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2021 Higher Ed Social Media Managers and Their Mental Health

Higher Ed Social Media Managers Continue to Struggle with Mental Health, 2021 survey data from WVU shows

Article written by Tony Dobies and Rickie Huffman
Research conducted by Donna Kasich, MBA

Two months into the pandemic, we surveyed higher ed social media managers. We noticed that our team at West Virginia University was feeling the pressures of managing daily crisis communications. In turn, our mental health started to decline. Knowing our team was feeling like this way, we sought out to find if this was an industry trend.

Sadly, it was.

In 2020, we received survey results from more than 260 social media managers. The results were bleak. Nearly half told us they did not have the tools from their employers to ensure good mental health and that their 24/7 role and never-ending negative comments were causing them harm. We compiled our results and gave feedback on how institutions and supervisors can do better when it comes to helping their social media managers during this tough time. You can find the results here.

Thanks to available COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., the pandemic seems to be winding down, and with normalcy on the horizon, we sought a follow-up to the survey and received more than 200 responses.

The result? The mental health of social media managers has declined even more after 15 months of pandemic life.

Between being in constant panic mode, lack of time off, and the pressure to stay within COVID-19 social media guidelines (e.g. photos of people in masks, event cancellations, CDC updates, etc.), social media managers are burnt out, exhausted, and report that they receive less support than during pre-pandemic times.

As an industry that prides itself on learning and growing, higher ed must be better. Based on this survey data, if we don’t, there will be a significant transition of talent from this industry into others – one that would make institutions around the country struggle to best recruit students and employees, engage alumni and parents, and raise money … which, by the way, is all in a day’s work for a social media manager.

45% of social media managers say their institution/supervisor does not provide them support and/or resources to ensure good mental health (2% decrease)

The results

Again this year, nearly half (45%) of social media managers say their institution or supervisor does not provide them with support and resources to ensure good mental health. This is slightly better than 2020 (2% change).

The struggles social media managers faced 16 months ago are still the same struggles they continue with:

According to social media managers, the worst part isn’t constantly having to monitor accounts and conduct social listening, it’s the negativity they face online. The virtual smack in the face on a daily basis from strangers became overwhelming. Many keyboard warriors showed little empathy and didn’t seem to care that a human was behind the very account they were spewing hatred at during the pandemic.   

[It has been] constant negativity from every single thing we communicate, post, and put out there. I know you can't make everyone happy, but it just seems like no matter what we try or do, it's not enough.

Because of the constant monitoring and listening, many social media managers blurred the lines between work and home life. This could be a result of working from home, the constant pressure of having to respond, or having to send out communications during off hours that came from leadership.

The data we hoped would change for the better in 2021 either stayed the same or got worse.

For example, social media managers are still not receiving information on time. In fact, there was a 1% decrease from 2020 to 2021 when asked if they struggled with receiving incomplete information and/or information too late. We know that social media is a crucial part of the news diet and that it has played an increasingly important role during the pandemic in how people receive and digest their news. 

Social media managers struggle when not on a crisis communications team. 33% are members of their institutions crisis comms team. 48% receive info from someone on a crisis comms team. 13% find out about info when it's announced.

Another point of concern is managing crisis communications. In last year’s report, we talked heavily about the importance of having a social media manager on the crisis communications team. Unfortunately, we saw a 10% decrease in social media managers being part of the crisis communications team at their institution (2020: 43%; 2021: 33%). Instead, they reported to receiving their information from a source who sits on a crisis team. What remains startling is that 13% of the respondents are still learning about a crisis the day it is announced.

I would be the last to know about COVID-19-related materials going out. Many of times the president would send an email out, and that's how I found out about information.

Moving on to mental health, the results remained poor. On a scale from 1-10, we asked respondents to rate their overall mental health on a typical day. Compared to 6.35 in 2020, there was a decline to 5.83 in 2021. Data shows that there was a continued decrease in mental health from 2020 to 2021 in crisis situations, as well (4.51 in 2020; 4.15 in 2021). During COVID-19, there was a .02 drop, as well, in mental health (4.6 in 2020 to 4.58 in 2021).  

Mental health has gotten worse. In 2021: Normal mental health was 5.83; mental health in a crisis was 4.15; mental health during COVID-19 was 4.58. In 2020, normal mental health was 6.35; in a crisis it was 4.52; during COVID-19, it was 4.60.

Paired with how their anxiety levels were when reacting to negative comments on a daily basis, data shows a 5% increase in those who frequently are negatively affected by comments online. Again this year, data shows that the longer a social media manager is in their role, the harder it is to manage negativity.

Some of the negative comments and messages really got to me early on in the pandemic. Now I'm completely numb to all of it, which I also hate.

Looking holistically at social media managers’ mental health, it was crucial to identify if working from home was a benefit or a hindrance. We found that compared to 2020, social media managers found working from home to be beneficial for their mental health. 

During the pandemic, especially in peak times, we all saw our fair share of negative comments and reactions. Pair this with having to communicate on racial and social injustices, the presidential elections, and other world issues, the negative comments continued to roll in. All of this contributed to social media managers' feelings of anxiety.

The increased reliance on social media for feedback from students has been particularly challenging, because we've set them up to scream at us. Eventually if someone tells you "you suck" enough it becomes nearly impossible to recognize that the "you" they're referring to is the university, not you personally.

Supervisors

When looking at supervisors and their role in providing help and support to their social media managers, some were feeling the love, while others weren’t.

22% of those surveyed stated they were receiving frequent check-ins from their supervisors. In 2020, 28% were receiving frequent check-ins. While we saw a decrease in frequent check-ins, we did see an increase in check-ins on occasional (22% in 2020; 26% in 2021) and sometimes (17% in 2020; 18% in 2021) bases. Some noted this could be because their supervisor was also taking on more responsibility and overwhelmed themselves.

When asked how supervisors could best support social media managers, those surveyed most commonly said:

This year’s data shows the potential for a mass exodus of social media managers in higher ed who do not feel cared for and valued. In fact, 50% of those who responded feel they are not well compensated for their work, a sharp increase from a year ago. When asked how to successfully manage mental health, there was a significant increase in answers such as “Find a new job,” and “Leave. The stress isn’t worth it.”

Understand that sometimes I just need to sign off for a few hours and not be bothered. We aren't trying to cure cancer or land on the moon, and if a tweet is an hour later than an email, it's OK.

Self-Care

How do these results translate into self-care? There are a variety of ways to ensure you’re taking care of you.

When asked what methods they use to stay well, social media managers responded most commonly with:

Protect your mental health first and foremost. Have conversations … to let them know when you might need to take a step back from monitoring for a bit in order to guard your mind. And remember that it's OK to do that. If your colleagues aren't supportive of that, I'd reconsider your employment there.

New Data: Institution Size, Team Size and Budget

This year, we asked those completing the survey to tell us their size of institution and overall social media budget to provide additional demographical data on the industry.

Out of the 200-plus responses, 33% are from institutions with 25,000 enrollment or more; 35% are from institutions with enrollment between 5,000-24,999; 32% are from institutions with an enrollment under 5,000.

At institutions with enrollment greater than 25,000, 88% have a social media budget of less than $10,000. Only 5% have a budget of greater than $30,000. 56% percent of those surveyed say their institution has more than one social media manager, while many are still on their own.

At institutions with a student enrollment larger than 5,000 but smaller than 25,000, 57% are teams of 1. 69% have a budget of less than $10,000, while 13% have a budget greater than $30,000.

At institutions that have an enrollment of 5,000 or less, 70% are teams of 1, 82% have a budget of less than $10,000 and no one responded to say their budget was higher than $30,000.

Recommendations

The role of a social media manager in higher ed has changed significantly not just over the last 16 months but over the last decade, as social media has evolved. Despite this shift in the role, this data shows there is a significant lack of change from higher ed institutions to adequately support their social media managers. These are recommendations after analyzing the 2021 survey:

Hire an adequate staff of social media managers

Institutions across the board, but especially those with more than 5,000 students, should have at least two full-time social media managers. Institutions with enrollment greater than 25,000 should have three or more full-time social media managers. Hiring adequate staff will alleviate a lot of the concerns social media managers have with burnout and a 24/7 role. Social media managers are not one-in-the-same. The job isn’t either. Hire those who are content creators, strategists, community builders, etc., and allow them to do what they are best at. 

Provide your social media manager with a competitive wage

Your social media managers should make a yearly wage that shows their value to the institution. Campus Sonar, through its research, suggests an average salary for a social media manager should be around $60,000. This job is 24/7, especially in a crisis, and has played a crucial role during the pandemic. Because of this, there is a likelihood that the role of your campus social media manager has changed in the last 16 months. Consider evaluating their job description. 

Provide your social media managers adequate support in times of crisis

Provide opportunities for group -and/or- one-on-one counseling following crisis events to your social media managers. If your institution has a staff assistance program, make it clear how to access it in critical moments. Speak openly about struggles and recommend seeking therapy in tough times. Share the burden of negativity that exists in negative comments. 

Develop a shared responsibility over negative comments on social media

According to data from Campus Sonar, large schools may see more than 750 messages per day that need to be considered. Many of those, especially over the last six months, have been negative in sentiment. Develop an online submission form or email account to remove some of the burden of endless negative comments on social media. Develop social listening rotations amongst a group of people, especially during a long-term crisis. 

Make sure there’s an adequate budget

Outside of salary, a social media manager or social media team should have a budget that allows for props, professional development, equipment (cameras, computer), and the ability to adapt to trends set by social media platforms. This will likely cost more than $30,000 per year for a multi-person staff.

Do not wait for the next crisis or pandemic to change based on what the last 16 months has taught us all.

Our data shows the significance of a social media manager has grown across campuses during the pandemic, but areas like compensation and resources have not. It’s crucial for the stability of the social media manager that these changes are considered.