As you walk around your campus, are you ever struck by how many students, faculty, and staff are on their phones, unaware of what's going on around them? Or are you too immersed in your own digital device to notice?
It's understandable if you are. The tsunami of social media and tech advances can make it hard to shut off, whether you are a student suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out) or an advancement professional who wants to be responsive to every tweet, post, and comment. But this 24/7 plugged-in mindset can come with a mental health cost—one that is starting to be acknowledged more openly.
Universities UK, whose members are university vice-chancellors and principals, recently launched a student and staff framework that calls for every institution to make mental health a strategic priority. The #stepchange vision calls, in part, for higher education institutions to "be inclusive and supportive learning communities, prioritising mental health for everyone who lives, learns, or works in our organisations, offering access to excellent support and care for those who need it, laying the foundation for lifelong mental health." Four U.K. universities are currently piloting #stepchange, and the University of York is one of the first to implement the framework.
This is a positive step. But what can those of us working in our institutions' fast-paced digital worlds do in our own lives to prioritize our mental well-being while also staying on top of our responsibilities? It can be a difficult balancing act.
At the 2017 CASE Europe Annual Conference in the U.K., I hosted a breakfast roundtable on health and well-being for those in higher education communications. Topics included presenteeism (staying at your desk longer than your contracted hours), building personal resilience, exercise and productivity, meeting expectations, and supporting colleagues with poor mental health.
Here are 10 takeaways from the session, as well as from my own experience, that I hope can help you create a better work-life balance:
Some communications professionals at the roundtable said that working in high-pressure environments such as newsrooms has helped them deal with the demands of their current role. Experiencing and overcoming adversity is how we develop coping mechanisms to handle stressful situations.
Earlier in my career, I held a digital role within the U.K. government that required frequent emergency shift work as part of a regional communications team. I was working on a contract basis and eager to secure a permanent role on a team I loved. But the extra shifts, while exhilarating, took a lot out of me mentally and physically. During core office hours, the adrenaline of the previous day or night was replaced with a pile of work I needed to finish to meet the expectations of internal and external customers.
After struggling with my load, I spoke with my customers about the off-hours tasks I was performing, which were helping the wider business. Once they understood the situation, they were more receptive to helping me deal efficiently with any backlogs.
As a digital communications professional, you need to master channels and apps and stay on top of the news. When I reviewed my own habits around social media use, I found that I was spending much of my time glued to timelines and feeds, consuming content. I now focus less on consuming and more on creating content within new apps, testing approaches that could be used on institutional channels.
I also sought clarification from managers about responsibilities for monitoring channels during evenings and weekends, as well as customer service guidelines. Sharing this information with my communications colleagues and senior staff helped them better understand the digital and social media teams' workloads and responsibilities.
According to a February 2017 #FuturePRoof report for the U.K. PR and communications professionals association PRCA, 56.7 percent of PR and communications professionals are uncomfortable or very uncomfortable talking with colleagues about their own mental health. This needs to change. If you're struggling or feeling overwhelmed at work, speak to a trusted colleague, your boss, or staff support services. It's the first step to getting back on track.
More than one member of the roundtable discussed the difficulty of meeting unrealistic expectations set by senior management. Are you educating those around you about media, content, and audience trends? Does senior management understand what you do, the size of your team, and what can (realistically) be achieved?
I'm now much more open with managers about my well-being and workload. "Speaking truth to power" isn't easy, but it's vitally important to challenge unclear or unrealistic expectations.
Go for a walk around campus, and check in with teams across your institution with whom you rarely interact. You might learn something you didn't know that could help you do your job.
I've regularly found great content or a news tip by popping into the Students' Union communications team room or knocking on academics' doors. Everyone's so swamped with email and other priorities, but being visible on campus can help you find stories that might not otherwise see the light of day.
Is presenteeism (being at your desk for more hours than the job requires or when you're sick or otherwise not able to be productive) the norm at your institution? One roundtable participant asked the group if presenteeism is linked to job advancement. The group agreed that dedication and going above and beyond won't harm your career prospects, but staying at your desk longer than required will likely affect both physical and mental health.
One roundtable participant raved about how a lunchtime running club has helped relieve stress and spur connections with colleagues. If you can't get out at lunch, jogging or walking a mile or two in the morning or evening gets the blood flowing and settles the mind. According to a Cyclescheme study, 33 percent of respondents believe that those who bike or walk to work are more productive than non-cyclists/-walkers. I break up my commute with running and cycling, and I sign up for races to give me training goals.
Drowning under work tasks can lead to extra anxiety and stress. Take 10 minutes each morning to prioritize tasks, and consider using an app like Trello to stay on top of deadlines and team workflow. When you are gearing up to go on holiday, get as much done as you can before you go away, so that you aren't leaving too much for those covering for you. But don't fret about nonurgent work that can wait until you get back.
One piece of advice from the CASE conference stuck with me: Use 70 percent of your time at work to do things you are told to do, and use 30 percent for doing things you want to do. The 30 percent could be developing new skills or knowledge or working on projects that could benefit your institution in the future.
According to the #FuturePRoof report, 53 percent of PR and communications professionals are unaware if the leave policy at their workplace specifically addresses mental health. Do you know if yours does? Information is power.
Alistair Beech is senior social media coordinator in the Division of Communications and Marketing at the University of Manchester in the U.K.