Amy Tureen credits a former supervisor's odd request with shaping her approach to leadership wellness. It was Tureen's first day, and rather than focusing on job expectations, her supervisor made her promise to value her mind, body, and spirit as much as her professional accomplishments.
Looking back on her initial interaction, the associate professor and head of the Library Liaison Program in University Libraries felt empowered to consider her own wellness in the course of doing her job. That approach shaped Tureen’s interest in leadership wellness, with a particular emphasis on higher education.
Drawing from her extensive career working and training at colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada, Tureen recently co-edited the book, Leadership Wellness and Mental Health Concerns in Higher Education. She also co-authored two of its chapters on leadership wellness.
Here, she discusses the concept of leadership wellness, the challenges of leadership wellness in higher education, and tips for supervisors on implementing leadership wellness techniques.
How do you define the concept of leadership wellness?
Leadership wellness is multifaceted and can include any combination of the following established domains of wellness: emotional/mental, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual. While these domains of wellness are relevant for everyone, regardless of positional or occupational status, they are of particular importance in leaders because of the roles leaders have in establishing, maintaining, and normalizing culture.
Employees will look to leaders to see what the culture tolerates in terms of wellness. Employees who receive 10 p.m. action item emails from their supervisors may intuit an unspoken expectation to work extended hours, while employees who watch their boss pop up a “quiet time” or “thinking time” sign may well understand that work, in that culture, is not exclusively tied to deliverables. Leadership wellness asks leaders to monitor their own wellness as a barrier to establishing unofficial – or official – unhealthy expectations regarding accepted behaviors, traditions, and norms.
Leaders who lack wellness in one or more of these areas may operate at a deficit, and all too often their subordinates may bear the brunt of this imbalance. This can also result in a cascade effect, wherein an exhausted supervisor takes out their stress on an employee, who takes out their stress on a student worker, who in turn takes out their stress on their parents or siblings when they return home. That’s four or more people who could have been left unharmed had the original leader taken time to care for their wellness needs.
Continued poor wellness in a leader may eventually lead to establishing an unhealthy or even toxic workplace culture. Leaders need to manage their wellness not only for themselves, but for the sake of those who follow them.
How did you first become interested in this topic?
When I first started in libraries I had a simply amazing boss, Theresa Rhodes. On my first day she made me promise her three things: that I would find friends who worked outside the university; that I would find a place to engage with whatever was spiritually meaningful to me; and that I would engage in some form of physical activity that I enjoyed.
At the time, the importance of her requests didn’t really sink in, but when I became a supervisor myself I realized what an incredible gift she had given me. By requesting those agreements, my boss was telling me that part of working for her meant caring for myself in mind, body, and spirit. Over the course of my years working for Theresa, she regularly communicated value for her own wellness and, in doing so, empowered her reports to do the same for ourselves.
When I transitioned into a research position, I became interested in the role of wellness in both the development of individual leaders and the organizational cultures they led. I was curious about how organizations explicitly and implicitly communicate the value of employee wellness and how leaders supported or contradicted these values by way of their personal, and yet still public, behavioral choices. I wanted to know if Theresa was unique in her approach to embedding wellness and the value of wellness into her leadership and, if she wasn’t, how others communicated the same message.
What are some of the major challenges or issues that you’ve seen in terms of mental health and wellness in academics and higher education?
While colleges and universities often talk about supporting the whole student, our required curriculum is rarely holistic. Those opportunities that do exist are optional, sometimes for an additional fee, and require students to take an interest and get involved on their own initiative.
Holistic care for higher education employees is even more rare and all too often is provided by colleagues with a personal interest in fields like wellness and mindfulness and who are willing to share their knowledge and labor with their colleagues without compensation. I note this because among the many challenges to mental health and wellness in higher education is establishing it is a topic important enough to discuss and prioritize — much less fund — at all. Individual employee wellness has a direct impact on how employees show up and do their work. It is not a responsibility exclusive to the individual as the impact of success or failure in this arena has a direct and often measurable impact on the community at large.
Another more nebulous challenge in recent years is, of course, capitalism and the changing economic role of higher education. Increases in tuition, the slow replacement of grant-funded education in favor of interest-generating, loan-funded education, the commodification of educational attainment, mounting tenure expectations, increased use of perilously employed adjunct instructors, and an encroaching push to see students as customers rather than apprentices or scholars have added both economic and social pressure to higher education workers of all types.
Bust-and-boom cycles within the field have led to too many applicants for too few positions, changes in demographics such as flagging birth rates suggest we will soon have far more universities than interested students to fill them, and ongoing financial belt tightening due to multiple national and international economic downturns have seen the responsibility portfolios of many higher education employees swell. This in turn has resulted in increased stress and the establishment of a scarcity mindset.
Students, who are often higher education leaders in their own right, are also not immune from risks for their mental health and wellness. Bachelor's degrees are increasingly becoming a requirement for entry-level employment, threatening to put the vast majority of workers into personal debt before they are able to start to earn. Internships, often unpaid, and work-study experience are increasingly the norm in some professions, requiring students to be both student and worker concurrently, potentially in addition to any additional compensated work a student may engage in to meet their own financial needs.
Competition for limited teaching assistant and research assistant positions, limited travel funding for graduate students, and even the sometimes cutthroat scrabble for a handful of As on a graded curve put students into direct conflict with one another and exacerbate the sense that success and happiness is dependant on external criteria. The ongoing pandemic added still more pressure, asking students to master skills and concepts that were, for many teachers, being taught via an entirely new modality for the first time.
How can supervisors implement some of the information talked about in the book?
Supervisors can start by being mindful of their own wellness needs and clear in communicating that wellness – theirs and that of their employees – is important. Supervisors also need to practice self awareness and learn to appreciate not only their intent, but also the impact of their communication, management, and leadership styles. Several of the chapters recommend processes to critically evaluate one’s own professional practice with the assistance of peers. Others provide tips on how individuals can deepen their sense of peace and resilience by engaging intimately with the wellness domains that they most resonate with.
I encourage supervisors who choose to read the book to share their learning with others. Use the material to start a dialogue, both with yourself and your reports. A conversation starter as simple as “how can I better help you feel empowered to prioritize your personal wellness?” can lead to a robust and illuminating conversation.
What are some of the biggest issues highlighted in the book?
Stress, resilience, and self-improvement loom large in many of the chapters. While some authors elected to tackle more generic examples of challenges to wellness and mental health (overwork, job creep, poor leadership styles, etc.) or established systemic traumas to personal wellness (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.), other authors chose to write about specific incidents and their impact on the wellness of both themselves and their communities. Some were remarkably unique (such as studying in Syria while bombs actively rained down on campus), while others impacted broader communities but were in no way less personal or signficniant (such as dual campus and community-destroying hurricanes and the psycho-social impact of COVID-19). Many authors wrote not only of the impact of wellness challenges, but also offered solutions, citing the power of communities (such as mentors, sharing circles, cohorts, and even research centers) to collectively grow, learn, and heal.
What are some roles university administration plays in supporting the wellness of employees?
University administrators are at the top of setting cultural expectations and norms related to wellness. Like supervisors, they both model and enforce what is permissible and what is not, but they also have atypical authority to establish wellness as a central value within an organization.
This commitment can be explicitly stated in a number of ways, such as articulated values in vision statements, membership in the United States Health Promoting Campus Network, or electing to adopt the Okanagan Charter on an institutional level. This commitment can also be implicit by providing policies and benefits which help employees and students meet their individual wellness goals.
Examples of implicit support may include flexible work schedules, hybrid classrooms that allow students to attend class in person or remotely as needed, free wellness programming, and both promoting and supporting skill attainment in wellness-related activities such as mind-body medicine, art therapy, and bystander intervention techniques.
What are some tips or core research that leaders should keep in mind when considering the wellness of employees?
Individuals interested in mind-body wellness should review the work of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine either at their website directly or via REBELearn where Annie Weisman, director of well-being and integrative medicine at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, provides an entire course on the topic.
Those interested specifically in the intersection of leadership and wellness should consider reading the work of Shola Richards, Scott Eblin and Scott Behson.
I also recommend that anyone who is working in or plans to ever work in a team or shared environment pickup Liz Fosslein and Mollie West Duffy’s delightful and fabulously illustrated book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work.