Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it. ~ Lily Tomlin
In addition to working as a community college administrator I also have written a blog for the last eleven years entitled the Ministry of Happiness. In writing that blog, it deals with issues of how to live a happier life, I often write about work/life balance. I take that balance very serious in my own life. Not only do I occasionally do workshops and conference key note talks about this concept, I also very much employ the concepts I talk and write about in my own life.
Probably the largest commitment I’ve made to work/life balance has been in the way I’ve navigated through my career. First off, while I could have moved into a VP of Instruction position years ago, I have refused to do so because I don’t think that position will make me happier or be more conducive to a healthier work/life balance, even though it has more prestige and of course higher pay. The other piece to this has been that over the last twenty years, I have averaged taking a year off to travel every fourth year. On those years off, I’ve hiked in the Himalayas in Nepal, hiked the Appalachian Trail and wrote a book about it, traveled across Europe and hung out in Morocco as well as extensively traveling across the United States.
So as you can see, I take this commitment to work/life balance very seriously. There are some small things that I regularly do, although at times they seem like big things. I work a reasonable number of hours every week, no dean only works forty hours, but I no longer consistently do fifty-five to sixty hour weeks, I don’t ever work at home (outside of what happened during COVID). I never work seven days in a row, because there is no such thing. If you work seven, you automatically work the next five as well, so that’s twelve and that’s no good for anyone.
Tonight however, what I want to talk about is one of those good news/bad news scenarios related to colleges and work/life balance. The good news is that colleges seem to beginning to recognize that their employees are stressed and that work/life balance is something to be addressed. Often this is still at the level of lip service; discussions in meetings about people using their vacation time, not working on the weekends, and setting better boundaries between work life and personal life. Campuses that are a bit more advanced may have well developed wellness programs available to employees, I’m seeing and hearing about a lot more self-care discussions and workshops happening on campuses. That’s all the good news, as recognition is the start of it all.
The bad news is that we’re in America and American attitudes toward work all look at this in the same way. We believe that the best person is the person putting in the most hours, taking the least amount of vacation, and stressing themselves out the most. I once had a president tell me that she didn’t believe any administrator working less than fifty hours a week was doing their job. I pushed back, and pointed out that my fifty hours, was not the same as someone else’s fifty hours. I actually used a specific example and she had to agree that they weren’t the same thing. But the attitude is still persuasive and a huge hindrance to real progress on addressing work/life balance and work stress issues in general.
Because this is the perspective that pervades our management structures, the responsibility for not being so stressed out, for keeping balance is always seen as the responsibility of the employee. Instead of ever considering that we should maybe change the framework of positions, or change responsibility structures, or god forbid, maybe not try and do so much, we instead decide that our employees need to change. So the way institutions still address work/life balance is by telling you to do a better job of taking your vacation time. Now, you’re already behind, so if you take a week off, you’ll just be further behind or you’ll need to work seventy hours the week before and the week after vacation to make up for the time off. That’s not balance. We also see lots of self-care workshops, and while meditation, yoga, the occasional spa day and mindfulness are fantastic, it’s still all about employees having to change without ever addressing the structural issues within our jobs or the attitudes of our culture about work and success.
Until we take an honest look at the reality of the responsibility loads on college positions, particularly administrative positions, no real change will occur. While accountability is certainly important, the reporting load increases every year and over the last ten years that has added up to significant workload increase for colleges. Add to that the growing complexity of running dual online and face to face operations as well as the myriad complexities related to education in COVID times, social media issues and the work load is becoming too much.
So what’s the solution? Well here is where I start spouting educational blasphemy again. We need to do less, but not in any sort of arbitrary way. Step one, actually do less. We don’t need every campus to join into every new initiative every created. Over my career I can’t even remember all of the different initiatives that I’ve participated in over the last twenty years in California. But I can honestly say I’m sure it’s well over fifty.
Second, colleges need to do a better job of assessing the impact of what they do. On the academic side, this means regularly evaluating program success and impact. Wait, didn’t I just complain about accountability? Yes I did, but we already do this, we have periodic program review required for accreditation at every college. What we don’t do is have any kind of real consequences for programs not meeting their metrics at most colleges. Until we are ready to cut programs that are not successful, the periodic reviews mean nothing. Of course, we assess, allow for the opportunity to change, but after a reasonable time period we need to cut programs that are not performing. Parallel processes also need to occur for our student academic and student support services programs. We often have huge inefficiencies in these programs as multiple programs will offer the same services but only to a small number of students.
This is not a new issue, while working at Hartnell College in 2003, I led the team that won the Bellwether Award, a national award for community college excellence. We won the award for implementing just this type of efficiency. While working as a Math Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) Program Director, I partnered with our Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), our counseling and matriculation programs as well as other student support programs to more efficiently serve students. We did this by combining like services. One clear example was that six programs on campus were all taking students on campus visits to Cal State and University of California campuses. Each program would take a fifteen person van, often with four to six students on the trip. We all also went to many of the same campuses. So we coordinated to allow students from any of the programs to travel on other program’s trips. This allowed us to reduce the number of trips, with more full vans and more efficiently use staff time. In addition, since this was saving us time and money, we were actually able to add trips to additional campuses.
This is the type of thinking that we need to employ across all of our operations. But it takes a lot of political will to do this. Eliminating programs can inflame faculty and classified professional staff unions. Vocal members of the public who support programs on the chopping block can remove the will of Boards of Trustees by making appearances at board meetings. Even more political is the idea of cutting student support programs that support particular ethnic, gender or cultural groups. It takes special leadership, high levels of collaboration, good relations between management, unions and the public to make these types of decisions. Clear communication and high levels of transparency are also required.
Over my career on a number of occasions I’ve done this type of work in terms of program efficiency. I’ve cut programs and individual certificates, while incredibly complex and difficult, it can be done and done well. It will take bold leadership in order both to address more efficiently and effectively using campus resources to help students. But simultaneously we’d be showing that we also care about our employees by reducing workloads and truly addressing work/life balance issues.
Sometimes when I’m coaching parents and recommend to them to do something that will help them be happier, but will take them away from the children to a small degree, like working on a degree to get a better job. I often have to point out that what’s best for their children in the long run, is to have a parent who is happier and more successful, because that leads to them being better parents. Similarly, if we are bold enough to make these type of changes to our colleges, helping our college staff be happier and more balanced, will in the long run will be better for students.