In July, I wrote to you about transitions and how much they can make us feel overloaded. In recent conversations with POD Network colleagues, though, I’ve felt like it’s more than transitions that are exhausting us. I see, hear, and feel the stress and anxiety that is sapping our energy.

In our field and our roles, now more than ever we are being relied on to support mammoth changes in practices, to support campus plans that conflict with our beliefs or even jeopardize safety, or to bear responsibility for making plans on behalf of our institutions. For others of us, we have lost our jobs, been put on furlough, or perceive that our institutions may not withstand the coming months, and are feeling immense anxiety from that uncertainty. Overall, it feels like we’re doing a relentless series of “stress sprints” that are turning into a marathon. Are there ways to take back some sense of control?

For me, it’s hard to see past the immediate fire in front of me to consider how I could take a different approach. I’ve just returned from taking a few days off where I took some time to think about my approach—what’s working and not. I have a few ideas to share with you. Sometimes hearing someone else’s stories helps us to reflect and recalibrate.

Unpack what’s exhausting you: On my recent break, I read a leadership book called Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. Lots of interesting and useful strategies shared for how to harness our courage and tap into our feelings. One story that stuck with me was about an Air Force squadron where the pace of work was identified as tiring everyone out. Sound familiar? But when they dug deeper, they identified loneliness as the root cause. During the pandemic, it would seem plausible that loneliness may play a role for us, too. Online meetings are often far more transactional than relational. Many of us haven’t seen family members or friends face-to-face for months. Some of us may not have been hugged for that long. It’s heartbreaking. We can’t change the pandemic, but we can reflect on our feelings and engage in self-care.  

Set boundaries: This strategy can feel impossible when the ground is constantly shifting beneath us, but it’s absolutely critical for self-care. We are in service roles and often pride ourselves on timely responses to requests for our assistance. And parts of us may feel encouraged (and reassured) at being so needed. But only we understand our workload and what we feel prepared to do. It can be tough to triage (or even divert) requests when the queue feels endless, but we still have to do it. We aren’t at our best when we work 10, 12, 14 hour days. One strategy that I use is to regularly open up discussions about deadlines and goals. I seek clarity about what really needs to get done, and I ask what can wait a day, a week, a month, or even a whole term. You might be surprised if only you ask.

Prioritize what brings you joy: You’ve likely heard the story about filling a jar with big rocks, pebbles, sand, and water. Bottom line, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, they won’t fit later. For me, those big rocks are my family, regular exercise, and escape activities like reading and sitting on my deck with a nice glass of chianti. None of those things is my job. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but I also recognize that it could take all my waking hours, especially during the pandemic. There’s no end to the work, but if I don’t take time for what energizes me, there’s not much left to give.

Overall, we can help others best when we care for ourselves first and make time for what really matters to us. Our marathon isn’t nearly over. So be gentle with yourselves. Take a deep breath. Reach out to family, friends, and colleagues (in your own unit and beyond). Do whatever you can to help you feel more centered and able to bring your best to all you do. And let the rest go. 

Best, Donna

Dr. Donna Ellis

POD Network President
Director, Centre for Teaching Excellence
University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON Canada
donnae@uwaterloo.ca