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Putting Your Oxygen Mask on First: Support for and from Student Affairs Administrators

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Justine Cameron
January 31, 2021

Student affairs administrators often struggle with balancing the weight of our students’ needs with the realities and limitations of our time and resources. Navigating this during a pandemic has been particularly challenging given the increase in needs and decrease in staffing and financial backing. As mainstays of support in our educational communities, it can easily be lost on people that we are also humans who have work and personal stressors. The combination of heightened expectations and reduction of resources has led to a tremendous influx of burnout symptoms among student affairs administrators.

In order to mitigate the feelings of burnout that are all too prevalent in higher education nowadays, we must start living the healthy habits that we are frequently preaching to our students. You put on your oxygen mask before you can help someone else with theirs, right? The same rule applies here. One could question how you are able to provide meaningful support to students if you cannot effectively provide that support to yourself.

A key element that is infrequently conveyed in columns focused on outlining strategies for burnout mitigation is identifying what you can regularly practice during your working hours. While wellness practices like mindfulness and yoga certainly help rejuvenate us, we also need to implement practices during our workday that fortress our well-being by establishing boundaries and expectations.

Here are some strategies that have helped me to improve my well-being as a higher education administrator over the last year:

Give yourself a break. Literally. Taking breaks sounds like such a basic suggestion, but it’s easy to forget when you have Zoom meetings from eight in the morning to five. Pre-blocking time on your calendar (hopefully) prevents said time from meeting invites, allowing you to get up and walk away from your desk. If that isn’t a reality for you based on your workload, it’s at least serving as protected time that you can use to tackle administrative tasks. Either way, you’re conserving some amount energy that would otherwise be lost to face-to-face interactions.

Revisit your mission statement. Do you need a reminder as to why you entered the field of higher education in the first place? A crucial function to mitigating burnout is making progress and noticing your work is making a difference. These small wins, as referenced in the Harvard Business Journal article by Amabile and Kramer, are critical to our workplace happiness which informs our overall happiness.

In student affairs administration, it can be easy to interpret the bulk of interfacing with students as stress-inducing or negative in nature, with primary responsibilities including crisis support or navigating resources related to life challenges. While the subsequent experience of positively impacting a student is rewarding, administrators often don’t see the fruits of this labor, which is why these regular reminders are necessary! Sharing success stories or kind notes from students with colleagues goes a long way in reinforcing the positive interactions and emphasizing, “Why we do what we do.”

One way I see this done effectively is having visuals in your workspace that remind you of this. Having your mission statement in sight is a nice reminder for some, while having a more personalized mantra works better for others.

Manage expectations via boundary setting. Being candid regarding boundaries goes a long way in the type of work that we do. Needs of folks often appear so urgent that the boundaries we’ve put up regarding time and tasks quickly fall by the wayside. When you begin to exhibit the behavior of emailing all hours of the day or night, that conduct quickly shifts to becoming an expectation. Unless you are the administrator on call, you should feel confident in closing your laptop for the day and not needing to glance at your email hourly until you start work again the next morning. This backwards badge of honor that people wear for being on meetings twelve hours a day is simply not sustainable. Let’s shift the badge of honor and bestow it upon those who successfully tune out in the off-hours!

Practice what you preach. Using resources available to you is what we as higher education administrators expect of our students. As we expect them to, we should, too. Mental wellness is just as critically important as physical wellbeing. Virtually all colleges and universities offer some type of Employee Assistance Program, which is great for short-term counseling and referrals for long-term support. Additionally, be sure to use your earned time off. Scheduling days off for yourself in the year to decompress and regroup goes a long way in assuaging burnout symptoms. Circling back to the small wins, you will ultimately produce better quality work, too, if you are taking the time you need to rejuvenate yourself.

While the pandemic can certainly be to blame for the influx of burnout symptoms among student affairs administrators over the last year, working in higher education has always presented challenges that leave our staff susceptible to burnout. Instead of just course correcting bad habits we’ve slipped into, let’s starting building roads that better support our well-being, too.

Author: Justine Cameron is the interim director of student affairs at UMass Medical School. She earned her master’s in public policy and graduate certificate in educational policy from UMass Dartmouth. Her professional interests include educational policy, teaching, public education administration, and student affairs. Justine is a Class of 2020 ASPA Founders Fellow. She can be reached at [email protected].

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