Work-life balance is more challenging for faculty than ever under COVID-19. What are equitable, privacy sensitive ways to telegraph needs at the individual level? What are acceptable accommodations to suggest?

To be clear, I am looking for strategies for individuals. If you are underwater from the fallout of this pandemic, it is hard to even join the cause, much less organize. In comments directly below can be found exemplars of the viewpoints these individuals are up against: they are dead weight, complaining, or not team players.

This is a unique year in which to attempt to find solutions: administrative members are distributed, and unofficial channels of communication are often not operational. The unofficial conversations that used to help resolve these kinds of situations are more difficult. Further, faculty and administration vary widely in their interpretation of the current crisis.

This was highlighted for me when a tenured faculty member in a recent meeting was pushed by a dissenting faculty member to point out that she was the vulnerable member in her family, due to obesity, and so could not be physically on campus. No one wanted that moment to happen, and yet it did.

There is, simultaneously, a call to step up and come back to campus, often explicitly.


Regardless of academic rank many are responding to personal challenges ranging from lack of child or elder care, to personal COVID-19 high-risk status, to more exotic things which are more difficult to categorize. My international students are trapped in their home countries, visa-less. Impact is everywhere, and even a faculty member with no 'traditional categories' of difficulty might well be under water. At the same time, universities are making hard choices and cutting positions or asking more, sometimes both.

The impact is clear. My own unit has lost a number of our best people, who have left for the relative certainty and balance of industry, or simply left to focus on the complexity of their own lives. Anecdotally, more women than men have left. I am in the US, where things are admittedly presently a bit more extreme, but I think that this question can generalize across university systems in many countries.

It is my belief that one major lack is a good way for individuals in need to communicate their need. For many reason, they may hesitate. This problem extends up the chain: my dean and provost are both high risk, and both working in the office.

So, what are equitable, privacy sensitive ways to telegraph needs at the individual level? What are acceptable accommodations to suggest? How do we address the untenable state of work-life balance in academia under covid-19?

Aside, that is, from leaving.

UPDATE: I have moved to an industry position, sacrificing my academic 'family' for the health and well-being of myself and my family. I have valued the contributions of this community in my academic life, a chapter I now close.

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    What do you mean by "telegraph" that isn't sufficiently conveyed by "communicate"? Oct 13, 2020 at 15:50
  • Many of my folks have varying degrees of an untenable state of work-life balance, and I'm not at a university. We address it by being absolutely clear to everyone that there are issues and will continue to be issues that must be addressed by the institution. Right now the byword should be flexibility to the max, and I would have hoped that universities would recognize that. Sigh.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 13, 2020 at 16:53
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    This is a complaint, not a question. To summarize, you want administration to reduce your workload and in the short term they cannot do that because they don't have money. You want to negotiate but you do not want to use your only leverage, which is leaving or unionizing. Oct 14, 2020 at 2:56
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    Interesting. Actually, I'm an administrator writing on behalf of those I and the system I reside within are failing to help. But possibly, these individual are just complaining. If so, in your view, affected individuals must rely on the advocacy of others. Again, my question is how individual affected can communicate their need. Very hard to make that clear. I have worked to better highlight that in the current revision. Oct 14, 2020 at 13:29
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    It is interesting @AnonymousPhysicist, that you sound very much like members of my administrative and faculty team most likely to pressure vulnerable faculty, students, etc. They are, in the view of these individuals, complaining, a drain on the system. They are, in my view, valuable members of the community who are temporarily reduced in capacity by a blameless situation. Interestingly, the virus does not care about which side you care about, so occasionally a person with the 'complaining' viewpoint sadly is forced by illness in their circle to switch to the 'in need of support' side. Oct 14, 2020 at 13:37

2 Answers 2


Individuals shouldn't need to communicate their needs to administrators; administrators are well aware (or, at least, should be) of the problems plaguing administrations. Administrations should step-up, do their job, lead those they wield power over through this pandemic—enabling them to do their job along the way. Of course, this is a massive undertaking, but is surely the sole purpose of administrations: To enable individuals to (collectively) excel.

  • Although this surely will not happen at my institution, I believe it is the answer... I have moved to an industry position, sacrificing my academic 'family' for the health and well-being of myself and my family. I have valued the contributions of this community in my academic life, a chapter I now close. Dec 8, 2020 at 16:16

Let me suggest two things. First, the administration is probably acutely aware of the challenges you face and have many of the same issues themselves. Losing some of the "best people" is, itself, a wake-up for administrators.

One of the problems is that large universities (especially) move very slowly and have a lot of inertia. But this sounds like a problem that should be addressed in a bottom up fashion, rather than asking for a top down solution.

Meet with other faculty in your own and other departments. Perhaps there is a faculty association of some kind or even a union. List the problems you face and come up with sensible solutions for them. Try to think of more than one solution, some of which have minimal effect on overall finances, though they might require reapportioning funds.

If appropriate, get department heads involved in this and even deans. Discuss among yourselves how you think it ought to be and then work on those issues, probably one at a time. The long term viability of the institution may be at stake as times change and there is no clear end point to the current difficulties. For state-funded institutions you may even need to enter the political arena to obtain changes, especially additional funding.

If you first get public/open recognition of the problems from administrators you have a better chance of pushing proposals for solutions.

Don't neglect working with other departments. There is a lot of expertise in solving problems among the faculty generally. Some of those people are experts in proposing solutions to social problems and dealing with inertia and opposition.

Small-scale short-term solutions may not be sufficient. There are no guarantees that the university will return to what it was a year or so ago. Think and plan for the future. The universities that do this best will have the best chance to succeed.

  • 1
    So, in order to communicate I must lead a crusade, or join one... Look, all these players are already involved. What your answer clearly fails to include are "equitable, privacy sensitive ways to telegraph needs at the individual level". For many of us, that IS the need. If I cannot find care for my mom, I don't have time to do any of this. Voted down. I generally like your answers, Buffy, but your solution here is to another question. Oct 14, 2020 at 0:27
  • @Industrademic Why must needs be telegraphed? Administrators are (surely) well aware already. Individuals need not explain. Administrators need to enable individuals, they're failing.
    – user2768
    Oct 14, 2020 at 15:02
  • Administrators are not enabling individuals.. Also, individuals struggle to communicate their needs. Oct 14, 2020 at 23:13
  • Administrators are not enabling individuals, they're surely failing then. [I]ndividuals struggle to communicate their needs, they needn't bother: Administrators need to establish how to collectively enable those they administer over. I elaborate in my answer.
    – user2768
    Oct 15, 2020 at 8:27

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