There are two conversations that seem ever-present in student affairs culture: personal wellness/balance and recognition. Rightfully so. By discussing them regularly we admit that they are essential to student and staff success.
It almost feels like everything that needs to be said has been said about both. And then I got to thinking: If recognition is done, in part, to reinforce good practice, how do we recognize balance and self care?
I didn’t have a good answer, so I began my otherwise entirely informal and unscientific study into what one professional organization, with many regions, recognizes members for. With over 77 awards between regions and the national organization, none mention a dedication to personal wellness, self-care, and an overall well balanced life style. Maybe that’s fair. How does one quantify this? It’s hard. The goal of recognition is to lift up positive behavior as an example for others. But rarely is the process of how we achieve evaluated, most often, we view the product as the meaningful piece.
These seem incompatible. If the point of recognition is to (as was the theme of many awards) recognize work that goes “above and beyond” how can we possibly encourage personal wellness? It’s somewhat counterintuitive. We’re not rewarding, what truly is, one of the most essential skills that builds effective professionals. To do work that is truly great you need to invest in yourself first.
So, this leads to my question: how do we reward balance, self-care, and personal wellness in our field?
Well, we can start to answer this question by asking what kind of work we typically reward or recognize and if it’s consistent with an ethic of self-care:
1. Work that goes “above and beyond” the job description. That’s fair, right? If you are going above what’s being asked or excelling at essential tasks recognition is warranted. The problem is, rarely is it asked what the cost was for going above and beyond. The process is just as important as the product. If the work is a result of regular and systematic personal sacrifice, it shouldn’t be recognized.
2. Work that is innovative or groundbreaking. Probably my favorite type of award. Presenting new ways forward!
3. An overall “dedication” to any number of things (student success, students, staff, etc). But what does that dedication look like? Dedication to anything means letting go of something. But what’s that something? Is it us? The things outside of work we value?
How we reward work creates culture. If we’re looking to create a culture of balance, self-care, and personal wellness we need to take a good, long look at how we recognize and reward. I’d like to propose a new way forward. A way that changes culture. A method to reward those of us that make sure to be successful professionally AND personally.
1. Stop rewarding great work with more work. It’s easy to compare ourselves to one another based on what we have on our respective plate. For whatever reason many have been made to believe that the more work we have, the better we are at our jobs. Graduate students are at times socialized into a culture that believes having the most committee appointments, conduct cases, advisees, programs, etc, is a sign of being successful. We preach the value of having a diverse resume with a variety of experiences. While some of that is interesting, it’s ultimately deceptive. It would be nice to believe that organizations hire professionals that have well developed skill sets and have mastered the basics. Masterful basics are far more meaningful than a list of committee appointments. If a team member does something great, completes a long planned initiative, or contributes greatly, maybe we could say “thanks for all you’ve done – now I’m giving you time for yourself to reflect, relax, and focus on you.”
2. Stop allowing “my work is my life! I love it!” to be an excuse. Let’s be real. It’s hard finding a niche outside of work. Something we go back to weekly, or even daily. Something that brings us joy and connects us to a world that is not our work. I was always envious of those that moved to new cities and immediately found something for them. While difficult, it’s necessary. We’ve got to put ourselves out there. We need to encourage our team members, and hold them accountable to, building a life outside of the institution. Remember, this doesn’t just benefit them, it benefits the employer. An overcommitted team member will burn out eventually or succumb to the lack of personal engagement. When you work in an industry of people, you need your people to find balance to be effective.
3. Create opportunities to reward balanced lifestyles. We often talk of our victories or successes at work. Why not talk about how we got out at 5PM and what we did to make that happen? How about lifting up those that make it happen during business hours and have them share what they do? Stop accepting working after 5PM as a constant inevitability. Do student affairs professionals have busy seasons? Absolutely. Will some stay late at night? And work some weekends? For sure. But personal balance is a marathon, not a sprint. We must accept that busier weeks or months can be met with slower weeks or months.
4. Insert language into award nomination requirements that speaks to balance. How did the nominee balance other tasks? How does the nominee invest in life outside of work? How does the nominee set a realistic example for peers? New language institutionalizes new culture.
Finally, we all must remember that we are responsible for our own lives. Our own wellness. Our own care. While we should absolutely be committed to creating a culture of personal wellness we must always remember that we have choices. If an employer isn’t flexible or invested in personal wellness, and it’s impacting our overall happiness, it’s time to move on. The energy spent being frustrated, or complaining, is only more exhausting. We live in a time when budgets and staffing may not equal the needs to be served. But we have choices. Pick what we want to be good at. Focus on what we know we can do. And become great at it. But never over extend at the cost of personal well being.