Affective Labor and COVID-19: The Second Wave

min read

As higher education professionals redesign summer and, possibly, fall courses for online delivery, the breakneck pace of the work is beginning to take a significant emotional toll.

Exhausted person sitting at a table with a laptop.
Credit: Magura / © 2020

Most of us working in faculty development, instructional design, and academic technology have just completed week eight of working from home. After we wrapped up our work to support the move of winter/spring semester course materials to a distance-learning format, we moved on—without missing a beat—to help faculty move their summer courses online, with an eye toward fall semester, uncertain about which modality we will be teaching in. We've experienced Zoom Fatigue, Allostatic Load, and Caution Fatigue, on top of all of the stress associated with a collapsing economy, furloughs, and layoffs that are impacting our friends, colleagues, and loved ones, and whatever else is going on in our personal lives.

And, through all of this, we—academic technologists, instructional designers, online learning specialists, and faculty developers—have been tasked with and continue to save the university.1

In my blog post, "Affective Labor: The Need for, and Cost of, Workplace Equanimity," I introduced the concept of affective and emotional labor, defined by Arlie Russell Hochschild as work that is done to "induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others."2 While that post discussed the immediate affective demands associated with the COVID-19 crisis, I want to take some time here to explore the evolving long-term emotional labor we are being asked to perform, as well as some of the consequences of that labor that I am seeing in our community.

In the early stages of the pandemic, many of us were very deliberate in describing our work as an "emergency online pivot" and not as work that we would typically associate with online courses.3 We emphasized that online courses take six to twelve months to thoughtfully and carefully design, align, and build. And yet we are creating entire online training programs for our faculty to help them transition their summer courses (and probably their fall classes) to online spaces. The training is informed by experience and scholarship, carefully designed to model best practices that we hope faculty will emulate.

Calling it a training instead of a course in no way diminishes the fact that what we are being asked to do—and are succeeding at doing—is tremendously demanding, both intellectually and emotionally. Because after we design and build these courses, we must then deliver, or teach, them. We are teaching our faculty how to design, build, and teach their courses online. We are practicing the pedagogy we preach—the pedagogy of inclusivity, collaboration, engagement, and empathy. We remain confident, supportive, patient, and positive when we engage with faculty during our consultations (aka office hours). We are striving to create a community of faculty members who can support each other during the uncertain circumstances created by COVID-19.

We have been working in crisis mode without a break for the last eight weeks, and there is no relief in sight as we prepare (or, rather, as we prepare to prepare faculty) for courses to be online, hybrid, or hyflex (hybrid-flexible) for fall. Summer plans have, understandably, been canceled, but so too has any summer reprieve we may have hoped for.

The exhaustion we were feeling even a month ago is dwarfed by how exhausted we are feeling now. Yes, we are saving the university, but how long will this go on? How long do we have to remain in crisis mode? What if what we are doing isn't enough? How can we keep making this herculean work look effortless, or at least as invisible as possible? What happens when the seams start to strain or rip?

Yes, we still have our jobs, but how long can we keep working at them before we burn out?

Ultimately, burnout is the greatest danger of the status quo. But in the meantime, before we get to that final state, we are struggling with motivation, with maintaining brave faces, and with not knowing what to do or who or where to turn for support. Faculty are turning to us for support, but who do we look to in return?

We have been told to take care of ourselves, but we have not been counseled on how to do that under these demanding conditions. Meanwhile, the university, the faculty, and the students, are all counting on us.

I don't have any good answers. In the same way that we are systematically seeking to help our students with their struggles, we also need to find systematic solutions to this very real challenge.

Interested in talking with your peers about the emotional toll of affective labor? EDUCAUSE is hosting a webinar on Affective Labor Under COVID-19 on Thursday, May 21, 2020, from 1:00–2:00 p.m. ET. This is an opportunity to come together as a community to share experiences, struggles, and responses, and to feel, at the very least, less alone.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and Student Success web pages.

The Transforming Higher Ed blog editors welcome submissions. Please contact us at [email protected].


  1. Kathleen Bortolin, "How Teaching and Learning Centres Saved Higher Ed during Covid 19," Kathleen Bortolin, PhD, Educational Developer (ePortfolio), May 4, 2020.
  2. Lee Skallerup Bessette, "Affective Labor: The Need for, and Cost of, Workplace Equanimity," Transforming Higher Ed (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, March 26, 2020.
  3. Lee Skallerup Bessette, Nancy Chick, and Jennifer C. Friberg, "5 Myths About Remote Teaching in the Covid-19 Crisis," ChronicleVitae (website), May 1, 2020.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is a Learning Design Specialist at Georgetown University.

© 2020 Lee Skallerup Bessette. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.