Strategies for Long-term Position Success
It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it. ~ Hans Selye
Many positions in education can be highly stressful. Particularly higher education management positions at the Director or Deans level. These positions are very often your prototypical middle-management positions. What that means is that these positions have a large amount of responsibility and often unfortunately, very little authority or power. Now, I know a lot of other educational professionals, from instructors on up likely feel the same way and I know that there are plenty of jobs outside of education that also feel the same way. A big part of the problem is that in these positions it often feels like a one-way street. You are expected to provide support, service and even comfort to the people that you are responsible to and for, this means you are available 18 hours a day, you work long and a lot of hours, and at the end of the day there is limited thanks. This might even be tolerable if it wasn’t for the fact that the attitude that often pervades is what have you done for me, not even lately, but today. And while there are constant demands that never seem to end, very often from above there is limited recognition, limited praise and worst of all, limited understanding. The attitude often seems to be that you are eternally expected to always be professional, always be responsible, always have to be the bigger person no matter how unprofessional, aggressive and nefarious the people you supervise act. And because that is exactly what you do, remain professional and work by the book, you end up having to eat the treatment and the attitude. It’s the constant dealing with the lack of appreciation, double standards and living in the middle that makes these types of jobs so difficult and stressful.
Being an old dog in the system, having been a dean for almost fifteen years, I often have people who are early in their administrative career request to talk to me about being a dean. Recently, a relatively new dean came to me and asked me, “how have you done this for so long?” And it’s a fair question, the answer, really comes down to two things for me. First, I’ve taken an unconventional career path. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve taken breaks. Whether it’s been a nine month sabbatical to train and then spend a month hiking in the high passes of the Himalayas, taking a year off to hike the Appalachian Trail, or most recently taking a year to hike and travel in Europe and then live in Oaxaca City, Mexico for three months, I’ve broken up my time at work. Taking gap years and coming back to the system has some of it’s own stress and nervousness but what my path has shown is that it’s possible to do that and remain successful. And I realize that’s not something most people will do, although more of you could, it just takes planning and desire.
The second answer to the question is some basic rules that I follow in order to keep myself sane in this type of position.
Don’t make it personal
You have to have the ability to separate who you are in the role, versus who you are as a person. So for me, Dean Kane and Michael are not the same person. Now I know a lot of people have a problem doing this, it goes against what we are told in our society that we are supposed to do. In America, you are supposed to wrap up your self-worth in your position. When asked who are you, or what do you do, we answer with our job title. You are not your job, you are so much more, your job is a facet of who you are and you need to treat it that way. I will add a caveat, there is a small subset of us out there who have found it, our perfect job. A job that we love so much, that brings so much love and fulfillment that you can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning to start doing it, for them, none of this applies.
I was once in a management retreat, there is a whole post I need to write about “retreats” but I digress. In this management retreat we were asked to raise our hand if our job was only a job, not something more. Two of us raised our hand, it was one of the most judged moments of my life. You could see the disappointment and outright disrespect on people’s faces. The executive leading the retreat immediately jumped in to say, it’s ok, people have a right to feel that way. As if treating your job as anything less than the central core of your life is wrong. So because it is such an ingrained thought, I will repeat, your job is a facet of your life, it doesn’t have to be the central core. And once it’s not the central core of your life, it should be treated as such. That doesn’t mean not being dedicated, or not doing a good job, it just means you recognize life is more than just work and that you can develop a satisfying work/life balance.
Remember why you do it
There is a lovely benefit to working in education, the work we do is quite noble. At the end of the day, regardless of your role in education, we are working to help people better their lives. This is an important thing to keep in mind as we work in highly stressful and difficult roles. We put up with the difficulties because at the end of the day the work we do is helping the process that leads to people bettering their lives. It can at times be a tenuous connection and difficult to see but it is legitimate and important. The further away you get from directly working with students, the harder it is to see this connection. Most of us started by working directly with students. As an instructor I got to see first hand those light bulb moments for students. As a student program director I got hear directly from students who I had helped get scholarships or helped successfully transfer to excellent institutions. As a dean, I no longer have those experiences with any regularity, so keeping in mind the impact we have needs to be a more conscious effort.
Keep a solid work/life balance
I can’t emphasize this enough. I have written extensively and done keynote speeches at conferences on the concept of developing a good work/life balance. It has been my experience that the more motivated and dedicated people are, the worse they are at maintaining this balance. There are a lot of things that we can talk about in this space, but for the sake of brevity I’ll limit myself to several of the more important points. First, you have to be committed to the idea. In most of our jobs there is literally a never-ending and repeating cycle of work. This means that no matter how hard you work, there will be more work to do tomorrow. I see this with staff who don’t take vacation. Often, they are so afraid of how much work will build up while they are on vacation that they limit the vacation they take. What’s worse, when they do take vacation, they end up checking email and working while on vacation defeating the very purpose of vacation. So you have to commit to downtime and taking vacations where you actually step away from work. Likewise, you have to have downtime each week, NEVER work seven days in a row, mostly because it’s nearly impossible to do. What I mean by that, is that once you’ve worked that seventh day, you now are into the next week and will work five more days, twelve in a row in total. So one of my cardinal rules for work/life balance is to always have at least one day a week where I do no work, no checking of email, no going to campus and as much as possible not even thinking about it.
Especially now during the pandemic you have to maintain a wall between work life and real life. For me, I do some very deliberate things. I do not friend anyone I work with on Facebook. I save that piece of social media to be as much as possible a work free space. A place where I can be completely myself without worrying about how that will impact my work life. We all wear masks in every situation and the masks we wear are work are different from the masks we wear with friends, I try and keep them separate as much as possible. Especially when working from home it’s easy to blend the two. Do your best to have a space in your home that is a work space and nothing else. And only work in that space, it’s an artificial wall, but one you need to create and adhere to as much as possible. I realize, particularly if you have children at home, this can be incredibly difficult, do the best you can.
Have allies to talk to
We all need to express our frustrations to people who can truly understand what we are going through. Our partners and friends can certainly sympathize with our feelings and provide emotional support. But there is a difference when you can talk with someone who can truly understand where your frustrations come from. One of the advantages of being an old dog in this business and having worked at multiple colleges is that I have former colleagues to talk to. People who understand the difficulties of the position, who’ve been through the same sorts of frustrations that you have been through as well. They get it, they can truly understand and commiserate with you and even better can give you suggestions about how to deal with the frustration.
Have a career plan
It’s very important that you have a career plan, I know this because we tell our students to do this. So what’s next for you? It’s important to understand how long you’ll be in the position, what position you’re heading for next or if not a different position what’s next for you? This isn’t so much so that you have something to be locked into but so that you have a direction and something to look forward and work toward that isn’t your normal job.
Have a dream
I think we all need two dreams. The first I call the lottery dream, what would I do if I won the lottery. It’s the reason I buy lottery tickets. As someone with a science background I can be a bit too rational at times. So dreaming my lottery dream doesn’t work so well if I haven’t bought a ticket. So I consider my $1 Superlotto ticket as my admission price to dream that dream. The second dream for me, very much is, the what’s next dream. I’m about six years out from retirement and I have dreams and plans about what life will be like in retirement. Much like the career plan we discussed, I think it’s important to have a plan to achieve your dreams. So of course, my lottery dream may include having a house in Maine and in Monterrey, but my secondary dream certainly can include a house in Maine in retirement. Again, this provides me with an outlet away from work.
Do the little things to relieve stress
There are lots of little things we can do every day to help reduce our stress. The first is to take email notifications off of your phone. I had them on until we got into the pandemic, once work from home started I felt a need to even further separate my two realities even more than I normally do. And even though seeing the notifications didn’t mean I would do anything, it put me mentally back into the workspace and that would lead to stress. Another thing that is important, is to take breaks during the day, it’s so easy to get swept up in the day, eat at your desk and not take breaks. Along with that set boundaries on your work hours, stop answering email and calls after a certain hour and not before a certain hour in the morning. Finally, find both physical and mental outlets for your energy. This might be meditation or Sudoku, drawing or painting anything that you enjoy that you can lose track of time while you’re doing it. And do something physical walk, hike, run, swim or workout something to get your body moving and burn off the stress. And finally, get enough sleep each night.
The thing is that I can absolutely tell when I’ve let some of these things start to slide in my life. I start to feel off, things don’t go right, I start getting short with people. Our jobs are really stressful and difficult, hopefully some of these tips can help you feel more comfortable in your position.