Practicing Self-Care to Become a Better Institution

Simplicity is Often Esoteric

You might be curious as to how this topic relates to sustaining a viable long-term accreditation agenda in higher education. While the connection is not necessarily obvious, we can locate the link once we peel back the layers.

This entry focuses on the health of institutional actors who are charged with spearheading major functional areas fundamental for accreditation. The cynics or skeptics are likely to think (or might even say depending on their degree of psychopathology): “Well, if someone gets tired, we can always hire someone new.” Wrong. Turnover is quite telling to an experienced accreditation team and peer evaluators often look into various facets of an institution’s workplace atmosphere. These sorts of things rise to the surface to gain visibility on their own accord. Not to mention, it’s flat out inhumane and represents another contemporary social problem extending beyond the scope of this blog post.

I’ve occasionally received confidential phone calls during my years of accreditation consulting from key stakeholders who were suffering from major exhaustion, and who teetered on the border of burnout. My message has always been consistent, regardless of differences in workplace culture, supervisor expectations, or lack of time: “If you don’t take care of yourself now, how will you manage to deliver your best care for your institution and its students?”

In this technological age of information bombardment and a blitz of detail, we’ve grown accustomed to depleting our cognitive and physical resources with responsibilities ad nauseam. This is doubly the case when we prepare for an accreditation site visit, like a comprehensive review or special visit. The pressure may seem impassible and overwhelming, but we must remain cognizant of the fact that we can’t clothe others if we can’t clothe ourselves.

This reminds me of one of my favorite African sayings: “Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.” After all, if he had one he’d cover himself, wouldn’t he, in most cases? The best thing we can do for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students is to point out the pathway to self-preservation and self-care.accreditation

Learning From the Past and Delimiting the Future

Several years ago, as I was preparing for my father to die from lung cancer, I worked at a markedly dysfunctional two-year institution. I commuted daily nearly two hours each way to work, endured an assembly line type of schedule, which encouraged poignant preoccupation with the appearance of work rather than any actual work product. Worst of all, I did my best to cope with the fact that I would only receive 3 days of bereavement since HR policy disallowed more due to my father’s death occurring “less than 250 miles from my primary residence.” 

What was I thinking? Well, I wasn’t. When thinking now about Maslow’s Hierarchy and as I am benefited by my hindsight bias, I understand that I was operating at such a level that disallowed metacognitive activity (thinking about my thinking). That is, my focusing on survival didn’t afford insights to ascend to the place of my conscious awareness. Sparing the gory details, I have since committed myself to never work again at such an institution, and to observe my spaces to prohibit similar excesses.

Please don’t misunderstand. My assertion is not to encourage your slacking or dwindling professional engagement, especially in relation to assessment, accreditation, or planning. We all work very hard, and there will be times when life will require our burning midnight oil, and that’s totally fine. But, when we notice the emergence of a theme or habitual pattern, it’s our responsibility to ask ourselves the difficult questions or to interrogate the possibility of our own addiction, weak boundaries, or the like.

There are a number of strategies we might consider employing to cultivate our mindfulness in any industrial setting where we apply our talents. This piece was written by and for women and boasts a nice list of helpful activities for everyone.  We must educate ourselves on the issue and its various therapies, and these 9 Ted Talks help unpack the phenomenon. However, it’s often not enough until we get to the root of the issue by understanding why we dance this tango.

I am reminded of this recent publication which focuses on the issue exclusively within a higher education setting. Stacey A. Miller, who serves as Assistant Provost for Inclusion at Valparaiso University, framed her piece with this powerful opening quotation:

Our field praises self-care, but does little to support this in our daily work [but] the reality is we are responsible for taking care of ourselves and making time to do this. [While] individuals do not want to [appear] to be selfish, I believe it is [the act of selfishness that] will sustain our energy to remain in this field. (Iesha G. Valencia).

Each of our recoveries from workaholism is unique. Maintaining feasibility in our accreditation work to support student success and quality assurances is a marathon. In fact, it never ends. Too frequently institutions tend to believe that the work is done once an evaluation visit concludes. No. Not at all. The result is the opposite, although immediately following an accreditation visit does represent the perfect time to practice a little self-care so that we may benefit our institution’s demonstrated effectiveness in the long run.

 

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