Higher Ed Social Media Managers and Their Mental Health
Social media managers in higher ed are struggling with their mental health
Article written by Tony Dobies and Rickie Huffman
Research conducted by Donna Kasich, MBA
Nearly half of social media managers in higher education say they do not have adequate support and/or resources to ensure good mental health.
In fact, social media managers struggle with their mental health during an average
day and much more so in a crisis situation, according to a study by West Virginia
University. Using a 0-10 scale where 0 represents poor mental health and 10 represents excellent mental health, social media managers, on average, rate their mental health a 6.35 in a given day. The average decreases to 4.52 when dealing with a crisis.
Supervisors play a large role in the mental health of their social media managers.
More frequent check-ins from supervisors can be linked with better average
mental health. Supervisors who rarely or never check in, though, can cause
bouts of anxiety and worry for their social media managers.
Research shows that “teams of one,” which are in abundance in higher ed, are
more likely to struggle with mental health. Those who are more frequently affected
by negative comments (82%) are more likely to have mental health concerns.
And, when a social media manager is not included in a crisis communications
team (57%), it can do mental harm, as well.
And the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made life easier, either. 88% of respondents
say the pandemic has made their work much harder. A majority believe working
at home or away from others has been a challenge.
The Social Media Manager Community
Of the 240 people surveyed, 51% stated they are a “team of one.” 43% of respondents are teams of 2-4 and just 6% were on social media teams of 5 or more people. 67% indicated they have worked in social media for less than five years.
Their roles vary from social media listening/engagement, posting content and photo/video production. Some indicated that they have other roles that include managing websites, handling public relations, and planning and executing campus events. 96% of the responses suggested that their main task is social listening and engagement and posting content, followed by gathering and analyzing data (90%), developing goals and strategies for social media (90%), crisis communications (72%), social media advertising (62%) and photo and video (54%).
In addition, 79% of respondents indicated that their biggest struggle with their job was receiving incomplete or late information making their job much more difficult and strenuous. It’s not just the lack of information that causes social media managers’ stress, it’s also having to be “on” and working almost 24/7; 73% suggested that working so much was one of their biggest struggles. Other struggles include: lack of understanding from others about the role of social media (70%); lack of resources ( 56%); not receiving clear direction or guidance (49%); being underpaid for my role (48%); intercepting negative messages (44%); lack of buy-in from leadership (33%); disseminating info during/after an emergency (29%); monitoring, moderating and responding to comments (28%); lack of trust (25%); and other (9%).
Those who have been working in higher ed for more than five years reported a significant increase in struggles with a lack of understanding from others about the role of social media at their institution. Those who are between 1-4 years into their role at an institution show they have greater struggles with being underpaid and intercepting negative messages. Those who have worked less than one year in their role struggle more with the feeling that their supervisors and others lack trust in them and their skills.
There are some aspects of the job that social media managers find much more appealing,
though. Working in social media, you are given a lot of freedom to create innovative
content. Our survey results express that 74% of social media managers enjoy
creating content. 63% enjoy working with others, though, as noted earlier,
many are on “teams of one.” 45% say they enjoy engaging with comments and
mentions. This is important to note, because comments and mentions are generally
much more stressful to handle in a crisis situation. Other things that bring the most joy: ever-changing environment (41%), analytics and data (39%), new technology
(37%), fast-paced environment (26%), crisis communications (16%), and other
“On the days when we’ve made our biggest announcements … I’ve not been part of the message crafting but have been handed a finished product … only to have people freak out once it’s done that they don’t like the way it looks or have issues with certain wording,” said one respondent not part of a crisis communication team.
In times of crisis, a social media manager receiving information late or
no information at all prior to a public announcement is dangerous to an
institution’s brand. People are expecting your institution to have correct
and accurate messaging across all forms of communication and marketing.
How are Social Media Managers Feeling?
On an average day, social media managers consider their mental health at a 6.35 out of 10. During a crisis, their mental health dropped by nearly two points to 4.52 out of 10. During COVID-19, social media managers ranked their mental health at 4.63.
While a drop in mental health due to a crisis is to be expected amongst all social media managers in a crisis, data shows that those who are an active member on a crisis communications team are much more likely to have better mental health.
“Teams of one” are more likely to struggle with their mental health. Generally,
their supervisors check in less frequently, and these social media managers
feel more overwhelmed and overburdened than those who work with at least
one other social media manager on a daily basis.
In addition, 82% of respondents marked that they are at least occasionally affected by negative comments. 21% of those who responded said that they are frequently affected by negative comments. Furthermore, our data shows that the longer a social media manager is in their role, the more of an impact negative comments have on them. Data shows that social media managers who are frequently affected by negative comments have a nearly three-point drop in their mental health on a 10-point scale when compared to those who are never affected by negative comments. But, it is important to note that a key trait of social media managers should be an ability to empathize with its audiences as it engages with them.
Part of being a social media manager is reading the good, the bad and
the ugly. While the negative comments from various audience members on social
media isn’t being directed to the social media manager in many cases, they
are the person who has to read and react – or many times not interact and
react. That can really take a toll on someone’s mental health over
Supervisors' Effect on Social Media Managers’ Mental Health
Based on results from this study, creating a supportive and understanding environment can allow institutions to retain an expert, hardworking social media manager. Much of that depends on that social media manager’s direct supervisor, general leadership and the goals and strategies put in place. 34% said supervisors rarely or never check in on their mental health. A disappointing 39% of “teams of one” say their supervisor never or rarely checks in, as well.
47% indicated that their supervisor does not give support and/or resources
to ensure good mental health. While many respondents don’t feel their mental
health is taken into consideration, they do have suggestions on ways their
supervisor can improve. Those suggestions include:
- Providing more information and updates
- Developing more concise communications
- Creating clearer guidelines and expectations
- Giving more autonomy and trust
- Hiring more full-time assistance
- Learning the basics of social media strategy
- Giving breaks and time off
COVID-19’s Effects on Social Media Managers
For social media managers, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased their workload and made their lives a bit more difficult. When asked if the pandemic had made the job of social media management more or less difficult, 88% expressed COVID-19 has made the handling of social media more difficult. However, it’s not only the additional workload causing stress but working from home and being isolated; those aspects cause some people’s mental health to decrease, as 52% noted that they believe working in isolation has caused them more challenges.
Social media managers mentioned the following as reasons why they find it harder to work during the pandemic:
- More work
- Lack of work/life balance
- Leaders lack knowledge and understanding of social media
- Unable to provide answers to many questions
“The texts, calls, chat pings, and emails have doubled,” one respondent stated. “It’s a symphony of sounds if I don’t turn off the volume.”
57% of respondents said check-ins from supervisors have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic; 5% say that those check-ins have decreased.
During the early stages of the pandemic, social media managers were consumed with almost daily updates, changes, cancelations and more. In addition, these social media managers were seeing a significant increase in engagement - likely from negative comments.
As the world turned "virtual" and higher ed began to focus on the future, many of the events and experiences that would've been in-person had to be translated into a digital world. That has put continued pressure on social media managers, who have been working in a digital-only world forever.
While the pressures of the day-to-day social media grind like when the COVID-19 pandemic began are now largely behind us all, the stressors of social media management are still very much here.
It's important for social media managers and their supervisors to refrain from using the term "new normal" and accepting this as a norm. It will continue to add mental stress. We are still very much in a global pandemic, and we continue to go above and beyond what is expected in normal circumstances.
Thoughts from a Mental Health Expert
Higher ed should be concerned about the average mental health of social media managers, especially when it comes to crisis situations. The expertise of a social media manager and what they are expected to do in a crisis is so much newer when compared to more traditional methods of communications and marketing, and therefor these positions and teams may have fewer established support systems. Data shows that institutions with larger social media teams - and support systems of like-minded people - are more likely to have social media managers with better mental health.
Dr. Yaping Anderson, licensed psychologist at the West Virginia University Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services , said it is critical to provide social media managers an opportunity to “take out the trash.” "Trash," in this context, comes to all the stressors that may exist, whether that be negative comments, frustrations with co-workers, struggles on a project, etc. Anderson added that while a certain amount of stress is good to help someone stay motivated and energized, sometimes people let emotional baggage add up. It’s especially tough to “take out the trash” in crisis situations and for “teams of one” who may not have an outlet or a person to vent frustrations.
Furthermore, it’s fairly normal to experience negative mental health, but
it’s important to notice changes in your body and mind when you experience
too much stress. Changes include: fewer hours of sleep, increased irritability,
lack of productivity, headaches, stomach aches, etc.
To better assess your mental health, consider the following:
- Have compassion and empathy for yourself. Intentionally check in and ask, “How am I really doing?”
- Create a barrier between work and life to better balance yourself.
- When it comes to negative comments, there’s a lot to hold consciously and emotionally. It’s important that you validate your initial reaction, find a way to calm down and communicate with yourself not to take it personally.
- When we’re anxious, we think – a lot. It takes up so much space, so it’s important for us to externalize things so they’re more tangible and visible.
Final Thoughts – What Can We Do?
Mental health is not just a personal consideration. The mental health of higher ed social media managers is something for the community at-large to keep in mind.
Without a doubt, having to deal with crisis situations elevates stress levels
and mental stressors of all involved. Data from this survey shows how significant
of a toll it can take on the well-being of social media managers in these
There are personal strategies that can help improve mental health – like taking breaks, trying to better balance work and life, finding a routine, developing hobbies, exercising, and more. It should be stressed, though, that those struggling with their mental health should consider seeing a counselor. Supervisors and institutions should provide clear ways to support their social media managers in receiving this type of care. For those interested in learning more, visit https://www.mentalhealth.gov/ to find out general offerings to better mental health within the United States. We also encourage you to talk with your human resources liaisons to better understand what support may exist for employees at your institution.
Supervisors should consider how they can best support their social media managers. Data suggests learning more about the details of the social media manager role will help. Supervisors can attend one of the many higher ed social media conferences such as: CASE Social Media & Community, HighEdWeb, eduWeb, various Academic Impressions conferences, Higher Ed Experts, etc. Dr. Josie Ahlquist is an expert in higher ed digital leadership and has developed multiple opportunities to study and better understand social media strategy.
If you are a “team of one,” remember that you are not alone. There is an entire community of people in similar positions who are willing to engage with you. Check out #HESM, #CASESMC, the #HigherEdSocial Facebook group and the Higher Ed Comm and Social Media Slack channel to meet other social media managers. After all, we are social creatures at heart.
Finally, social media managers should be part of their institution’s crisis communications team for the sake of institutional productivity. They should never be an afterthought in the process.
Higher ed social media managers are resilient, but there is a limit to what any person can take. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the industry with examples of how higher ed can best support social media managers and assure their success – and ultimately the success of an institution’s brand.