compiled by James A. Baumann
Ask anyone if they desire well-being, and there are pretty good
odds they will answer in the affirmative. However, ask anyone to define
well-being, and the answers will be all over the place. Why is it that
something so universally desired can be so difficult to quantify, let alone
That’s one of the more pressing questions being considered within the
campus housing profession. Most recently, it has been considered by a host of
researchers and writers who contributed to a themed issue of The
Journal of College and University Student Housing. Helmed by
guest editor Jason Lynch, the issue explores the topic in a way that will
help readers better understand what well-being looks like, how to manage their
own, and how to advocate for the well-being of those whom they supervise.
Participants in this conversation include Lynch, an assistant
professor of higher education at Appalachian State University; Max Schuster, an
assistant professor of higher education at the University of Pittsburgh;
Brittany McDaniel, associate director of residential life at Washington
University in St. Louis; Joshua Gaylord, an assistant residence director at
Colorado State University; and Jillian Sturdivant, the associate director of
housing and residence life at Winston-Salem State University.
Jason Lynch: Within the workplace, well-being
is the ability to maintain your sense of self, feeling that you are
meaningfully contributing, and feeling psychologically safe.
Jillian Sturdivant: Well-being means that the
majority of your physical, mental, and spiritual (if applicable) selves are in
alignment and that you can function at a thriving
capacity rather than a surviving capacity most of the
time. I would include financial well-being on the list as well. These areas
look different for each person and will differ according to the intersectionality
of their social identities.
Joshua Gaylord: Well-being means a sense of
safety, agency, and fulfillment. Well-being can exist in stressful and
challenging environments, and only by empowering well-being can we exist in
those spaces sustainably.
Max Schuster: For me, well-being is about
gaining personal and professional fulfillment, being relationally focused,
giving and receiving positive energy, expressing gratitude, and finding the
internal peace that comes from openly embracing life’s uncertainties.
Brittany McDaniel: Well-being for me means feeling
content. I know I am well when I'm feeling satisfied, at peace, and just
generally grateful with where I am and how I'm doing in life.
Sturdivant: Often there are demands required of
housing and residence life from external and internal entities. As a supervisor
and leader, I must look at what is essential to the foundation of the
organization and consistently keep a pulse on my staff’s well-being. It’s also
important to learn to advocate for staff
and to understand that saying “no” to campus partners does not mean we are neglecting
relationships; it means we are prioritizing how successful the work will be
with a staff who is thriving more than surviving. I believe there is a balance
to supporting and creating solid relationships with campus partners without
affecting staff well-being.
Internally, we need to consistently review our practices and the why
behind what we do. Innovation is an important part of higher education but
should not be detrimental to staff well-being. We cannot talk about well-being
without acknowledging the mass exodus of talented student affairs professionals
from the field. If we just talk about well-being and do not implement
consistent practices in our work, then we will continue to see the mass exodus.
We have to include physical, mental, financial, and spiritual well-being in the
Gaylord: Over my six years of working in housing and residence life, I've
seen well-being as a privilege rather than a fundamental necessity. The more
upward mobility I've experienced, the more I've been able to maintain my sense
of well-being. However, as a previous resident assistant, and from what I've
heard from those I supervise, well-being isn't always accessible. Generalist
student staff, such as RAs, live, work, and study within an environment that
forces them to respond directly to crises and student needs. In a position of
power, I've been able to create distance between myself and the demands of my
profession, thus giving me room to prioritize my well-being, an ability we
don't provide staff who are the frontline of student affairs.
Lynch: I began my career in housing in 2010 as an ACUHO-I intern. Since
then, I have certainly seen an uptick in the expectations for housing
professionals. Most notable is the response required by the severity and
frequency of student mental health issues, including suicidal ideation, as well
as increased demands from other areas of higher education to serve students in
various ways. Housing departments seem to be the first ones called to deal with
student emergencies or provide staff for various campus events, but they
continue to be underpaid and overworked.
Schuster: More than a decade ago, I started
my career in higher education in residence life as a full-time hall director.
It was meaningful and fulfilling work that I enjoyed and appreciated immensely.
Although responding to student emergencies was a crucial part of the job, it
was a part of the job that happened just some of the time. By the time I ended
my tenure as a resident director six years later, serious crises in the
residence halls were occurring frequently. Since becoming a faculty member,
I’ve advised a number of graduate students who served as assistant hall
directors or held live-in roles in other departments with on-call
responsibilities, and I continued to hear about the uptick in both the
frequency and severity of student crises on college and university campuses.
While it is important to provide robust care to students in times of emergency,
we already know that ongoing exposure to traumas can have physical and
psychological effects on the helpers. I think the surge in student crises on
campus has substantially challenged staff well-being.
McDaniel: Over the past decade we have seen
a greater emphasis on providing quality customer service to our students and
their families. The rising costs of university coupled with the competition
from off-campus student housing has resulted in a need to provide an experience
for students that is not only educational, but also makes students believe
they're getting their money's worth. This can lead to a feeling of dissonance
for staff who might feel strongly that their role should not be oriented to customer
service. Additionally, an increasing number of students are entering college with
significant needs related to their mental and emotional well-being, and our
staff are the individuals responsible for providing support. However, staff do not
always enter their roles with the kind of educational background and training needed
to sufficiently support these students, nor may many realize the degree to
which they will be expected to support students with high levels of mental and emotional
needs. Both the customer service expectations and the need to support students
above and beyond what used to be the norm are contributing to the exhaustion,
frustration, and burnout of staff.
Lynch: This is a complicated question and really centers on the
intersection of several areas. First, our field is really bad at teaching
boundary setting and managing up, yet we expect professionals to come to the
job somehow automatically having these skills. Additionally, as higher
education institutions become more competitive given enrollment declines, more
pressure is put on student-facing staff to be customer centered, though
customer service is often at odds with job expectations within housing,
including educational, community building, and policy enforcement duties.
Finally, there is a significant generational divide in the expectations of work
environments and labor expectations within the housing field. New generations
of professionals reject the notion that they should give more time than they
are compensated for in the hope of moving up, but mid- and upper-level housing
professionals remain stuck in mental models of the past.
Gaylord: As housing and residence life staff, we live where we work, and
work where we live. It's hard to define self-boundaries and disengage when we
don't have the space between our roles as people and professionals.
Schuster: As a faculty member in a higher
education and student affairs program, I know that the graduate students in my
classrooms genuinely care about and value the students they work with. Helping
professionals, like resident assistants and hall directors, often invest high
amounts of emotional labor into their roles. Though some staff can continually
thrive in this environment, it can easily become fatiguing for many others.
Well-being gets tricky for many staff to balance because of residence life’s
very nature. Residence life is one of the areas of higher education that is
always running, and its staff positions have broad duties and far-reaching
responsibilities. Coupled with unexpected student crises and concerns, this all
can create structural tensions wherein individual well-being for staff can, at
least during certain times, be quite difficult to obtain.
McDaniel: One factor that contributes to
this struggle is the chaos and unpredictability of our work. For live-in staff,
needing to work nights regularly can make it harder to establish a regular
routine outside of work. Additionally, when you live where you work and your
neighbors are the students in your area, it can be hard to motivate yourself to
leave campus and socialize with folks not associated with your institution.
Sturdivant: Housing and residence life staff
are first responders for higher education institutions. I believe we have to be
comfortable with acknowledging that the work we do is not typical and that it
does affect our well-being. We deal with a lot of trauma, and often we do not
categorize the experiences as that. We need to promote having a life outside of
higher education and make sure that professional development conversations
include the understanding that our title does not define our worth.
Sturdivant: Protocol and policy can have an
enormous influence on the well-being of staff. I believe there is a difference
between creating solid protocols and policies that cater to the success of
students versus protocols and policies that cater strictly to the perspective that
“we have always done it this way.” You cannot create protocols and policies
that do not make sense for staff, especially if they cannot see how they are centered on
Different generations are entering higher education, and their
perspective tends to be centered on well-being more than it was for previous
generations, and this forces us to do the work of understanding the why
behind what we do. I am all for it! The questions and conversations hold me
accountable as I ascend in my career.
I believe in staff taking time off and utilizing their paid time off
often. I have encouraged my staff to take time off even if they do not feel
like they need it. How the foundation of an organization is set up is essential
to the well-being of staff. You cannot sustain a plant if the soil is tainted
from the beginning. It does not matter what type of weather is occurring around
the plant – the soil is what keeps it sturdy.
Schuster: Supervisors play one of the most
crucial roles in promoting staff well-being, and each supervisor needs to be
given the right training and resources to cultivate an environment that
supports staff well-being. I recently co-authored an article that describes how
a good supervisor can foster well-being among staff by being an attentive
teacher and supportive mentor who regularly builds individual staff capacity,
develops positive team dynamics, practices appreciation, and establishes trust.
Together, these supervisory actions can create an affirming environment for
Lynch: Listen to them. I mean really listen. In many research and
consulting conversations I have with new housing professionals and their
supervisors, there is often strife that seems to result from half-listening
(primarily due to the overwhelming amount of work). For example, I sat with a
supervisor who spoke to how they are always telling their staff to take flex days
and to seek counseling resources from the school's Employee Assistance Program
(EAP). Yet when I talk to the staff, they say they have told their supervisor
that these suggestions aren't helpful. Taking a day off doesn't help when you
live on campus, and particularly in an area that may not have a vibrant
off-campus community, such as rural schools. Staff also relayed their mistrust
in EAP programs and the limiting options for counseling due to cost, location,
or the difficulty of finding a counselor who fits their needs.
Gaylord: As supervisors, for better or worse, we are proxies for every
supervisor our staff has had. It's our responsibility to redefine that
relationship and commit to actions that demonstrate how we prioritize
individual well-being, honesty, agency, and communication. Helping others
manage well-being starts with creating a relationship where being unwell isn't
defined as a sign of incompetence but instead as an indication of resilience.
McDaniel: Use your knowledge and experience
to coach your staff on ways they can care for themselves in the role. Many
supervisors were once in a live-in role and likely experienced the challenges mentioned
in the previous question. Have conversations both one-on-one and in team
settings that prompt folks to think about how they are flexing their time,
establishing a routine, and getting off campus. It can be hard to get outside
the bubble of your institution depending on where you're at geographically, so
having ongoing conversations that encourage staff to meet new people and sign
up for a group, hobby, or class that occurs off campus are effective ways to
help staff manage their well-being.
Gaylord: I would suggest de-generalizing staff roles and training more
specialists to handle mental health and crisis response.
Schuster: Right now, we’re at the exciting
intersection where theory and research are more and more meeting practice in
some bold and resourceful ways. For example, the new residential staff model
I’ve read a lot about at George Washington University is an inventive approach
that completely re-envisions the traditional staffing structure, with
professional community coordinators instead of resident assistants or hall
directors. Similarly, more institutions are embedding social workers, case
managers, or clinicians in their residence life operations, which can keep
residence life staff from being pulled in multiple directions. Additionally,
low hanging fruit exists for improving professional staff well-being as human
resource and management research continually tells us that giving staff more
vacation days and personal time off boosts overall well-being and improves
productivity. Over time, continuing to advance this work will require both
small-scale fixes to address immediate issues and large-scale overhauls that
focus on long-lasting solutions.
Lynch: Many housing departments have switched to a contract model for
full-time, live-in staff, where these professionals cycle out every three to
five years. As a result of such policies, these professionals are pushed out
right as they begin getting a feel for the job and learning how to set healthy
boundaries. When I was a new professional, I often looked up to those who had
worked in live-in roles for many years as they taught me how to keep
perspective, say no, and maintain my well-being.
Sturdivant: I believe that Employee
Assistance Programs, as they relate to
counseling services, should be talked
about more and given as a professional development tool.
McDaniel: As soon as staff start in their
roles, have an open conversation about what flex time means at this institution
and remind them to utilize flex time after having a long duty night or working
an after hours program or event. Along the same lines, remind staff to use
their vacation time and take sick time when they're not feeling well. Let them
know that the job will always be here, but they need to be well before they can
take care of others. Additionally, share information about EAP resources on a
regular basis with staff and explain the array of support an employee can
receive through this program.
Gaylord: Offer trauma-informed, restorative, and authoritative leadership
training for both supervisors and staff. Sharing a collective language and
respect for boundaries creates a culture in which we can achieve our goals and
encourage, protect, and create space for staff to prioritize well-being.
Schuster: There are a number of structural
factors that make balancing well-being difficult for those working in residence
life. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how higher education and student
affairs (HESA) programs can teach well-being maintenance strategies to graduate
students so that they can be adequately prepared to handle the effects that
come from responding to student crises during the course of their careers.
Right now, I’m not convinced that most of these programs are doing enough to
directly teach these skills to graduate students before they are encountering
or responding to a crisis for the first time. At the same time, I’m sure that
some HESA programs do this type of training exceptionally well. As a field,
HESA has a lot to learn from other relationally focused disciplines that
regularly respond to crises and trauma, like social work, counseling, and
emergency management. If we get better at teaching these skills at the graduate
level, we could potentially help promote staff well-being for the long term.
This is just one of the many pieces of the overall organizational puzzle that
can help open new possibilities for student and staff well-being in residence
Sturdivant: We have great conversations
surrounding well-being, but action is needed to hold the conversation about
staff being appreciated and being heard. As I have gone up the ladder of
housing and residence life, I have learned to be aware of my title, and when I
give a task to someone this can look different from a peer doing the same thing.
They might feel like they have to rush to get it completed, when in actuality
they have a few weeks or a month. Planning (if an organization can) and being
aware of the influence of titles is something to think about.
Lynch: Many things need to change, but two immediately come to mind: (1)
Senior housing officers need to understand that the housing jobs of today are
drastically different from when they were new professionals. Acknowledging
this, they must be braver in advocating on behalf of their staff to senior
leaders at their institution in order to protect staff from unreasonable work
demands and lack of resources. (2) Housing professionals desperately need
ongoing formal supervisory training at all levels. In almost every study I read
related to staff well-being, and even within my own research, the one common
thread that comes up is poor supervision.
McDaniel: We need to start critically
considering if we are sufficiently staffed and resourced to support the
well-being of the students who are entering our institution. For institutions
in urban settings, how can we partner with community organizations to offer
resources and supports that our staff don't have capacity to offer? How are we
communicating transparently with prospective students and families about the
level of support we are able to reasonably provide should they enroll at our
James A. Baumann is the editor of Talking Stick.