Yesterday, I shared a post in reaction to Ken Schneck’s article in the Huffington Post regarding wellness and mental well-being in the student affairs profession. There have been several great reactions, in particular Kristen Abell’s work on the continued stigma of mental health in a profession well-equipped and situated for referrals and management of such issues among college students. In addition, Ann Marie Klotz’s call to action regarding well-being is filled with sound recommendations for putting action behind our motivations.
I do believe we are quick to look at someone in a struggling situation and say, “But you can fix it!” Yep, sometimes you can. But sometimes you cannot. In particular for entry and mid-level professionals, you are often in a position where your realm of control is small. Is there enough there to carve out for yourself to make a meaningful experience? Sometimes the culture is so wrought with what’s wrong it’s hard to figure out if you can make anything right. Some environments simply aren’t safe to share your deep needs and hopes. Sometimes the political climate makes any change a bit dicey. But there are some environments that are committed to acting in ways that matter, in ways that demonstrate care for the whole person.
When I look back at some of my most challenging work experiences, I have to admit, some of it feels more challenging because I have worked on campuses where wellness was the standard, where I was heard, where it wasn’t perfect every day, but it was committed to values that extended not only to students but to staff. I hope that every professional is able to have that experience. I hope that eventually it’s the standard and not the exception.
What builds you is a structure, top-down, that creates an environment of compassionate challenge. Meaning, you are cared for but not coddled. You are known and supported but because of that are also presented with opportunities to explore and grow through the right amount of discomfort or unknown. You are heard but also engaged in the challenges.
I remember beginning to question the structure of RA training. Thinking, we are all so drained – does it have to be this way? I attended a session at a NASPA conference on the dissertation research of two professionals regarding the evolution of RA training. Sure enough – we have added more content into the same old structure with little regard to the detriment we were creating for all staff at a critical time of year. I remember posing the what if question to my supervisor, who, based on the data, seeing the value to improve the way we could begin the year, was completely on board. The selling quote was, “If you begin the year tired, you’ll continue the year that way.” Departments that build are ones that are willing to hear new ways to approach existing programs. Departments that build believe in creative solutions and engage opportunities to hear out the potential rewards and flaws in a new approach. Departments that build know investing in their employees means investing in the student experience.
Here are a few examples of practices that build you (and others):
1. Anyone managing personnel is familiar with the variety of resources available to staff at the institution. Yes, colleges and universities are large employers with many units, staff, and sometimes complex reporting lines. But it is essential that if you are supervising others you are passing along programs and services that could improve others work experiences even if you do not know if they are needed. It may be the insurance wellness day, an organized noon walk around campus, spiritual programs, among others. An example of this is when I went through a deeply difficult and personal matter as a hall director, I was referred to an Employee Assistance Program. This provided me with free counseling services in the community, referrals to other providers in my insurance network, free legal advice, you name it. In addition, all of this was as confidential as I wanted it to be. Anything a person could encounter while employed there was a referral to someone who could hep. Some of these individuals, especially for legal services and health care screenings, were also alumni of the institution, which was an added benefit of creating a close-knit and caring community in the middle of a city.
2. Comp, wellness, whatever you want to call them days, they go a long way. To be frank, each late meeting or weekend commitment felt a bit less arduous when I knew I had a bank of comp time that I could pull from as needed. I’ve written before about being strategic about caring for the life-cycle of the institution and what you need personally during professionally difficult times. Having the time that you are encouraged to take and be away just out for the sake of the additional hours and commitment given, is a huge reassurance that you are cared for.
3. Control = fear, automony = love. I have not met a single person who does not appreciate having a flexible work environment when that same flexibility as an employee is often key to our success and response. Building work environments know that it is not butts in desks that marks success but rather they know what the measurable results of peak employee performance look like and the progress their employees are making in reaching it. When we motivate people out of fear, we seek to know what they are doing at all times and place unrealistic expectations on each other. This stirs unnecessary anxiety, fosters defensiveness, and often creates paperwork and communication over meaningless processes. When we motivate from a place of autonomy, trust, and indeed love, we believe in what people are capable of, we coach to their strengths, accountability is natural because it comes with open communication about our work, and we create conditions for success instead of looking for failures.
4. There are strong friendships and networks in the work place. Gallup points to the importance of having a work best friend as being key and essential to well-being and work place performance. I still miss having my closest hall director friends who were but a phone call or walk down the road away, who understood my staff, our department, and what I was navigating. Bonus that they were awesome people through and through who were just as easy to trouble-shoot a program problem as they were to sit and talk over coffee. So while some may balk at team-building and other such methods to get to know each other, that ice breaking helps to build relationships and create support networks. A department I worked for had Connector Directors who were the first people there in the department to offer you a friendly smile, give you ins and outs on a peer to peer level, suggest where to go to eat, get your hair cut, and bank, and be there to answer those questions that you’re not so sure you want to bother your supervisor with. Building work environments know our relationships with each other matter and create methods to build those connections.
5. And they know off-campus experiences are as important as on. I always had time for my friends, church community, to grab lunch with family when in town, take advantage of book clubs, and go to sporting events. My supervisor met my dad several times, knew when my brother was getting married, and that I was taking a gift-wrapping class at a local paperie. She wanted to be sure I was experiencing life outside of my work. I loved being at campus basketball games and swinging by events, but I also don’t think I would have loved those experiences as much if I felt obligated to be there or if what I enjoyed outside of work was not encouraged.
6. A “we have your back” attitude is employed. Never did I ever feel alone in any situation. Even when a dad called me at a ridiculous evening hour to ask me “How can you sleep at night?” following a pretty messy conduct situation with his son, I never felt like I was left to bear the brunt solo. I was given opportunities to dive deeper in some skill sets because I wanted the experiences, but always knowing that I had back-up, that anything that made it’s way to the president’s office would be pushed down to where it belonged, that crises were treated like true crises not jumping at everything that moved. That no matter the complaint or issue, my voice and perspective was valuable, and not secondary, to make sense of how to help a student or family. We had the opportunity as hall directors to meet with legal counsel to understand their role with ours, liability, and have a chance to ask a million what-if questions. We deal with scary situations in our work and we may fear the unknown or be afraid of knowing the best course of action, but there should never be fear of the reaction or reprimand of our own colleagues.
We are whole, complex people who navigate a variety of internal and external demands in addition to our role as an employee. While there are certainly ways each of us can manage any given work environment, there are some that make it far easier than others. We owe it to ourselves to better understand the high-impact practices of exceptional student affairs work environments, the best methods to support employees going through difficult times, and to harness all of the education, creativity, and resources available to choose wellness, to choose care for others, to choose environments that build. The pain so many experience in their jobs that blocks the possibility of being their best selves is wasted human capital. We all deserve better and have to challenge ourselves to pave a way to create a higher standard for employee well-being.