sociology, and premedical studies; her master’s degree is from the University of Colorado at Boulder in sociology; and her doctorate is in higher education from Argosy University. She has worked in higher ed for over 10 years, serving in a variety of administrative positions. Her research interests include identity, community, burnout, gender, and criminology. She has presented at a variety of conferences and continues to research in the fields of burnout and engagement.

Extended Abstract

The growth of online higher education has resulted in the hiring of adjunct faculty to fulfill classroom demand.  A recent study (n=245) revealed that online, adjunct instructors are likely to experience moderate levels of burnout as determined by the Maslach’s Burnout Inventory-Educators Survey (MBI-ES). This level of burnout was consistent on all three component: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal achievement.

            Burnout among online instructors is of concern for institutions: burned-out teachers are less likely to engage with their students and to promote learning. Additionally, burnout is associated with turnover and lower institutional loyalty. On a personal level, instructors who are experiencing burnout are more likely to have higher levels of stress and report lower levels of good health.

            At Colorado Technical University, specific initiatives are in place to help prevent adjunct burnout. Instructors are connected with a faculty mentor whose position entails engaging with adjuncts and encouraging best practices and professional collaboration. CTU recognized outstanding faculty members and ensures that the talents and skills of adjunct faculty are acknowledged and used.

            With student relationships, CTU strives to reduce depersonalization by holding live chats from faculty members to enable synchronous interactions from both students and faculty. This fosters a sense of community that helps retain faculty connections with students.

            There are also other initiatives that institutions, including Colorado Technical University, should consider to reduce adjunct faculty burnout:

  1. Promote positive health, including offering incentive programs such as Walking Works or yoga.

  2. Offer organizational-directed programs to help develop coping methods for online adjunct faculty members who are experiencing burnout.

  3. Explore institutional-wide methods to prevent burnout among its online adjunct faculty members.

  4. Educate online adjunct members in recognizing the symptoms of burnout and given personally-directed strategies to overcome burnout.


Current research that shows organizationally-directed programs are effective in treating and overcoming burnout.  According to a review by Awa, Plaumann, and Walter (2010), 80% of organizational programs have been shown to significantly reduce burnout and that these programs can have lasting effects on reducing burnout.  These programs can include relaxation skills, counseling, professional skill development, and social support (Awa, Plaumann, & Walter, 2010).  Importantly, these programs need to be offered repeatedly as refresher courses have been shown to be effective in maintaining a reduction of burnout (Awa, Plaumann, & Walter, 2010).  Schools may consider adding burnout reduction and stress relief programs through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), incorporating these skills into regular training sessions, and providing information on burnout and coping strategies through email, the faculty website, and through brochures disseminated through mail. 

In this interactive workshop, the discussion will entail the current research on burnout and adjunct faculty, implications for institutions providing online programs, and preventative measures that can be taken by instructors and mentors to prevent burnout.


Awa, W. L., Plaumann, M., & Walter, U. (2010). Burnout prevention: a review of

intervention programs. Patient Education and Counseling, 78(2), 184-190.