The working environment of university faculty changed rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty members were asked to switch from in-person instruction to teaching classes online in a very short period of time, as part of efforts to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic15. Against this backdrop, this study investigated the mental health of Japanese faculty members who taught classes online during the COVID-19 pandemic, to identify risk factors for poor mental health and prevent the development of mental illness in the future. Although other studies have examined the mental health of university students during the COVID-19 pandemic3,10,11,12, relatively few studies have focused on the mental health of faculty members in universities. Accordingly, our study contributes to the literature by providing new findings on the topic.
First, we investigated the actual condition of the faculty’s mental health before the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, it had been reported that faculty members in universities have poor mental health compared to members of other professions18. We used the WHO-5 to measure the mental health of faculty members and then calculated the proportion of faculty at risk of mental illness (total WHO-5 score < 13). The results revealed that 15.3% of faculty members had been at risk of developing a mental illness, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Another investigation of mental health among Japanese faculty reports that 10.2% of faculty members were at risk for mental illness prior to the pandemic33. Compared to this result, the at-risk group was larger in our sample. Lee et al.34 also used the WHO-5 to assess the mental health risks of various occupations. They reported that 13.2% of management/professionals were at risk of developing mental illnesses. In the context of their findings, the proportion of faculty members at the risk of developing a mental illness is comparatively high, thus demonstrating that the mental health of faculty members in universities is inherently worse than that of workers in the management/professional field. Lee et al.34 also reported that the proportion of office workers at the risk of mental illness was 12.9%. Thus, the proportion of faculty members at the risk of developing mental illness exceeded that of office workers. It is quantitatively evident that the mental health of faculty members in universities had been worse than that of workers in other occupations, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next, we focused on the WHO-5 scores of faculty members before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, which revealed that the mental health of faculty members worsened during the pandemic. The proportion at risk of mental illness was 15.3% before the COVID-19 pandemic, but nearly doubled to 33.5% during that period. We speculated that this large increase was due to lifestyle and work-related changes, including remote work, a lack of face-to-face communication, and the shift to online instruction in a very short period of time. In particular, the sudden transition to teaching classes online involved a very heavy workload, accompanied by unforeseen financial and time costs35.
In addition, we hypothesized that the dramatic decline observed in the mental health of many faculty members could be attributed to four risk factors: the number of classes taught online, the time needed to prepare for those classes, challenges related to the technology needed to conduct classes online, and the level of satisfaction with support services provided by the university. Our results suggest that two of these were significant risk factors for the poor mental health among faculty members. The first risk factor was related to technology. Faculty members who reported having difficulty using the required technology were more susceptible to poorer mental health. The second risk factor was the level of satisfaction with the university support services. Faculty members who reported higher levels of satisfaction with university support services maintained good mental health despite the unforeseen shift in the mode of instruction. When faculty members first began teaching their classes online, many of them were not familiar with the online conferencing software, lacked the required equipment (e.g., webcams, high-quality microphones), and received limited, if any, training on online content delivery36. Furthermore, the lack of relevant IT skills and experience made it difficult for these individuals to adapt to teaching classes online17. Faculty members who lacked IT skills had to redesign their courses and learn IT skills simultaneously. In this situation, it is speculated that faculty members who had difficulty in using IT felt a substantial burden and decline in their mental health.
In addition, the results revealed that the amount of satisfaction with university support services for online teaching was related to good mental health. To reduce difficulty in using IT, it is important to ensure that the working environment of the faculty satisfies the needs of the faculty who must use unfamiliar technology to teach classes online37. According to Wang and Li37, the needs of the faculty broadly refer to the support that universities must provide for faculty members to effectively use new technology (organizational level) and the technology that helps them meet the objectives of their job (technological level). It also involves assistance from their colleagues, which helps them effectively use technology at work (people level). The administrative support services for online teaching satisfied all the requirements listed above. For example, the university provided social support such as consultations with university IT staff, who explained how to use the software and equipment needed for online instruction, as well as technical support such as providing equipment and writing manuals for some software. Satisfaction with this comprehensive support provided by the university might have reduced the faculty members’ difficulty in using IT, and consequently, improved their mental health.
Our results also showed that both the number of classes taught online and class preparation time were weak predictors of mental health among faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic, as compared to challenges related to the technology needed to conduct classes online. This result suggests that the psychological burden of dealing with unfamiliar technology, rather than the workload resulting from online classes, including the long preparation time, had a substantially negative effect on the mental health of faculty members.
The workload for faculty members can be broadly divided into three categories: teaching, research, and service. Faculty members are required to strike an appropriate balance between the three. According to Zey-Ferrell and Baker38, faculty members recognize that teaching is the main component of their work. Their study investigated 503 faculty members, and found that although 92.1% had strong expectations from themselves about teaching, such ideal self-expectations were incongruent with what they actually did. Furthermore, there are a few serious stressors for faculty members, including heavy workloads and anxiety related to securing funding for their research, but the most serious was excessively high self-expectations39,40. Taking these findings into consideration, it is possible that during the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty members placed high expectations on themselves, aiming to provide high-quality lessons online and had to simultaneously deal with the unfamiliar technology needed to conduct classes online. Such circumstances can be reasonably expected to cause stress, which leads to poor mental health.
In Japan, some university classes were held in person after the lockdown was lifted. However, many courses continue to be conducted online. Some faculty members consider the shift to online teaching to be a positive challenge or at least useful for developing certain competencies17. A previous study also revealed that online classes can be useful, effective, and have a positive influence on student performance41. Furthermore, with online classes, faculty members and students do not need to spend time and money to commute, and there is less drain on university resources. This leads to benefits such as conserving the time and energy of the faculty and saving university resources42. Based on these findings, we assume that online classes will become a normal part of university education, and that faculty members will therefore continue to teach classes online to some extent. Accordingly, universities will need to provide both technical and social support to reduce faculty members’ difficulty in using IT and maintain their mental health.
We established the effect of teaching classes online during the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of faculty members in universities, but there were some limitations to our research, related to sampling and measurement. As sampling issue, we first acknowledge that the number of participants in our study was quite limited, and included only Japanese faculty members. The extent of the COVID-19 infection and government countermeasures differ across countries. In addition, the utilization of online services to deliver course instructions in the setting of higher education varied according to country, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, the results may not be generalizable to other countries. Furthermore, depending on the major (e.g., medical science and nursing science), some practical subjects may have been more difficult than others to adapt to online instruction. This study investigated a Japanese university specializing in social science; therefore, the results may not be generalizable to other institutions of higher education. Accordingly, we need to widen the scope of participants to include faculty members from various departments and institutions in more countries in future research. Finally, due to missing data, we could not investigate gender differences. The switch to online education and remote work may have affected women and men differently. For example, previous research suggests that during COVID-19, women carried a heavier load in the provision of childcare43. Therefore, future research should look deeper into gender differences in mental health among academic staff during the pandemic.
As for measurement issues, mental health before the pandemic was reported retrospectively, so memory biases could have affected participants’ evaluations, rendering them unreliable. Even so, retrospectively evaluated average well-being in our study was similar to that reported in previous studies employing the Japanese version of WHO-544, therefore retrospection might not have critically affected participants’ evaluations. In addition, because we measured difficulty in using IT devices and satisfaction with university support services with one item each, our results should be interpreted with caution. To provide a more detailed image of the problems causing poor mental health among faculty teaching online, validated scales measuring different aspects of university support (e.g. technical vs social support) and IT difficulty (e.g. lack of expertise in using IT vs stress produced by technical problems, etc.), alongside longitudinal assessments of well-being should be used in future research.
Our research focused on the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which most faculty members in universities were required to shift to teaching their classes online. Accordingly, these faculty members had to adapt their lessons for online instruction in a very short period of time. In fact, many faculty members were required to set up equipment and learn the necessary IT skills, and in many cases, redesign the content of their lessons in just a month. Accordingly, they might have felt overloaded. More than a year after the outbreak, the work of adapting lessons for online instruction is mostly complete, and thus, the burden on the faculty may be less severe in the future. This change might ultimately have a positive effect on the mental health of faculty members. Regardless, the results of this study demonstrate the need to continuously monitor the mental health of faculty members who must teach classes online in universities.
This study has focused on the mental health of university faculty, but our findings may possibly be applicable to other occupations as well. The COVID-19 pandemic has been found to cause psychological stress for people working in various occupations, with new work-styles such as telework and remote work being identified as the primary cause of such stress45. In addition, it has been shown that during the COVID-19 pandemic utilizing IT has become more important and the need to use IT has become more frequent in comparison to pre-pandemic times46. This situation of work-styles changing due to the pandemic and mental health worsening due to increased use of IT may be viewed as similar to the situation experienced by university faculty. Therefore, the findings of this study may possibly be applied to other occupations as well, in order to explain the cause of the deterioration of mental health from the perspective of degree of familiarity with IT use and satisfaction with company support, thus clarifying the kind of support that companies must offer to promote the continuation of telework.