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The Skills Agenda

Leading with care: emotional labour and academic leadership

Academic leaders conduct and oversee considerable emotional labour within Canada’s universities. Care ethics approaches can inform this work.


Universities have many formal academic leadership roles: president; provost; dean; executive director; vice/associate/assistant president/provost/dean; department/program/undergraduate/graduate chair … the list goes on. Beyond this, many people act as academic leaders through their roles in research projects, teaching initiatives and other endeavours.

While there are variations according to roles and responsibilities, academic leaders typically engage with emotional labour and care work in numerous ways: they oversee the work (including the emotional labour) of their faculty and staff teams and personally provide emotional labour in their work with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the broader communities that universities serve. Like all emotional labour, theirs is largely unrecognized.

This column is the last of a three-part series on academia and emotional labour, co-authored with Christie Schultz, who researches care and leadership in higher education and currently serves as dean of the centre for continuing education at the University of Regina. Our first column covered the emotional labour involved in academic work. Our second column presented skills of care that faculty can use in navigating emotional labour. In our final column, we examine how care ethics and skills of care can inform academic leadership.

We write this column having each served in formal academic leadership roles for many years. Loleen served as a department head from 2016-2020 and has held a decanal level role since 2020; she has also facilitated professional development workshops for department heads and chairs since 2019. Christie has served in formal leadership roles since 2009, including her current decanal role since 2020; her research has also explored the care ethics experiences of academic leaders. Based on our personal experiences, we believe academic leaders can strengthen their leadership by adopting a care ethics lens and care ethics practices.

What is a care-centred approach to academic leadership?

In the broadest sense, care-centred leadership focuses on relationality, interrelationships and reciprocity, while recognizing that people are at the core of our work — ahead of outputs, processes and results. In an academic context, this approach centres on the reality that universities result from the collective actions of many people working together, including students, faculty, staff and other academic leaders.

Leading in a care-centred way is complex. Embracing care ethics, as one way to, in Joan Tronto’s words, “maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible,” offers a path for academic leaders to think through their decisions. This can include, for example, decisions related to exceptions for students based on compassionate grounds, budget decisions, and hiring, tenure and promotion. Add to the mix issues of fairness, equity, replicabilityand sustainability — and the reality that academic leadership has frequent tensions connected to what can and can’t be fully transparent — and the complexity of care-centred leadership becomes apparent. Care-centred leadership does not have, as a goal, keeping everyone happy.

And yet, a care ethics lens gives us a way to ask: What might be different about academia, and the work of academic leadership, when academic leaders begin with care? How can care repair and transform higher education? And  how do we then navigate the emotional labour embedded within this approach?

How can academic leaders move forward with a care-centred approach?

If you are an academic leader who wishes to adopt a care-centred approach, we invite you to consider the following:

  1. Awareness and recognition are key. In our last column, and drawing from Leading with Feminist Care Ethics in Higher Education (available digitally through most university libraries), we highlighted key skills of care. First among these was “recognizing emotional labour as work.” To move forward with a care-centred approach, start by watching for the emotional labour you and your team members are doing. Observe patterns. Where do you experience the greatest demands for emotional labour and care work, and how does this affect your time and energy? Who on your team do you see shouldering greater demands for emotional labour, and how does this appear to affect their time and energy? As we wrote in our last column, “Simply recognizing the work of care as work — including emotional labour often embedded therein — is a skill.” Aim to develop this skill for yourself.
  1. Foster an environment that acknowledges and values emotional labour. Strive to make both the emotional labour of academic work and the differential effects of this on individuals’ workloads visible. Initiate discussions about the topic, and openly discuss how this work often falls on women, faculty from less represented groups and staff. Personally acknowledge individuals who are shouldering much of this work. Interrogate policies and practices that may unintentionally contribute to unrecognized and undervalued emotional labour. Role model work-life balance so that people working with you feel safe in prioritizing their work-life balance.
  1. Create space for emotional labour and care work. Emotional labour is part of academic work, so find ways to create time and space for it in your unit. The goal is not necessarily to care less or more, but to approach care work with intention and awareness of the work and skill involved.
  1. Stay connected with teaching. One tool to build care ethics in universities is to reconnect academic leadership with teaching. Getting into the classroom helps leaders build empathy for and connection to students, faculty and contract instructors. Ideally, the reverse is also true: through leaders’ classroom presence, students, faculty and contract instructors build empathy for and connection to senior leaders. Many academic leaders continue to hold teaching responsibilities, but as leadership responsibilities increase leaders often hold no formally assigned teaching responsibilities. This does not have to mean a full disconnection from the classroom; senior leaders can connect with teaching through guest lectures and classroom visits.
  1. Remember that people are at the centre of the work we do in academia. Everything we do is a result of people working individually and together. Bringing care into the conversation helps. A care-centred approach can transform how leaders work — and transform academia itself.

Continuing the Skills Agenda conversation

How does care show up in your work? Please let us know in the comments below. And for additional teaching, writing, and time management discussion, please check out Loleen’s Substack, Academia Made Easier.

We look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Christie Schultz is the dean of the centre for continuing education and an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Regina.
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