A second open letter to all college faculty: Taking care of YOU

Before I dive into this letter, allow me to first say “thank you” for the tremendous response to my first open letter to all college faculty. I admit, I didn’t anticipate the positive reaction I’ve received. I hope the information in that letter continues to be valuable to you as you move forward in this most unusual semester. Coronavirus will not beat us!

One of my RMU friends who read that initial letter correctly pointed out many faculty also find themselves in precarious spots now because they’re suddenly forced to work from home. They can’t, as I suggested in my first letter, practice self care by simply getting up and taking a walk or calling a friend because the personal circumstances they now find themselves in prevent that.

It is their challenges I address in this second open letter, which is devoted to highlighting how we must find ways to take care of ourselves.

For some faculty, the closing of day care centers has meant their young children are now under foot and wanting attention. (Is anyone else suddenly remembering the “mom, mum, mommy” moment from Family Guy, as Stewie Griffin tries to get his frazzled mother’s attention?) For other faculty, the closing of elementary, middle and high schools has meant trying to find stimulating activities for older children who are all too eager to plunk down in front of a video game console. (As I write this, my 16-year-old is engaged in a high-stakes game of Rocket League with his 15-year-old cousin, who lives in Ohio. Yes, he also has some homework to do.) And for other faculty, the shuttering of elder care day centers has meant their parents also are under the same roof and requiring care. Don’t forget, these are not mutually exclusive categories; some of our colleagues are dealing with all three of these circumstances.

We can’t forget that many of us might also be facing an uncomfortable economic challenge if our spouses or partners have lost their jobs because of the stay-at-home orders issued by many states’ governors.

Put these factors together and there are plenty of us who have exchanged our (generally quiet) work office for a home office that comes with people of all ages who might have little, if anything, to do all day.

Yes, like Lois Griffin did to her son, we cannot be blamed for gritting our teeth, clenching our fists, and yelling “WHAT!”

Now, let’s see if we can find some ways to ease the stress.

University Health Services at the University of California-Berkeley has a simple but relevant message: recognize the signs that you are suffering from stress or anxiety. The American Psychological Association reminds us that unchecked and increasing stress leads to multiple problems:

When stress starts interfering with your ability to live a normal life for an extended period, it becomes even more dangerous. The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body. You might feel fatigued, unable to concentrate or irritable for no good reason, for example. But chronic stress causes wear and tear on your body, too.

Stress erodes our ability to be resilient, and yet there are opportunities to reduce the former and increase the latter. Stress also eats away at our motivation; and no matter what our domestic situation is right now, motivation could be a challenge. Marquette University’s Stephen Saunders has offered an important tip on retaining motivation.

Take breaks, like you normally do. Don’t just turn on the TV during those breaks, though. This likely is not a part of your normal work routine — so don’t do it now. Instead, go for a virtual walk to a colleague’s office and have a chat, assuming they are available. Perhaps set up regular times to take breaks and have a chat.

Speaking of the TV, the World Health Organization has recommended that we check the news no more than once a day. The former journalist in me cringes as I write those words, but I certainly see the benefit of not using your free time at home to remind yourself of why you’re there.

Ditch the TV and consider grounding exercises. LivingWell.org, an Australian agency, suggests such exercises bring us into “contact with the present moment – the here and now.” Winona State University takes it a step further; it offers us a chance to commit to three grounding exercises and to then evaluate how we feel. The common theme between these two websites: tapping into your senses in order to clear your mind. Much like your computer sometimes needs a reboot, you, too, need a chance to stop that loop of stress and anxiety and noise.

You’ll be a better teacher once you do that. You’ll be a better parent and spouse/partner. And, yes, you’ll be a better aid to your parents, as well.

Open lines of communication are critical in any profession, but they might be most critical in healthcare. For our purposes here, I’m defining open lines of communication to mean two or more people who can openly and honestly share important information with each other. According to FierceHealthcare, in a five-year period that ended in 2013, poor communication between medical professionals and their patients led to almost 1,800 deaths and cost roughly $1.7-billion.

I mention these data simply to point out that you need to be honest with your parents and kids about what YOU need while everyone is home with you. I’m reminded of how my wife used the “three times” rule when our now 21- and 16-year-old sons were children. She would tell them that they couldn’t come to her or me and ask us to do something for them unless they had tried three times to do it themselves. They figured out how to use a microwave, start a washing machine and a whole lot more simply by trying.

Perhaps now is the time your kids started to make their own lunches. Perhaps now is the time your parents put on headphones to watch their favorite television program. Perhaps now is the time both generations find that wonderful opportunity called the afternoon walk!

Practicing self care means putting yourself first. You’re not being selfish when you do so.

The sooner you set some reasonable guidelines with everyone around you, the sooner you also can start creating a culture of open communication, and the benefits will be shared by all.

We know that U.S. colleges and universities are being evaluated right now by how well they communicate with their multiple stakeholders. Evaluate yourself by how well you are communicating what you need to your most important stakeholders — your family.

At the end of the day, we’re wise to remember what Deborah Cohan, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, wrote about taking care of ourselves.

Something is seriously lost when we can’t get quiet in a way that connects us back to ourselves, the world and what truly matters. Once we access the depth within ourselves and find our still small voice, we might discover that our writing, research, pedagogy, community activities and personal lives are filled with greater meaning and joy.

Now, perhaps more than ever, many of our faculty colleagues need to find their space in a boisterous and filled home.

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