The Trending Prof

Anita Woods Ph.D., University Educator
Faculty Mental Health and Wellness

Faculty Mental Health and Wellness

The year is near the end and I have only two more lectures to give. I am tired but I am in a way better state this year than the previous. I made many changes in my work life to help me make it to the end with more of a smile on my face. It was due to the burn out that was my previous academic year that I realized that I HAD to make a change.   Although I think I was at my best for my students during the previous year, I was so miserably tired that I was unable to do simple things like answer emails once classes were over. I dreaded email. I loathed email. I was so burnt out, the thought of answering just one more question put me into a depressive state. I knew I was not capable of continuing on with that pace with out early career burn out. My balance was wrong.

Two months later, I attended a conference where we had a session that focused on faculty health and wellness. I have attended many seminars on how to promote student health and wellness and that is a topic of extreme interest to me. However, I hadn’t realized how I had neglected my own health in my job.  The first few words of the seminar leaders had me in tears and I hadn’t really thought about how being an educator is to put yourself in a vulnerable state.

It is certainly true. Teaching is a vulnerable thing. We stand on a platform, with what we hope is a well planned lesson. We hope that we have provoked thought in the audience, and somehow managed to unravel a deep piece of information that is accessible. We try to be engaging and interesting despite being tired or having a million other things that could take our focus away. In the meanwhile, having to look the part, sound the part and to never make an error for we know that one little error will be discussed at large by the student body. We have to be careful with our words all the time. Office visits, calls from the parents, emails of complaint, letters of reference…all of our words are carefully measured so that we are consistent, fair, kind and also known by the student body to be unwavering in our pursuit to maintain the academic integrity of the schools we represent. If thinking burned as many calories as physical activity, I have run many marathons in my brain.

I have struggled this past year with being the best at what I do for my students and also being protective of my own well being so that I was not destroyed by the end of the year.  I implemented some changes that made a difference for me.

  1. Office hours only during office hours times. I have turned students away this year that have dropped by without appointment and outside of my regular times. Especially when I was able to assess if it was an emergency or not, boundaries had to be in place. It helped me to keep on task and bring less work home at night (although many nights still had work to do, it was more like 3 hours of work instead of 5).
  2. Answer emails at a set time during the day and only once.  For me, it is first thing in the morning once my coffee cup has been graciously filled with hot tasty caffeine.
  3. Just say no. I have been invited to a number of extra events by other faculty, students and outside. All of these events were great but they were time away from my family. I have only a few sweet hours with my kids before they go to bed and I didn’t want to give that time up with them.
  4. Get some sleep and workout. I need my rest so I set the timer and even though there were more things to do, I had to get some rest. Also, with young kids, there is no guarantee that a night of sleep will be without interruption. The hardest part of my last year was modifications to my regular workouts. I usually run when I am stressed but most activities were cut due to an injury. Instead of running I was stuck with walking. But I have to say, walking was an okay change but I am thankfully medically approved to get back to what I love to do.
  5. Don’t try to be perfect. I will never stop working hard but I will stop trying to be perfect all the time. There are a lot of demands and it is near impossible to do them all 100% the way I have done in the past because it is all time consuming. Sometimes working hard and then stopping preparation when it is reasonable is more than okay.

If you are reading this as a student, take these words of advice…think about your undergraduate career as a marathon that you want to finish well. Don’t over do it and burn yourself out so that you are incapable of finishing, or incapable of pursuing that next thing. Sleep, eat, do what you can, learn to say no, cut out what doesn’t have to happen, do well but not being perfect is perfectly okay. You can’t sprint for four years. Medical school is in your sites? You still have a lot more to learn when you are there, and a broken student will not flourish.


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