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