Post-COVID return to uni campuses is burning out Mad and Neurodivergent staff, students 

Authors: Tessa-May Zirnsak and Benjamin Habib.

This article was originally published in Croakey Health Media, 23rd March 2023.

As university students have returned to the classroom this year, to much enthusiastic fanfare on university social media platforms, Neurodivergent and Mad staff and students may not experience a mass return to face-to-face learning (or research) as a good thing.

Neurodiverse and Mad people – meaning people who experience the world in non-normative ways, including through the lens of mental illness, autism, or ADHD – face unique challenges in navigating the university environment. This is particularly the case in the post-COVID return to campus, as the COVID pandemic and its associated disruptions have fundamentally changed the way we work and study at university.

Workplace burnout has become so common in the wake of the COVID pandemic as to be cliché. The World Health Organisation defines it as:

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

It can result from a variety of factors, including long work hours, a lack of support or resources, and a feeling of being overwhelmed or unsupported. For Neurodiverse staff and students, workplace burnout manifests with additional layers.

Based on our recently-published book chapter ‘Learning from Each Other: An Autoethnographic Dialogue on Being Mad in the Academy’ and our discussion on the Edge Dweller’s Café Podcastwe argue that workplace burnout in the university sector is a distressing manifestation of the ways in which disruptive organisational change, crushing workload pressures and the “new normal” of post-COVID teaching contribute to our experiences of Madness and Neurodivergence.

What are we coming back to?

Mad and Neurodivergent staff and students find abrupt organisational change and associated service delays extremely challenging when we return to campus. When we work from home, there are fewer organisational barriers we need to navigate in order to have our needs met.

Returning to campus means coming back to environments where many staff were made redundant, both during and in the aftermath of the pandemic. Their absence is acutely felt by the colleagues who remain and by the students who rightly expect a high level of teaching and care.

Job losses through organisational restructures have led to both staff reductions and increased precarity for remaining staff. The staff who survive restructuring more often than not have to take on additional responsibilities or work longer hours to compensate for the loss of colleagues, reflecting a longer-term trend of workload inflation that pre-dates the COVID pandemic.

One key change resulting from layoffs has been the decimation of university systems and support services. Redundancies have purged universities of experienced staff with specialised knowledge and skills. This loss of “institutional memory” has had a significant impact on university systems, making it harder and more cumbersome for both staff and students to get things done.

This has a direct flow-on effect to the student experience through abrupt changes to course offerings, reduced academic support, and decreased resources for research and teaching, negatively impacting the quality of education that our students receive.

Indeed, this disruption is so predictable and so significant that it comes across as an act of willful negligence, or even self-sabotage, by university leaders.

Canary in the coal mine

Neurodivergent, Mad and other marginalised groups are a “canary in the coal mine” for organisational dysfunction. We experience dysfunctional university workplaces as a crushing cognitive and emotional overloading, compromising our ability to do our jobs properly.

Autistic individuals experience burnout from the physical and emotional load of masking our autistic traits in order to fit into a neurotypical university environment.

Similarly, those of us with ADHD experience burnout as a state of exhaustion and overwhelm, stemming from struggling to manage our symptoms within a hostile work environment. This can result from the stress of trying to stay focused and organised, particularly when faced with a high workload or competing demands, leading to fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.

This strain for autistic and ADHD individuals can result in the overloading of their cognitive and emotional resources, leading to loss of skills or abilities, difficulty with sensory processing and concentration, as well as physical and emotional exhaustion.

Workplace burnout can be particularly challenging for individuals who have experienced mental health challenges or who identify as Mad, because workplace burnout exacerbates existing mental health issues and can trigger episodes of distress or emotional dysregulation.

Recommendations for holistic care

Universities have improved in supporting Mad and Neurodivergent staff and students. They have made strides in prioritising accessibility and accommodations, including flexible learning and working environments. Universities have also begun to change the narrative around ableist and stigmatising attitudes through awareness-raising initiatives, safe spaces, and reporting resources.

However, we reject the implicit and explicit individualisation of responsibility for our experiences of Madness and Neurodivergence as solely our own issue to adapt to.

University leaders need to recognize that the responsibility for adaptation cannot fall solely on the shoulders of individual staff and students. They must take proactive steps to address the systemic barriers to adaptation, such as inflexible policies, lack of resources, inadequate support structures, and Machiavellian change processes. The industrial relations agenda favoured by university leaders is directly harmful to Mad and Neurodivergent communities in the sector.

Carefully controlled social media narratives are both disempowering and patronising to vulnerable cohorts, as are fig leaf “consultation” processes around organisational change that legitimise and garnish top-down decisions that have already been made. As Mad and Neurodivergent academics, we experience these as a clear failure by university leaders to listen.

Prioritising equity and inclusion in all aspects of university life requires university leaders to take steps to dismantle systemic barriers that prevent marginalised communities from fully participating in university life. This means flattening organisational hierarchies and divesting decision-making power from opaque centralised control down to the local level. This is what it means to actually listen to the lived experience of Mad and Neurodivergent staff.

Most importantly, universities must prioritise mental health and wellbeing by reducing workload pressure. Workload management systems and the productivity metrics they are based on are fundamentally flawed in the university sector. For academics, it is not humanly possible to succeed simultaneously at the research, teaching and service elements of the role, which are essentially three different jobs, without significant impact on health and well-being.

Mad and Neurodiverse university staff are hurting. We need and demand real change that values us as human beings, not cogs in process of production. We leave you with a provocative question, based on our lived experience of the university workplace: In 2023, are universities capable of human-level care for their staff?

See also:

Tessa-May Zirnsak in conversation with Ben Habib. “Coming out as ‘mad‘ in academia with Tessa Zirnsak.” Edge Dwellers Cafe Podcast. 23rd September 2021.

Zirnsak, T & Habib, B. (2022), “Learning from Each Other: An Autoethnographic Dialogue on Being Mad in the Academy” in (ed.) C. McGunnigle. Disability and the Academic Job Market, Delaware: Vernon Press, pp. 3-30.

Habib, B. (forthcoming) “Coming out twice: How my ‘nuclear meltdown’ helped me to embrace my madness and autism.” in Smith, P. (ed.) Tinfoil Hats: Stories by Mad People in an Insane World, Autonomous Press.