Faculty are tired. Burnout is escalating. Self-care is difficult. Here are five key ways administrators can help.
Self-care has become the term du jour. Lately, researchers in a variety of disciplines have undertaken empirical works investigating self-care; peer-reviewed journal outlets have dedicated special issues to the topic. The revered New York Times recently released a single-issue magazine on self-care. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to avoid messages about self-care. Venerable public health entities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increasingly encourage individuals to engage in self-care practices.
Given the contemporary landscape, specifically in academe, growing attention to self-care isn’t surprising. This landscape includes global pandemic has amplified dynamic tensions between faculty and university administrators over teaching-learning approaches, in general, and safety associated with those approaches, more specifically. A long overdue racial reckoning, political complexities, and uncertain budgetary climates, among other phenomena, have left many academicians—administrators and otherwise—befuddled, bewildered, and beleaguered. These issues in mind, it is no wonder self-care is front of mind for many academicians.
That said, academic administrators have a responsibility to cultivate supportive environments conducive to faculty wellness, which includes self-care. This responsibility is not just the “right” thing to do; it contributes to effectiveness in the areas of teaching, research, and service, among others. Research has linked self-care to an array of positive outcomes, including reduced stress and professional burnout, and increased professional efficacy. Typical factors that contribute to these inimical consequences for faculty include academic bullying, evolving workloads and promotion processes, and role ambiguity, among others. What’s more, an emerging body of literature illustrates the positive effect that self-care can have an assuaging distress associated with public emergencies, such as COVID-19.
Clearly, fostering adept self-care among faculty is not without challenges. Myths and misconceptions about self-care are pervasive. For starters, self-care is mired in a relentless array of consumeristic enticements. In this consumeristic frame, popular views about self-care tend be rudimentary conceptualizations and superficial quick fixes. Further, many professional contexts, specifically academe, can be experienced as actively antagonistic to the very concept of self-care. Antiquated workplace policies and practices contribute to these experiences.
Challenges notwithstanding, administrators are compelled to take steps to support faculty self-care. Here are five guidelines administrators can use.
Recognize that self-care practices are as diverse as the people engaging in them
Self-care is not monolithic. There is no one-size-fits-all self-care strategy. Self-care is a personal, individualized endeavor. Avoid subscribing to pre-conceived notions about what self-care should be – this can be discouraging and disempowering for faculty. Instead, support faculty and staff in conceptualizing self-care approaches that take into account their values, preferences, and life circumstances—which all evolve over time. Ultimately, the only “perfect” self-care plan is the one that works for that person.
Do NOT prescribe that faculty engage in particular, designated “self-care” activities. Instead, communicate the value of and commitment to self-care as a way of promoting both personal and professional well-being.
Make self-care normative
An administrator might conclude that—since self-care is individualized—it should be left to the individual. Not so. Like every other aspect of human well-being, the academic environment can have significant impact on self-care. Administrative leaders set the tone for how individuals operate in these environments.
Norms are an important barometer in a work climate and administrators must take steps to ensure that self-care is activated as normative—rather than an occasional buzzword, superficial response to faculty burnout. Whilst the particular self-care practices must be individualized, a general academic culture may determine whether self-care is viewed as important and practiced routinely.
Think and act systemically
Because of the interplay between individuals and their environment, a systemic approach to faculty well-being is paramount. Self-care is not counter to institutional accountability; self-care and organizational wellness go hand-in-hand. Indubitably, larger systemic roles and responsibilities are essential in addressing toxic, oppressive, dysfunctional, and unsupportive environments (Kanter & Sherman, 2017). Using a systemic approach, prioritizing human well-being is not an extra overlay to the work; rather, it is a crucial lens for viewing every aspect of the work.
From an administrative standpoint, this systemic lens requires critically assessing institutional policies, practices, protocols, and procedures. Which ones foster and support faculty self-care and which ones inhibit or discourage it? This systemic approach must include advocating for faculty and proactively promoting faculty well-being. Ideally, this approach includes conceptualizing and implementing unit-level wellness initiatives. Notably, for maximum effectiveness, these initiatives must be developed through “ground up” processes. Too often, wellness initiatives fail when imposed by “top-down” edicts that do not engage broad-based “buy-in” and input (e.g., Miller, Grise-Owens, Addison, Marshall, Trabue, & Escobar-Ratliff, 2016).
Invest in skill development
Administrators can support faculty by investing in their professional development. Self-care is a practice skill. As such, it must be fostered and developed. In the same way that faculty can improve skills related to teaching, research, and the like, so too they can develop self-care skills. But, like others, these skills require intentional investment from administrators. Proffering substantive self-care trainings and funding faculty-directed self-care initiatives are but a couple of the myriad ways administrators can actualize investment in self-care.
To clarify, the specifics of what one chooses as self-care are individualized; the how to engage in self-care is a practice skill with general principles and practices that must be learned, honed, and encouraged. Thus, do not assume that “we all know how to practice self-care.” Approach self-care as a professional development priority and invest in it.
Be the example
As noted above, academic administrators set the tone for their units. For better or worse, faculty often emulate—or at least are attuned to—the behaviors and attitudes of leadership. Thus, administrators are all the more compelled to be mindful and intentional about our own self-care. Not only will this self-care help mitigate the daily stressors associated with academic leadership, it will also affirm the importance of self-care for faculty. Modeling that self-care is a professional development process. Thus, administrators must give serious attention to learning about self-care and how to engage in it.
In short, it is not enough to simply talk about self-care, administrators must be about self-care. After all, self-care starts with oneself. To paraphrase a timeless adage: Administrator, practice thy self-care.
Here’s the bottom line
Faculty are tired. Burnout is escalating. Self-care is difficult.
Administrators can address the overarching imperative. We can lead academe to constructively, effectively, and humanely support faculty self-care.
Kanter, B., & Sherman, A. (2017). The happy, healthy nonprofit: Strategies for impact without burnout. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Miller, J., Grise-Owens, E., Addison, D., Marshall, M., Trabue, D., & Escobar-Ratliff, E. (2016). Planning an organizational wellness initiative at a multi-state social service agency. Evaluation and Planning: The International Journal, 15, 1–10.