Here are 4 ways institutions can upgrade campus wellness for their most vital asset: Their staff

"Our students can't be fully well unless their faculty and staff are well," said Kelly Crace, associate vice president for health and wellness at William & Mary, in a webinar organized by TimelyCare last week. "Unless the community is well."

Campus mental health is no longer just a student issue. As institutions look for ways to buff up their number of counselors, faculty and other student-facing staff have also taken a considerable toll since the pandemic—employee turnover and reports of stress and anxiety are beginning to swell. Thankfully, some institutions are moving toward the next iteration of campus wellness, a model that takes into account all community stakeholders to create a thriving institution.

“Our students can’t be fully well unless their faculty and staff are well,” said Kelly Crace, associate vice president for health and wellness at William & Mary, in a webinar organized by TimelyCare last week. “Unless the community is well.”

Crace joined Adriene Hobdy, director of leadership development and talent management at Montgomery County Community College (Penn.), to tackle some of the root causes of employee dissatisfaction and share their perspectives on what’s needed to keep talent in a post-pandemic workplace at two- and four-year institutions. Jacqueline Bichsel, the director of research at CUPA-HR, helped illuminate some of the key stressors causing high turnover today, first identified in CUPA-HR’s latest Higher Education Employee Retention Survey (ERS).

“We have to celebrate people if they find [another job] that’s more fulfilling and healthier, and they go elsewhere to do that,” said Crace. “That’s not them failing. That’s us failing them.

The following is from TimelyCare’s Feb 22. webinar “GenZtressed: From Burnout to Balance – Prioritizing Faculty and Staff Well-Being.”

The pandemic affected employees differently

Institutions have a variety of employees that fulfill different missions. Depending on that, individuals who played a part in alleviating the disruption of the pandemic could have been affected in various ways. In the latest CUPA-HR report, Bichsel found that the rate at which a respondent considered leaving their job was related to their job function and how close they were to the student experience.

“Those most likely to look for other employment are student-facing employees, those working in student affairs, enrollment management and academic affairs,” she said. 

Once William & Mary directed employee data by position, it found an alarming ramification of the pandemic on frontline staff.

“We found that many of them as essential personnel were actually traumatized from what they had to do and step into,” said Crace.

However, Bichsel was keen to point out that while administration may be overzealous in focusing on student-facing employees, she noted how shell shock from the pandemic has touched employees from all departments. Once Hobdy’s team at MCCC dug into internal data, they found that facility and maintenance staff had “totally different” issues than those of IT and frontline staff.

Digging into a more granular level, wellness programming at W&M looks different for tenure-eligible faculty than non-tenure faculty, assistant professors and other young professionals.

“We’ve really had to be more nuanced and sophisticated to really hit the specific issues that are causing them strain,” said Crace.

One specific employee cohort that Crace and Hobdy’s team has focused much attention on is supervisors. CUPA-HR found that supervisors are regularly overworked due to absorbing extra responsibilities from job turnover. One of W&M’s most popular seminars for supervisors is learning to flourish through “chronic too-muchness.” MCCC has also established a supervisory effectiveness program.

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Oldschool workplace culture is a net negative on faculty

The friction current employees are dealing with isn’t all pandemic-related. A significant driver of employee dissatisfaction is an age-old issue: workplace culture. TimelyCare recently found that 30% of faculty identified “toxic work environments” as a source of stress. It may also be conducive to suboptimal rates of tenured female faculty.

“I’ve worked at research institutions where the whole adage of ‘publish or perish’ exists and the stress that comes with that,” said Hobdy.

Hobdy and Crace believe it’s vital that workplaces be proactive in addressing employee wellness. At MCCC, they implemented “Wellness Wednesdays,” which allot intentional time to resources and practices on campus, to which staff are invited. At W&M, Crace’s team is moving away from the dichotomy of whether students and employees identify themselves as “well” or “unwell” and is looking to understand the personal and cultural lens of how they define wellness. Different aspects of wellness could be financial, physical, emotional and social. Crace finds the latter to be particularly important to study.

Aside from addressing workplace culture using goodwill, Crace also believes policymaking is needed to help squash deeply grooved workplace habits conducive to a stress glorification culture.”

We even looked at the aspect of what we are awarding on campus,” he said. “Are we giving awards to people who are just working themselves to death?”

Outsource talent to bolster innovation

Institutions don’t have to overcome one of higher education’s penultimate areas of concern by themselves, siloed from one another. Instead, they can leverage their faculty’s research and outsource to professionals.

W&M is leaning on faculty studying wellness to understand the next step forward. Currently, they’re building research project collaboratives that study mindfulness and stress resilience. MCCC recently partnered with a neighboring YMCA to provide its students with more amenities for physical wellness at a discounted rate.

Why higher ed must redefine how employees work

The pandemic opened a pandora’s box surrounding employee satisfaction with working conditions: the need for remote work. While some institutions have taken steps to open up remote work to employees—and are reaping promising results—institutions that don’t will lose their employees. The student-centered mission of higher education is no longer a strong enough incentive to keep staff in the office five days a week, said Bichsel.

We need to be offering the same opportunities that the corporate world is offering them if we want to retain our most talented employees,” she said. “We’re simply not doing that.”

CUPA-HR data showed that two-thirds of employees believed their tasks could be completed at home. Hobdy’s experience at MCCC also corroborates this. She began noticing “detachment” from employees in IT and other office workers who believed their responsibilities could be completed from their homes yet were restricted due to work policies. The community college is currently exploring how to satisfy this overwhelming demand while maintaining a cultural presence.

Bichsel, Crace and Hobdy believe it’s best to start small. For conservative institutions, try experimenting with allowing hybrid work on Fridays or during the summer only.

“You just have to move that needle a little to have a huge impact on employee retention,” said Bichsel. 

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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