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Online Adjunct Faculty Burnout

By Rheanna Reed, DM & Jennifer Carriere, Ph.D.


Adjunct faculty must often balance grading, classroom engagement, administrative, and research responsibilities. University leaders and students' pressures create competing responsibilities and stressors. Constant needs and responsibilities could create adverse effects, but how can adjunct faculty avoid the potential for burnout and cynicism? Adjunct faculty represent a significant percentage of higher education faculty in the United States by providing labor and allowing universities to meet scheduling demands. However, adjunct faculty are considered temporary or contract employees and may not always experience the same benefits or treatment as their full-time counterparts (8,14). Typical uncertainties experienced by adjunct faculty include a lack of job security support, uncertain scheduling, and relationships within the university (8,11).  


Adjunct faculty must be engaged to build collegiality and meaningful connections to ensure students' academic success and institutional effectiveness.


Burnout in higher education can lead to lower engagement, productivity, job satisfaction, quality of work, and turnover (6). Burnout occurs because of a persistent mismatch between a person and at least one of the following work characteristics: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Outcomes of burnout include feelings of depersonalization, such as decreased emotion and a lack of desire to connect. Working with students online may exacerbate the occurrence of depersonalization since minimal face-to-face interaction occurs. Emotional exhaustion may also indicate burnout. Indicators of emotional exhaustion may become apparent when faculty consistently manage challenging situations, effectively draining their emotional reserves such as empathy. A final dimension of burnout is a decrease in personal accomplishment indicated by faculty feeling lower levels of self-esteem and efficacy.

An outcome of burnout is the development of organizational cynicism. The development of organizational cynicism starts with a change, real or perceived, in the employee-employer relationship (1,4). Within the employer-employee relationship, a psychological contract is assumed and addresses both the employee's and employer's expectations (5). The presence of a psychological contract includes perceptions and beliefs that both the employer and an individual employee have agreed to provide a framework for the working relationship.

Our Study at the Center for Educational and Instructional Technology Research 

The perspectives of adjunct faculty may be skewed based on the uncertainties they experience (2,12). As faculty observe the actions and decisions of their university's leadership, a sense of perceived injustice may result and lead to the development of organizational cynicism (3). Adjunct faculty may be susceptible to cynicism and burnout, impacting facilitation practices and the student learning experience at private online universities (7). So, this non-experimental, quantitative correlational study examined the relationships between adjunct faculty burnout, organizational cynicism, and online facilitation performance at the University of Phoenix. At the university, practitioner faculty (adjunct faculty members) support the primary facilitation model. However, as practitioners, they are often employed in a ‘day job’ and have competing responsibilities not only in their practitioner role but also in their faculty role. Based on the commitments and obligations of practitioner faculty, burnout, and organizational cynicism may be significant concerns. Adjunct faculty must be engaged to ensure students' academic success and institutional effectiveness to build collegiality and meaningful connections (13).


A stratified sampling strategy was used to invite 800 adjunct online faculty. One hundred one responses were received (12.6%). The study found that the average burnout levels in the university are much lower than those of other postsecondary teachers  (10). No statistically significant correlation was found between burnout or cynicism and faculty performance, which was not surprising given the low levels of burnout reported. A statistically significant positive correlation existed between personal accomplishment, depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and cynicism; as feelings of personal accomplishment increase, depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and cynicism decrease. Indeed, the levels of personal accomplishment were high at the University of Phoenix, meaning the faculty overall felt successful and competent in their work (9). There was some variance in personal accomplishment (12%) depending on the college to which the faculty member belongs.


The programs, processes, and leadership strategies leveraged at the university result in exceptionally low burnout and cynicism but foster high personal accomplishment, meaning they are engaged overall (10). These results suggest that the university should continue to invest in these practices because burned-out faculty may negatively impact student learning outcomes and experiences (7). The university should also encourage Colleges to share their individualized faculty engagement practices cross-functionally to aim for a more consistent faculty experience across colleges. If these practices continue, most adjunct online faculty can expect to be satisfied and engaged at the university. Future research is recommended to understand what practices have led to such a favorable outcome. Given that many traditional universities are now embarking on online campuses, those administrators could find these practices enlightening. The research team plans to investigate these practices more in-depth in 2024, so stay tuned!

Research Team Members:  Rheanna Reed, DM, Jennifer Carriere, Ph.D., Laura Pipoly, Ed.D., Connie Houser, MSN, RNC, CNE, David Mailloux, MS


  1. Brandes, P., & Das, D. (2006). Locating behavioral cynicism at work: Construct issues and performance implications. In P. L. Perrewé & D. C. Ganster (Ed.), Employee Health, Coping and Methodologies: Research in Occupational Stress and Well-being, Volume 5. (p. 233-266). doi:10.1016/S1479-3555(05)05007-9
  2. Chun, K. K. (2014). Effects of organizational injustice on negative behaviors of employees: Focusing on the mediating effect of trust. Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing Administration, 20(1), 59-68. doi:10.11111/jkana.2014.20.1.59
  3. Crawshaw, J. R., Cropanzano, R., Bell, C. M., & Nadisic, T. (2013). Organizational justice: New insights from behavioral ethics. Human Relations, 66(7), 885-904. doi:10.1177/0018726713485609
  4. Dean, J. W., Brandes, P., & Dharwadkar, R. (1998). Organizational cynicism. The Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 341–352. ht
  5. Grama, B. G. (2015). The psychological contract. Management Intercultural, (33), 161-166. doi:  
  6. Hyatt, K. (2022). Stressors in higher education that lead to burnout and solutions to avoid it. Journal of Business & Educational Leadership, 12(1), 110–125. 
  7. Jackson, K. M., & Konczosné Szombathelyi, M. (2022). Student burnout in higher education: From lockdowns to classrooms. Education Sciences, 12(12), 842. 
  8. Mandernach, J., Register, L., & O'Donnell, C., (2015). Characteristics of adjunct faculty teaching online: Institutional implications. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 18(1), 1-10.  
  9. Maslach, C. (1976). Burned-out. Human Behavior, 9, 16-22
  10. Maslach, C., Jackson, S. E., & Leiter, M. P. (2013). Maslach burnout inventory: Manual and non-reproducible instrument and scoring guides. Mind Garden.  
  11. Mijakoski, D., Cheptea, D., Marca, S. C., Shoman, Y., Caglayan, C., Bugge, M. D., Gnesi, M., et al. (2022). Determinants of burnout among teachers: A systematic review of longitudinal studies. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(9), 5776.
  12. Parkes, D. (2015). Employees facing layoffs: Relationships between job security, employee morale, and organizational commitment (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (36455267) 
  13. Sabagh, Z., Hall, N. C., & Saroyan, A. (2018) Antecedents, correlates and consequences of faculty burnout, Educational Research, 60(2), 131-156, doi: 10.1080/00131881.2018.1461573
  14. United States Department of Education. (2013). Trends in faculty employment status, 1975-2011. National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS Fall Staff Survey.


Rheanna Reed, D.M


Dr. Reed earned her doctorate in Management and Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix. She has been an administrative staff member at the University of Phoenix since 2006 and a faculty member since 2015.

Dr. Reed specializes in organizational behavior, leadership, and management courses. She has been awarded the Phoenix 500 award for 2020, 2021, and 2022. She enjoys traveling the country with her husband and son and lives in Prescott, Arizona. 



Jennifer Carriere, Ph.D.


Dr. Carriere earned her Ph.D. in Industrial Organizational Psychology from the University of Phoenix. She has been an administrative staff member at the University of Phoenix since 2010 and a faculty member since 2020.

Dr. Carriere is interested in the research areas of psychological capital, resilience, and the application of the psychological contract to today’s organizations. She specializes in ACCESS courses and appreciates the opportunity to interact with new doctoral students. She lives in Phoenix, AZ with her two puppies.