October 17, 2014

Stress and Anxiety: A Faculty Perspective

by Wesley Oliver, Pharm.D., PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center

Anxiety, particularly related to public speaking, has been an issue I have had to deal with my entire life.  When I was younger, I would do anything to avoid speaking in public.  If speaking in front of others was unavoidable, I would reluctantly meander to the front of the group — sweating, shaking, and heart racing — mumble and stammer through my presentation, then sit down as quickly as possible.  Public speaking has never been easy for me; however, I have developed strategies to deal with my anxiety and I continue working on my public speaking skills.  Stress and anxiety are not detrimental if they are appropriately managed and I foresee the anxiety subsiding with repeated practice and become more comfortable presenting in a variety of settings.

When I explain my anxiety to others, they always give the same response: “Everyone gets nervous when speaking in front of others.”  While I have accepted this to be true based on my research on the subject, I have wondered if stress and anxiety can affect faculty in other areas of their work.

To my amazement, a quick search on the Internet reveals numerous areas where faculty experience anxiety and how it can affect them both professionally and personally.  Common themes include: maintaining heavy workloads, trying to meet unrealistic demands from administration, conducting research, applying for grants, making time for students, and creating work-life balance.1-3  It is easy to imagine how someone experiencing excessive anxiety and stress in one area of their work life (e.g. applying for grants) can negatively affect and influence other areas (e.g. teaching).

In addition to these common themes, there are some specific areas that can cause anxiety and stress for faculty.  The first is grade anxiety.  These feelings arise as a faculty member is giving back grades to students.  It appears that the anxiety is highest in those that interact directly with students in a personal environment; however, even those teaching large groups can experience this anxiety.  The reason for this stress and anxiety is that the faculty member realizes some students worked really hard and the faculty member has invested a lot amount of time teaching these students, only to have some of them score low grades.4

Grade anxiety is closely related to exam anxiety.  Exam anxiety consists of faculty members experiencing stress because of the test they have created.  They are unsure of how the students will perform and whether or not they have created a “fair” test.  Anxiety also arises in faculty members questioning whether they have taught the information effectively or whether the information they taught is being tested appropriately.5

Finally, many faculty experience stress and anxiety at the beginning of their course every year.  Imagine having a new group of students, each with different personalities and expectations, and having to create new ways to reach them each year.  This can be very stressful.  One faculty member expressed the thoughts racing through his mind on the first of class this way: “Have them like me, Have them think I like them, Have them think I am funny, Have them think I know what I am doing so they will learn, Have them fear me because I know what will be on the exams and they do not, Not bother myself about what they think at all and just lecture.”6

There are many theories as to how stress and anxiety can affect performance.  The oldest theory, known as the Yerkes-Dodson or inverted-U principle, claims that a certain amount of arousal, such as stress or anxiety, is needed for a person to reach maximal performance.  However, once a person is exposed to too much stress or anxiety, performance will start to decline until the person can no longer function.7  Those that experience a little anxiety can perform very well, while those who experience too much are unable to perform at all.  Thus, it is important for someone to manage his/her anxiety in order to perform at a high level.

There are two methods to combat stress and anxiety as a teacher.  First, is to prepare for stressful situations and address them before beginning teaching.  The other is to identify those affected by stress and anxiety and institute programs to help them.  Both can be instituted simultaneously.  Faculty should go through training to teach them to effectively assign grades, administer exams, prepare for classes, and manage the demands of faculty life.  While this instruction will help diminish the stress and anxiety, programs will still be needed for those that need more help.  Given the risk of isolation for faculty members experiencing stress and anxiety, proactive methods to identify those that might need more help should be implemented.  These individuals can then be referred to receive cognitive behavioral therapy to help them deal with excessive stress and anxiety.7  A recent blog series focused on mental health issues in academia.  The author states that it is easy for those in academia to feel isolated.  Most do not feel comfortable approaching colleagues about their feelings.8,9  Thus, it is very important to recognize stress in colleagues and strive to create an appropriate work-life balance to keep from becoming too stressed.

Stress and anxiety not only affects students but also those that teach them.  The best way to address faculty stress and anxiety is to implement programs to assist in preparing for and deal with these emotions.

  1. Kraus MW.  Do Professors Live a Stress-Free Life? [Internet].  Psychology Today; July 2013 [cited 2014 Sep 30].
  2. Shaw C. Overworked and isolated-work pressure fuels mental illness in academia [Internet]. United Kingdom: The Guardian; May 2014 [cited 2014 Sep 30].
  3. Smith D. Dealing with anxiety as a professor [Internet]. University Affairs; May 2014 [cited 2014 Sep 30].
  4. Grade anxiety for professors [Internet]. Science Professor: The questionable life of a science professor; October 2010 [cited 2014 Sep 30].
  5. Gabriel ME. Exam jitters? Professors battle test anxiety, too [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Letters and Science News; December 2013 [cited 2014 Sep 30].
  6. Kakela P. Start-up Anxiety: Professor shares his fears as a new semester begins [Internet]. Faculty Focus; December 2013 [cited 2014 Sep 30].
  7. Staal MA. Stress, Cognition, and Human Performance: A literature review and conceptual framework [Internet]. Hanover, MD: NASA Center for Aerospace Information; August 2004 [cited 2014 Oct 11].
  8. Blog + Mental health: a university crisis [Internet]. United Kingdom: The Guardian; July 2014 [cited 2014 Sep 30].
  9. Shaw C, Ward L. Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia [Internet]. United Kingdom: The Guardian; March 2014 [cited 2014 Sep 30].

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