Why Are We Not Talking About Wellness?

Our field is in trouble.

In order for our field to continue to recruit and retain the healthiest, happiest, best role models for our students and staff we must make wellness a top priority.

Student Affairs reflects the same struggles with obesity, stress and illness that is a problem across America.

It’s not about being a triathlete or a size 2; it’s about a commitment to eating right, working out, getting enough sleep, creating and maintaining important relationships that sustain you, finding a spiritual center (however you define that), and approaching each day with passion and energy that naturally occurs when your mind, body and spirit are nurtured.

There are a lot of reasons why we don’t talk about personal wellness. We don’t want to hurt peoples’ feelings. We don’t want to make assumptions about their medical conditions, physical limitations or personal struggles. I empathize with those concerns. Life can be hard and we must be kind to each other.

However, our field promotes a culture of gluttony, glorification of busyness, sleep deprivation and martyrdom. We are not brain surgeons, folks. We work in higher education. There has to be a way to get the work done in a reasonable number of hours AND make your own wellness a top priority.

Our field is in trouble.

In the wake of recent articles about the mental health of higher education professionals I’m on a mission to talk about this more openly. I’m keenly aware that I am opening myself up to intense critique. Minus my high school years, I have always been at a healthy weight, I don’t have obesity in my family and I am able-bodied. As a single woman, I do not have the time constraints of a family and I am in a senior-level role that allows me a certain level of flexibility. This affords me a level of privilege in this discussion, but I don’t believe it prevents me starting the dialogue and encouraging others to consider how we can motivate our field about how our personal decisions around wellness affect our professional life.

I aspire to hire healthy people. I want to know how you manage your overall wellness. How do you navigate those days where there are about a million competing priorities and student issues draining your time and energy? It’s about your ability to make wellness a priority, maintain a positive attitude, and have enough energy to sustain you each day. We should be asking those kinds of questions in on-campus interviews. It isn’t a question of “can they do the work?” It’s “do their daily decisions allow them to sustain the same level of energy, passion and follow-through to KEEP doing the work, even on the tough days?”

Our field is in trouble…so let’s take steps to improve!

What can we do?
1) Be a little intrusive: Why aren’t we talking about wellness in our 1-1’s with staff? Because it feels too personal? Personal decisions around wellness can impact work performance so why don’t we talk about these things in a proactive way? If we care about our staff holistically this is one component of that type of care. Let’s openly share recommendations and suggestions for doctors, dentists, therapists, etc. If we work in communities that care about the wellbeing of all people these kinds of conversations support the employee as a whole person.

2) Be keenly aware of your coping mechanisms and employ them as necessary: We all know the things that make us feel better. A ten minute phone call with a friend, a quick walk to clear our head, practicing meditation or having a moment of prayer can do wonders for our spirits in a very short amount of time. Listen to your body and mind and make the time to employ those strategies when appropriate.

3) Create healthy options and/or eliminate desserts at banquets and conferences: Not only would this save on overall food costs/registration expenses, but it sends a clear message that wellness is a priority and we will lead by example by making catering decisions that support this value. When making decisions at mealtimes we should be asking ourselves “Is this helping or hurting my body?” Is this something that will help me to be mentally alert, physically strong and contribute to expanding my capacity to be my best self today?

4) Provide opportunities for staff members to be physically active: Whether your office creates a standing appointment to walk at lunch, provides free pedometers to track activity or creates an incentive to join a campus or community fitness center, the opportunities to build community and/or receive an incentive for making healthy decisions can be powerful motivating forces for people to make time in their day for physical activity.

5) Kick people out of their offices: I’m only half-joking. Pay attention to how much your staff are working and if people seem to be overly stressed/not functioning well tell them to take some time off. No email, no calls, just time away. Especially in entry-level positions, our new practitioners may not always be able to self-regulate their workload and can really benefit from mandated leave, even if it is just for a few hours.

Wellness contributes positively to retention, satisfaction and overall happiness (Cotner-Klinger, A., 2012, Rath & Harter 2010) and as leaders in the field that must be a call to action. We have a responsibility to recruit and hire the very best people to work with our students. In the wake of hearing more and more about mental health struggles, self-harm and depression in our field, this issue continues to not only be one that we could talk about with employees, it becomes one that we absolutely should be talking about.

I am committed to talking about this and continuing to create strategies to help our students and staff feel good, healthy and happy at work. I’m in. Are you??

Follow me on Twitter: @annmarieklotz

About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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52 Responses to Why Are We Not Talking About Wellness?

  1. annerstark says:

    Love, love, love this! Wellness, through the language of Thrive, is a constant topic within my area of responsibility and with my staff! It;s tough to break through some of the bad habits that come with years of work in unhealthy environments. It’s work worth doing, though, and I refuse to give up!

    • Thanks Anne! You are right, it’s a total lifestyle change and one that requires daily commitment but the payoffs are too great to not take part! 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting!!

  2. I think #3 is really important. Why do we get served anywhere from 2-4 desserts a day at conferences? Why is it sometimes hard to fill my plate with protein, fruit/veg, and a whole grain (except for yogurt, I’ve given up on low-fat dairy at conferences).

    I attended a conference outside of higher ed recently, and my options were snack-size granola bars, yogurt, fruit, and lots of tea. I wish I could see that more often. Lunch included salad and pizza that wasn’t covered in cheese. Breakfast wasn’t focused on bacon or pancakes. It was very refreshing.

    • I totally agree Liz! The only time I have seen organizations do this well (i.e. have plenty of healthy options) are at all-women’s institutes but even then there are still a TON of desserts at every single meal. As we serve on planning committees for our organizations let’s use our voice to advocate for healthy options–like the beautiful things you create in your own garden! Thanks for reading. 🙂

  3. I totally agree with this. My challenge has been getting leadership at some institutions I’ve been to take a step back after implementing change and look at the big picture and evaluate priorities. We function in a add-on world, but rarely take the initiative and employ the assessment results we collect to take responsibilities off people’s plates.

    And those of us who are mid- and upper-level professionals sometimes neglect to recognize that entry level professionals have a VERY different experience than we did. As an entry level residence director–more than a dozen years ago–I didn’t have to develop or implement learning outcomes for my practice or programming, there was much less assessment, crisis response was significantly easier, I didn’t have to upload case notes and generate my own conduct letters (I just filled in a form and sent it to the secretary to prepare), students rarely emailed me and parents rarely called, involuntary withdrawal processes didn’t exist, students with mental health issues were outliers in our practice, not the norm. But those of us sitting around the table making decisions about new initiatives that (in most cases) our entry level staff will be responsible for implementing forget that.

    I want to change that culture and create a climate where we have the same compassion for our staff that we expect our staff have with our students. Now… where to start…

    • Great points here Tina. The entry-level job has changed since many of us were in that role. I think it will prepare them for the growing complexity that awaits them at future levels but still it needs to be named. It starts with you…and me! Thanks for reading…

    • Cindy Kane says:

      I really love this comment for the focus on understand the entry-level experience of today. We have to figure out how to lead some dialogue about that and find ways for our senior leaders on campuses to listen to their stories without a lens of judgement or comparison to what things used to be like. Not sure how we can do it, but we need to!

      • Thanks, Cindy!

        From my experience, I think senior leaders realize the job is different, but haven’t fully conceptualized what that means in terms of what one’s schedule looks like or how someone feels at the end of the day. And that’s the tricky part. I’d love to see a senior administrator swap jobs with an entry level professional for a day, though. That could be fun and enlightening!

  4. Laryssa says:

    Thanks for starting this conversation! Recently, I have had this conversation many times with other staff members and students. I think it’s a good thing for students to see me out running or more relaxed with my hair up in a ponytail on the weekends. Showing students and staff we are humans too is important! We don’t live and sleep in our offices! I have always had role modeling on the forefront, holding myself accountable to role modeling and my staff. We need to display the behaviors we want emulated for our own health and for those we serve.

  5. This is a great conversation and one that needs to continue. I think all your points are spot on, but I would add another one. Focus and make a stop doing list.

    As a professional, ask yourself, “What makes the biggest impact and has the outcomes I desire?” If the answer is yes, then great. But if the answer is because I think it is what I am suppose to do/tradition/what has always been done, then it might be time to stop doing it.

    My assessment hat comes on and there are probably things that each of us does in the day that could be eliminated because it doesn’t help us reach the goals or outcomes of our programs/services. Examine your work habits. Maybe the program that takes up so much time doesn’t actually do anything to help students reach the outcomes. Eliminate it. Or, maybe students can learn without your direct presence at their 10pm meeting.

    Be clear about your goals and outcomes, then focus with laser precision on how to meet them. If what you are doing to meet those goals is it’s ineffective, stop doing it. Stop the glorification of busy and busy work and hone in on the things that do work.

    • Ah- second paragraph is a mess…should be:
      As a professional, ask yourself, “Does this make the biggest impact and have the outcomes I desire?” If the answer is yes, then great. But if you are doing something just because it is what you think you are suppose to do/is tradition/what has always been done, then it might be time to stop doing it.

    • Amber–such great advice here! I love the “stop doing” list. too often things/programs/resources continue long past their prime and usefulness. PD’s and key activities should be reviewed each year to determine if there is still program alignment and support for continuity. Great thoughts!!! Thanks!

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  7. Kevin says:

    I think this sums it up: “However, our field promotes a culture of gluttony, glorification of busyness, sleep deprivation and martyrdom. We are not brain surgeons, folks. We work in higher education. There has to be a way to get the work done in a reasonable number of hours AND make your own wellness a top priority.”

    Until our field as a whole realizes this, we will have an incredibly long way to go. We have great professionals leaving the field because of what we promote as the culture. I used to sit in meetings where I was the only one who didn’t spend all weekend working in my apartment or office. We look down on others as “not holding up their weight” if they don’t work 80 hours/week. We are made to feel guilty for getting away for a weekend, or shutting off a phone for a night. Technology has actually made this culture even worse. We are now connected more than ever to our jobs and our students. In a world of unlimited cell phone minutes and text messages, we make ourselves even more available. I even struggle with talking up our profession to students who are considering it as a career. Part of the conversation needs to be about the realities of what a career in student affairs looks like. It’s not all free housing and fun, late-night dance parties. We need to be honest not only with ourselves and our employees/supervisors, but also with the future of this field.

    Our field needs more people like you, Ann Marie. I think this is a culture change that starts with our leaders modeling and being open about what healthy balance looks like. Until we have more leaders, like yourself, signing on to that philosophy and realizing that there HAS to be a different way to go about our work where we are not creating burned out and resentful employees, this cycle of unhealthiness will continue.

    • Kevin, thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. While I am taking some heat for being pretty honest about my thoughts on this topic I think it is absolutely necessary. At a time where SA is having to prove its relevance and credibility within the institution it becomes even more necessary to employ people who are committed to their own wellness in order to manage the complexity of duties. It also requires leaders to take inventory of what we are asking of our people and make modifications as necessary.

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  9. “I aspire to hire healthy people. I want to know how you manage your overall wellness. How do you navigate those days where there are about a million competing priorities and student issues draining your time and energy?”

    There is a lot to like here AMK and certainly smart of you to recognize your privilege. “Is wellness the responsibility of the profession?” Certainly, we should promote it with colleagues and encourage it with those that we supervise. But, ultimately, I’m not tucking people into bed at night or asking others to keep a food journal. I absolutely get where Liz is coming from. Why we get 3 desserts a day at a conference is highly questionable, but so is making the choice to consume 3 desserts a day at a conference. Should we offer that many? Of course not. Should we offer more healthy alternatives? Absolutely. But is it the responsibility of the profession to ensure we aren’t having that many? I don’t know. It’s an interesting question and I tend to side on the belief that one must take responsibility for their wellness, but agree that it’s a necessary discussion to be had.

    The five suggestions you outline are excellent suggestions – I dare say even priority worthy. But, I think there is a lot of ownership necessary in terms of wellness.

    • Good point Matt–if we (for example) remove all desserts from these events what are we teaching folks about how to make their own healthy decisions? Personal ownership is absolutely the key. Thanks for reading 🙂

  10. Jeff Parker says:

    Great post. I was treated negatively at my last job because I wasn’t willing to dedicate my entire life to it. I was focused on developing a few things holistically- most notably fitness/health & spirituality. Work was only a part of that, but it wasn’t all of it. What happened? Admin saw me as less of a worker and pretty much ran me out of a job. Yet students named me staff member of the year at that institution with so many saying I inspire them. It’s interesting to see how different people see you and how you affect those around you when you focus on your WHOLE wellness, and the messages that are sent as a result…

  11. Laura Lambeth says:

    This is excellent and SO on point, AMK. When I first started a professional position I was so ignorant about wellness practices for work/life balance! Our field is in trouble if overall norms continue around work habits and values about how much time and energy is put in at the office (or on campus). The great news is that there are many administrators, professionals, and students who are talking about wellness and incorporating it in their work places.

    You have a fantastic suggestion about being a little intrusive to talk about wellness. In my opinion, one element that is overlooked by many is having a good home environment. Are we asking our staff (especially those living in) if they are comfortable, able to get rest, and recharge? So many of us work with great facilities teams that oversee student and professional rooms and apartments, so enhancing communication by checking in about any issues can be helpful. In my years in live-on positions, I’ve learned that each supervisor and institution has values and expectations around how employees (from students to professionals) use their room or apartment space. Knowing your own preferences about how you use and live in your space needs to align with your institutions’, at least in part, for you to sustain your energy and work. Employees who live in should be a little intrusive to ask about the expectations that surround home spaces.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts around wellness!

  12. Thank you, Ann Marie! This is a great topic, and not talked about nearly enough. I really appreciate your willingness to bring this into light. After hearing about something similar in staff training, a colleague and I are conducting a study and assessment on “compassion fatigue,” which is a counseling term for this issue that seems to plague many of us. We’re going to study our coworkers in housing as well as other student affairs professionals across the division at our institution. I’m interested to see the results, though I’m reluctant to believe that I’ll be surprised by them. I can keep you posted on our findings if you’re interested.

  13. Maeghan says:

    Ann Marie, I love this post. I recently left a residence life position at a large public institution and now work in community standards at a small private institution. While interviewing, I placed a strong emphasis on balance and personal wellness as priorities for me. From day one, my new supervisor was supportive in that effort. When she sent me the agenda for my first two weeks at work, she included lunchtime Zumba and yoga classes on the schedule. I am constantly “kicked out” of my office (“Are you going to Zumba at lunch today? You should go…!”) and my supervisor is a champion for a healthy lifestyle. She supports our HR’s wellness initiatives, and we recently signed up for the institution’s “Fall into Wellness” campaign where we received free FitBits! Now, we are tracking the steps we walk and we are even taking breaks throughout the day to walk around campus and get more steps. We’re a little competitive… 🙂

    Bottom line? I am happier, healthier, and more productive at work. I love my office, my institution, and my job. I put out more effort because I simply feel better overall. It’s a wonderful thing what support and encouragement can do…and sticking to your principles! I’m so lucky and blessed to have found a workplace that actually cares about me. It’s why I got into student affairs in the first place!

  14. Thank you, Ann Marie! This has been a topic of a few conversations that I have had with people. You are correct in moving past a size or fitness junky personality but towards a healthy lifestyle. Even as a young professional with health and wellness as a high importance to me, sometimes it is hard to convince others that this a way of finding my balance in the craziness of our profession.

    How can we continue to push this topic with individuals who may not be supportive of how we choose to integrate health and wellness?

    • Thanks Michelle! We can and should push this topic even though we know it may be met with resistance. Our students, staff and their overall health depend on it. As part of a campus community we should be committed to caring for the whole person. Thanks again for reading!

  15. What a great post! Thanks for rewarding me for having sashimi and green tea for lunch; one of the other conference attendees looked at my meal and said, “oh, look at you being so good! I’m gonna’ have a cheeseburger!” 🙂

  16. Sasha M says:

    I already shared this on facebook, but realized that only reached a smaller audience verses those that read your blog. This is a great topic, and I really appreciate your willingness to bring this into light. I think the short answer to this questions is, we are not talking about wellness because we are afraid to look weak or be vulnerable with one another. In such a helping field we expect ourselves to be super people, and push that expectation on others. We are supposed to be “together” as professionals. We pretend that means we are immune to “it” (balance, stress, depression, weaknesses…ect) , or somehow above the need for wellness as we define it for our students. I personal do not think this is a product of my job responsibilities/department/supervisor nor does the responsibly lie with them to monitor my well-being. I can’t even count how many times a supervisor has advised me to take a day off, inquired about my personal life outside residence life, or suggested leaving town for a weekend. I think along the way I trained myself to think those were a test of sorts for me to prove that I was “tougher” or the exception to this work-life balance concept I heard others talking about. That I was not a “good professional” unless I collapse from exhaustion at the end of the day, and work through the flu/headache/sleepless nights of a conference…ect. As I have progressed in my career, do feel more comfortable putting my needs first, but I think that only came when I was the supervisor hearing my own voice telling my grads/professional staff that they needed to feel OK admitting when they were burned out or stressed. I am also thankful for a colleague who invited me to work on some research around stigma reducing a few years back. I started to see how I needed to practice what I preach just a little more. Reducing stigma around mental health (including preexisting conditions not directly related to our work), Compassion Fatigue, and Secondary Traumatic Stress within the “helper groups” (RAs, Prostaff, faculty) is vital to our field. Student affairs professionals, experience work that is stressful, time-consuming, and draining. And yet, we sometime scoff at the idea that we need to actually do as we say when we advise our students to “put themselves first” or examine the wellness wheel. Student Affairs (and the world) has come a long way to make the students we work with feel like we are a safe place to come when they are struggling. More can be done to say the same for staff feeling safe talking to other staff, or even admitting to themselves when they are.

  17. RC says:

    I can’t love this more. As someone who has recently lost 90lbs and has started teaching spin on campus I can tell you how many students now come to me about wellness. I have met students I never would have interacted with and have become a support system for students who are fit and for those struggling to get healthy. This has also helped me to become involved in the conversation on campus dining and to form a work out group for upwards of 20 student affairs professionals. This year in RA training we built in morning work outs and a 5k at the end. We must stop making excuses and make the time for wellness for our students and ourselves. #preach

  18. Laura says:

    This is a great post. I’m in a new position as a director, and I have tried to make it clear both through words and actions that it’s super important that our whole office take the time during the day to do whatever it is to refresh and renew their energy. People in my office go to yoga together, swim laps, go to spin class and sometimes just take a walk to get fresh air, even on the days when we’re really swamped and I think it’s good for people not only individually, but for the whole team.

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  21. danmcds says:

    Reblogged this on My Life in Student Affairs and commented:
    I was going to share my thoughts on this topic, but this put it much better than I ever could have.

  22. Reblogged this on AmyLJorgensen and commented:
    This is an excellent post by an amazing woman! Take care of yourself!

  23. bbarile says:

    Reblogged this on Brandon Barile and commented:
    An excellent article–we sit at our desk a majority of the day. We talk about work-life balance, but not necessarily about living a wellness-infused life!

  24. Sarah Smith says:

    Hmmm…I keep thinking about this post and have to say that I have some push back. I agree that this conversation is really important. However, I just want to reiterate that it is crucial that individuals are able to define what healthy looks like for themselves. After all, like many things, health is a social construct many times that may be defined in a variety of ways by different individuals (for example, body mass index is very limited in how it actually predicts health). When you say that you “strive to hire healthy individuals,” I agree AND I also believe that it is crucial that no one measures others to one’s own benchmark of health. It makes me really uncomfortable to think that anyone might project their definitions of health onto other people, especially when it might contribute to that shaming that keeps these issues that in the dark. For you maybe it’s theater, for me maybe it’s traveling. The important part is that we can articulate for ourselves what health is, and to find support in work environments to pursue that health. Let’s encourage open dialogue and the true ability for individuals to determine their own path in balance and health.

    • Hi Sarah–thanks for reading. I agree–there is no one set point/rules for what healthy looks like. I support people creating their own goals/benchmarks for health and as a supervisor I want to be supportive of those. Great points here-I truly appreciate the comment. 🙂

  25. vmroman18 says:

    Thank you for sharing!! I’ve had this article (and many related articles) on my mind, recently. I am a graduate student at the University of Georgia and the recent buzz about SA professionals & wellness has inspired me to start blogging (www.milagrosmoments.com) about my journey to wellness so that I can keep myself accountable and serve as a role model for my students. I whole-heartedly agree that it is important for us to practice what we preach and to support each other as we take the steps necessary to improve our field!

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