November 30, 2009

Stress Management Strategies for Academic Leaders and Faculty

By: in Academic Leadership

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During the past year or so the poor economy has forced everyone to do more with less. Now it’s almost December and we’re in the thick of the end-of-semester crunch … with the pressures of the holiday season closing in fast. Feeling a little stressed?

What follows is an excerpt of an email interview Tim Hatfield, a professor of counselor education at Winona State University, conducted with Academic Leader in an advance of his Nov. 18 online seminar Stress Management and Self-Care for Academic Leaders. The advice could be helpful to anyone, not just those in leadership positions.

Q: How do you keep from getting stressed by things that don’t matter?

Hatfield: By developing habits of mind that include constantly appraising what is going on inside you and all about you, and acting intentionally about the things that in fact warrant your attention. One would think that anyone as smart as a highly educated college administrator would easily be able to do this, but it is not just about intellectual ability. A person’s attitudes, beliefs, and emotional and interpersonal intelligence all come into play as well. And being willing to rethink an issue then act accordingly is not an automatic response for many people. But it can be practiced and learned.

Q: People are often a source of stress. Is there a way to manage people that can reduce stress?

Hatfield: One general issue for managers is to be clear about their own personal boundaries vis-à-vis the people working with them. By that I mean it is always helpful to know where one’s own issues end and where the other person’s issues begin. The other very general issue is about communicating clearly, openly, honestly, and frequently with colleagues. This includes when things are going well, too, not just when there is a problem to “manage.” The clear communication of expectations often can preclude some problems. The clear communication of corrective feedback can redirect things before they get too far off track. The respectful communication about a job well done can reinforce colleagues’ positive efforts (a friend of mine calls this “catching people being good”).

Q: What is the hardest aspect of managing stress?

Hatfield: Sticking with it as a process. One does not put in time and effort to reduce stress with the expectation that one is going to eliminate it. There always will be more stressors to confront—that is a given. So operating with the assumption that one needs to KEEP doing things that reduce stress, to remain vigilant, to remain in process matters very much indeed.

Q: What does the research say about stress and performance? Is a certain level of stress good?

Hatfield: Stress typically is seen as a bad thing, but Hans Selye, one of the giants of stress research, pointed out that the only way to have NO stress is to be dead. And academic administrators, like everyone else, benefit from having enough stress to be stimulated, motivated—not so much that they are overwhelmed, not so little that they are bored or uninvolved. One metaphor about this that may be instructive is of a string on a violin. Too little stress on the string and the resulting sound is flat; too much stress and the sound is screechy (and the string even could break); the right amount of stress results in beautiful music. All administrators, all faculty and staff, would prefer to make beautiful music, which in a complex environment always is a challenge.

Adapted from Stress and the Academic Leader, Academic Leader, Oct. 2009.

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