Mental scars caused by on-campus teaching in pandemic may not heal


When academics were asked to teach in poorly ventilated seminar rooms last year as a pandemic raged, it didn’t just put their physical health at risk. It also jeopardised the mental well-being of staff – but not for the reason you might think.

While it is true that many lecturers were understandably anxious about returning to UK campuses as coronavirus infections soared, their return to the classroom represented a less well-known type of trauma, known as moral injury.

In psychology, moral injury is the guilt, shame and loss of self-worth felt by professionals who are asked to violate their ethical codes in their workplace, or are unable to do their job to their normal high standards owing to extraordinary circumstances. Usually, it occurs to those who have little choice in the matter: nurses who feel guilty that they couldn’t spend more time with a sick patient because of staff shortages, or soldiers left traumatised by actions taken under life-or-death situations. Even though individuals can point to the managerial or systemic failings behind the traumatic episode, feelings of failure and inadequacy are hard to shake.

Being asked to carry out tutorials and seminars mid-pandemic was likely to accelerate the pandemic, and therefore represented a breach of professional ethics for many academics and a betrayal by those in positions of authority. Lecturers will not forget this untenable situation that was proven so dangerous within a couple of weeks when campuses were closed in early January, alongside all in-person gatherings across the UK.

Last month’s survey on digital teaching by Times Higher Education highlighted many of the strains on staff well-being caused by the pandemic: more than half of the 520 respondents said online teaching had negatively affected their mental health and less than a fifth regarded a two-track physical and online teaching approach as sustainable.

But while burnout and fatigue are important areas to examine, the issue of moral injury and the erosion of trust in senior management will also be important factors in the coming years. Will the past semester fundamentally change how scholars view their workplaces and leaders? It’s unclear, which is why we are inviting UK higher education staff to have their say on this issue as part of our research. Our investigation of moral injury and higher education staff has already struck a chord with a number of academics who have been in touch and has received more than 600 responses in one month.

This concept is now being explored in relation to health services, and is already well understood in relation to the military, but we believe that it also has relevance for higher education given how staff were pushed into unacceptably risky teaching situations. Furthermore, those lecturers asked to flip their learning online with little to no support or training in addition to all their other duties – or asked to facilitate time-consuming hybrid online-offline learning approaches – may also feel that they are unable to fulfil their duties as they would wish.

This loss of self-esteem may be compounded by the relentless negativity directed at universities in recent months. Far from celebrating the extraordinary hard work of academics, the media has framed universities – and, by extension, their workforce – as the bad guys, short-changing students when it comes to teaching.

Many university staff may not mind being belittled by media and have adapted to the pressures of online teaching, but the issue of moral injury may not be easily dismissed. From a mental health perspective, the implications of asking scholars to teach on during the pandemic is an issue of morality that must be addressed as much as the stress and burnout faced in times. If academics are experiencing moral injury in feelings of anger and betrayal, a good start would be to ensure the exhausting and unsustainable hybrid teaching seen last semester does not return.

Even if the government gives the green light for a return to campuses in March, universities should resist any rapid reopenings given the clear risks of spreading Covid when most staff and probably the vast majority of students remain unvaccinated. It may be too late to repair much of the damage done, but staff will not forget those employers who take a stand on behalf of their health and safety.

Author Bios: Paul Hanna is Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Surrey, Carl Walker is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Brighton, where Mark Erickson is also Reader in Sociology.