Practice Area Column
Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship

Recharging the Batteries

Burnout is real—but there are a few ways to mitigate its effects and set the next generation of international educators up for success.
These days, burnout is rampant among workers of all ages and in all industries, including international education. Illustration: Shutterstock

Linda Drake Gobbo keeps a “gratitude list” taped to the inside of her kitchen cabinet, near her coffee mugs. Every morning, it serves as a reminder of the things that bring her joy. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the same spot in Drake Gobbo’s kitchen was reserved for a weekly to-do list, strategically placed where she could view her list of goals as she started each day. However, like many of her colleagues in the international education field during the pandemic, Drake Gobbo, who is professor emerita of the School for International Training, began experiencing the fatigue spurred by the difficulties of living with COVID-19: grappling with travel lockdowns; transitioning to virtual learning; and adapting to policies for masking, social gatherings, and vaccines. These challenges added to the stress brought on a few years earlier by tightened U.S. immigration policies and travel bans, as well as broader global unrest. 

Wanting to restore balance in her life, Drake Gobbo became more attuned to self-care. Changing her kitchen cabinet list was a small step that greatly improved her outlook.

“That simple shift helped me start my day in a positive, appreciative way, rather than [worrying about] what I needed to accomplish,” says Drake Gobbo. “It changed my perspective.”

Recognizing the Effects of Burnout

These days, burnout is rampant among workers of all ages and in all industries, including international education. Those who are part of the teaching, learning, and scholarship (TLS) community often share a unique aspect to their burnout, given the nature of balancing multiple responsibilities as classroom instructors, researchers, and the other roles they fulfill. 

Burnout can hinder productivity, suppress innovation, and drive employee turnover. Left unchecked, this mental exhaustion can also lead to health problems such as stress, anxiety, or depression. To guard against these negative effects, international educators must learn to recognize the signs of fatigue for themselves—and their colleagues, direct reports, and students. 

Employees experiencing burnout may exhibit high stress symptoms, such as tension and irritability. As time goes on, their motivation may seem to diminish. They may lack energy and seem apathetic. For example, someone known for responding promptly to emails may suddenly take longer to respond. Or they may frequently show up late to meetings.

“I think [these signs] can sometimes be hard to pinpoint because it's not a squeaky wheel kind of situation,” says Machelle Allman, immigration specialist at the University of Washington. “These signs often go under the radar” because of their subtleties, she says.

Facing Demanding Workloads, Waning Staff

International educators are dealing with numerous challenges in the workplace. U.S. higher education faces declining student enrollments, increased competition for a smaller pool of high school graduates, and decreased state funding. And the United States, once the top destination for international students, is losing its competitive edge to other countries, often those with comprehensive international education strategies. 

Higher education worldwide was hit hard financially during the pandemic. In many ways, international education has not completely recovered from the staff shortages that resulted from layoffs or people leaving the field in frustration. Those who have remained in their roles are pressed to do more with less: smaller budgets, fewer staff, and increased regulations and paperwork. 

“The staff shortages put an extra burden on the people that are still around,” says Chrissie Faupel, executive director of the Office of International Education and Development at Appalachian State University. Though hiring has picked up, “we're finding that there are shallow candidate pools,” she says. “Many people applying for these jobs are not well qualified. The longer that a search goes on, the more work is still placed on the people in the office.”

For the TLS community in particular, heavy teaching loads mean that time spent preparing for class and grading assignments bleeds into evenings and weekends, chipping away at the personal time every employee needs for recharging. 

A former high school French teacher and college ESL instructor, Tyler Morkin ultimately moved to the international student and scholar services side of international education about 5 years ago due to burnout.

“I always felt overwhelmed because I had a stack of papers to grade all the time,” says Morkin, who is the SEVIS coordinator at the University of Michigan. “I began feeling that I didn't want to teach anymore, but my students were relying on me—so I felt obligated. But yet my energy and drive were really low.”

With so many factors exacerbating burnout that are unlikely to abate any time soon, how can leaders help ease work fatigue among their team members? Here are some suggestions from colleagues and experts.

Prioritize responsibilities.

Think strategically and plan ahead. Know when your department’s schedule will be more demanding and when the workload is expected to be lighter. Allman uses a “heat map,” a visualization tool that highlights events and deadlines based on frequency, to help set her team’s priorities.

“A heat map can be a really useful tool to show how busy an individual or office is at different points in time,” Allman says.  “With that heat map, you could work with a supervisor or with your teams to set realistic timelines.” 

Model wellness.

Do more than preach to employees about self-care: Model it. Adopt wellness habits such as meditation, exercise, good nutrition, and social connections. Take lunch breaks, go on vacations, and limit evening and weekend work. Managers who do check emails after hours should refrain from communicating with employees during those off times.

When Sara Easler sends emails to employees during evening or weekend hours, for example, she schedules the messages to delay release until 8:00 a.m. the next business day. 

“I don't want them thinking that there's some sort of expectation that they're working and responding to me” when they should be relaxing and spending time with family,” says Easler, assistant dean of international programs and partnerships and director of the Office of International Programs and Study Abroad at the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business. 

Be flexible.

Within reason, create an environment in which staff feel free to work from home or take time off. Allow employees to step away from their desks to take a brisk walk in the mid-afternoon, for example. Taking just a little time away from the office to decompress can help employees recharge.

“If you can work with employees to adopt a schedule that works for them, within the limits that you have to consider, that's a good place to start,” says Morkin. “It makes the people you're leading feel like you really care about them as a person and not just them as a worker.”

Build and strengthen team relationships.

Create opportunities for staff to unwind and get to know one another. When people feel comfortable sharing the personal or professional challenges they’re facing, it’s easier to recognize the signs that someone is experiencing exhaustion or burnout.

Easler and several of her team members often bring lunch from home and find a spot on campus (indoors or outdoors) to eat together. While eating, they talk about anything except work.

“We only talk about things that are fun or maybe about a fascinating podcast that we just listened to,” Easler says. “As a leader, I'm actively inviting them to step away from their desks, and we're enjoying each other on a more personal level. It strengthens our relationship. It’s really simple, but I literally protect the lunch hour on my calendar. I want them to feel like this is a place where we care about each other and that they can talk about anything.”

Preparing the Next Generation of International Educators

For many reasons, burnout is prevalent among international educators. Leaders must find effective ways to help employees overcome fatigue and apathy, allowing creativity, energy, and drive to flourish. The next generation of international education professionals is counting on it. 

“Some of those entry-level positions do tend to be the ones that get dumped on a lot—to do this extra thing that needs to get done, no matter how unglamorous it is,” Faupel says. “Of course, we have a responsibility to do the task at hand. But in the long run, we also need to think about those broader implications about [how it affects] the new generation of international educators. If they get burned out early and leave the field, where does that leave us?

“We really need to be mentoring the new folks entering our field and creating a space they want to work in for years and years to come so that we have a really qualified field,” she says. “They're the ones who will lead us forward.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA serves the needs of more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide at more than 3,500 institutions, in over 150 countries.

NAFSA membership provides you with unmatched access to best-in-class programs, critical updates, and resources to professionalize your practice. Members gain unrivaled opportunities to partner with experienced international education leaders.