Five years ago, I was standing in the glue aisle at the local Michael’s store. It was almost 9pm, the store was closing and as I turned down the next aisle, I ran into another RD from my department. We made eye contact and both of us burst into tears. Two seconds later, yet another RD in my department rounded the corner, saw both of us in the midst of a mini-breakdown and lovingly said he didn’t have time for this and fled the scene. Did I mention this happened near the end of three weeks of grueling, 14-16 hour days, during Residence Life’s student staff training? It was in that moment of sheer emotion that I knew I needed help.
Soon after, I started seeing a fabulous counselor. She listened empathetically, got outraged on my behalf, and challenged me to be more honest about my mental health. If any of my co-workers would have asked who in the department was seeing a counselor, I am 100% confident that my name would have been the last one on the list. By all accounts, I am an overwhelmingly happy and positive person. I’ve even been accused of being inauthentic, with the logic from others being “Can anyone really be that positive?” Here’s the thing folks, you can have a positive outlook on life, but still have work to do with your mental health.
It was through these weekly counseling sessions over a course of two years that I began to realize that my department was not structured for mental well-being. When I was on duty, it was routine to have a 2am bedtime on weekdays and to never expect a full night of sleep on weekends or special event nights. We regularly had to schedule staff meetings starting at 10pm or later due to our overinvolved students. I was once tasked with checking to see if a student had committed suicide in her residence hall room while the Assistant Director on duty refused to leave her hair appointment across town to be there with me. Our student staff trainings consisted of 3-4 weeks of intensive days starting around 9am and going until at least midnight, if not later. We got two hours off on Sundays to attend church services, and then we were back at it. The majority of my friend group consisted of people I worked with, therefore never really getting time away from work. In a word, it was unhealthy. I began to realize the high-touch approach I so valued during my interview process was instead code for incredible support for students, but little for the professional staff.
When I did my next job search, I was determined to find a better fit. I wanted some place where I could be a good professional and person. In light of the recent posts about mental health issues of student affairs administrators, a fabulous post by Renee Piquette Dowdy about breaking points, and an eloquent call for action for wellness from Ann Marie Klotz, I’m created a list of the “difference makers” at my current job that have positively impacted my own mental health.
Grown-up apartments: I am still living in, but my apartment could compete with the best apartments in my region. I have three bedrooms, 1 ½ bathrooms, in-unit laundry, air-conditioning, and a dishwasher. We also get complementary deep-cleaning once per quarter. If a fit of disbelief, I asked our Housing liaison how such accommodations were possible here, but not at other institutions? He put it so simply. He said that if we wanted to recruit and retain the best professionals, we needed to feel like we weren’t living in a glorified dorm room, but a space that truly felt like we were adults.
Family-friendly decision making: I am a proud, single, childless woman, but the majority of my coworkers have partners and children. This makes for a completely different work environment. Our weekends are sacred. We never have meetings with the professional staff after work hours. It is totally acceptable to miss work if your child is sick and guess what? The world doesn’t collapse if you miss a day of work, therefore making it easier for all in the department to take sick days, regardless of family structure.
Wellness days: After major processes or events (Student Staff Training, Opening, Closing, etc.) we are given wellness days to use sometime the following month. We are a private school, so we don’t have overtime or comp days, but our Director realizes that late nights, weekends, and odd hours should be compensated elsewhere.
Pet policy: I am a firm believer in the power of animals helping to make you a more balanced person. Within three months of starting my job, I had a puppy in my hands. While the standard benefits such as a compassionate ear, nonjudgmental face, and general adorableness all apply, I found myself being much more physically active. Walks, hikes, meet-ups all helped me make connections with people who had nothing to do with my job and forced me to explore my local area. Finally, having a dog forces me to take breaks. I don’t think I’ve skipped a lunch since I started here three years ago, because I know I have someone depending on me for his mid-day walk.
Team approach to duty: At my last job, there was an RD on duty, an Assistant Director on duty and the Director was available for major issues. At my current institution, the RD is the second level of duty. We have graduate students and highly qualified undergrads serve as the first line of defense. Therefore, when I’m duty my daily schedule is really not impacted. In my 2 ½ years of working here, I have had to respond in person three times. Let me say that again. THREE TIMES. And you know why I responded? There were actual emergencies (major flooding, suicidal ideation, and domestic violence). There have actually been times where I forgot I was on duty because the phone so rarely rang. The reason for this is because I’m not doing this alone. We have our Assistant RDs, a member of the Housing Office on call, a member of both Facilities and our Custodial department on call, in addition to an Assistant Dean from our Office of Student Life. This team approach allows us to triage events and offer support, but not stretch ourselves in the process.
Autonomy: I genuinely feel valued by my supervisor, and perhaps more importantly, I feel trusted. She knows that I am doing good work, so if I want to leave at 4pm instead of 5pm because I just need a break, I don’t need to clear it with her. If I’m really tired from a late-night event, I can roll into the office at 10am. Her expectation is that we are connected to our communities and effectively communicating with various stakeholders. She is also supportive of new initiatives and often says that we are the experts for our community, so as long as we can justify decision-making, she’s behind us 100%. She still has oversight and a large amount of accountability, but I have never felt micromanaged. Do you have any idea how freeing this is? How I want to go to work, instead of just hoping I make it through the day? This, beyond any other perk, has made it easy, enjoyable, and motivating to show up and stay present for my students.
I realize many of these are from a Residence Life lens, so I would love to hear what is your department doing to further wellness. Please share in the comments!
Love this, Marci! Your experiences remind me much of what worked well for me at Marquette – it was a department that lacked the sacrifice-all attitude that many get into a pit of thriving on. From a place of love, and not fear, people work hard and will deliver results. It’s unfortunate that the actions to make that happen are more rare than not in the field.
[…] When considering the answers to those questions, we need to consider selection a little more deeply. How are we communicating realistically with others about the types and levels of stress experienced our field, our institutions, and our positions? We owe undergraduate & graduate students considering student affairs that honesty. The same goes for candidates for professional positions in our institutions. They need to choose what’s right for them based on all the information. After all, if you convince (or even just encourage) that rock star student to join the field despite their tendency to over-commit and burnout, you’re doing them, the field, future institutions & future students a net disservice. This is particularly true as our field becomes increasingly professionalized and there’s hefty student debt involved for graduate school. Likewise, if you provide an idealized perspective or policy to a really attractive candidate, you & those around you will not get their best work anyway and it becomes self-defeating. Help people and help yourself to make informed decisions about stress, wellness, and culture to your… […]