This is self care

Self-care is critical right now.

Three years after a change management experience in which I felt like a shunted  carriage in Thomas the Tank Engine, I am once again at the mercy of a university restructure. This time I have managerial responsibility for others who are facing redundancy. Supporting them is a good distraction from my own woes, but self care is critical if I am going to maintain health and energy during this time.

In and experimental paper (paywalled)—Self-care for academics: a poetic invitation to reflect and resistSiobhan O’Dwyer, Sarah Pinto and Sharon McDonough write a poem entitled 

Self care: a manifesto

Eat apple pancakes smothered in Nutella.

Practice yoga
Watch The English Patient
Turn off email notifications
Walk…
Wind wool around needles
Survive a spin class
Go to the movies in the middle of the day
Exist.
Write a list of self-care activities
Publish it in a good journal
Encourage your colleagues to reflect on their own self-care
Resist.

This post is a snapshot of what I am doing to prioritise self-care right now, specific to my context: career stage, available resources, caring responsibilities, working conditions and temperament. It is vital that self-care is not seen as the appropriate response to manage complex systemic problems. Universities are frequently workplaces that undercare for their staff. The solution is not to individualise care. Staff do not need workshops on how to manage their time or adopt mindful practices as the only response to role overload and workplace stress.

In the introduction to Mindfulness in the Academy, Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough (2018) write:

[We] question suggestions that academics in any university developing mindfulness and compassion practices should simply ‘cope’ with systemic factors such as the stress of poor resourcing, excessive workloads, or aggressive behaviour from colleagues … We do not solve the systemic problems that exist in higher education as this problem solving cannot be done individually. We write this book from a perspective that encourages us, and readers, to examine how we can look at ourselves as individuals within the environment and how might we disrupt those environments through mindful actions and formal or informal mindfulness practices.

The need for individual self-care in universities makes institutional care imperative.

That said, these are my current self-care practices.

1. Focus on health

This depends on your age and your physical and mental wellbeing and ability. For me, it has meant scheduling preventative health checks (blood pressure, cholesterol, cervical cancer screening, breast check, dental check up, eye test). I am also following up with specialists to manage my specific health conditions (including Hashimoto’s disease, increased risk of glaucoma, and chronic pain managed with an implanted neurostimulator).

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I exercise daily with an app that means I can workout at home while the kids get ready for school. My phone counts my daily steps, and I have started to log the food I eat to encourage wholefood choices. I recently sought the advice of a dietician and exercise physiologist to manage having the metabolism of a peri-menopausal woman. (To put that another way: my six year old’s calorie needs are much higher than mine).

2. Reflect on priorities

Self-care can be uncomfortable work. I have been asking myself some challenging questions:

  • Does this matter?
  • Is this what I want to do?
  • What can I control?
  • What do I need to do to look after myself today?
  • What would an ideal day look like?
  • What is getting in the way?

This year I have been fortunate to work with a coach as part of a professional development program, who has helped me think through these questions. (You may not have these resources available to you, but find out what is on offer. At my university, six coaching or counselling sessions per year are available to all staff, including casuals, and their immediate family members).

I’ve focussed on the things that sustain me and contribute to my wellbeing—spending time with family, outsourcing home tasks (such as online food shopping), going outside and reading for pleasure. I’ve identified what detracts from my wellbeing, and I have set myself specific tasks (which are works in progress):

  • Schedule two half-hour slots per week in my work calendar for unstructured time
  • Rearrange my morning routine so that I don’t check work emails first thing
  • Take a daily iron supplement
  • Make time to text friends at least twice a week
  • Give my parents a thank you present for taking the kids to daily swimming lessons during school holidays
  • Read from my TBR (to-be-read) pile before buying or borrowing new books

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3. Get help and support from others

Self-care is not an individual pursuit.

Putting your own needs first, however briefly, means letting go of things you usually control, requesting help, relying on others, saying no to things, knowing work has to be done by someone else, leaving work undone, asking for more time. During a stressful time at work, the company of like-minded souls is more important than ever. And the retreat of time with family and friends, and the nourishment of time alone, are crucial.

4. Enjoy yourself

In the midst of workplace upheaval, I’m looking forward to many things in the coming weeks and months:

  • getting a dog
  • lunches with old friends
  • young adult book club (for adults only). This month we’re reading boarding school books
  • seeing collaborative research writing (completed over many, many years) submitted for publication
  • visiting a ryokan (Japanese inn) in Sydney without the kids
  • going to the beach during January school holidays
  • receiving Narelle Lemon’s mindful self-care cards
  • the next book(s) on my shelf. I was going to list just one, but who am I kidding? Let’s make it the four I can’t decide between next: The TestamentsThe Old Lie, Imaginary Friend, and Girl, Woman, Other
  • visiting Japan Supernatural at the NSW Art Gallery
  • discovering the Australian bird of the year. Will it be the endangered black-throated finch?

Not too many work tasks made the above list, but I will look for enjoyment there too.

Staying optimistic

When I mentioned to my kids last Friday morning that it was board game night, they both cheered. This response kept me happy all day. Playing together has been enjoyable for all of us. There have been other benefits: I am finding it easier not to win, something I have enjoyed most of my life. I emphasise that I am not letting go of winning (merely biding my time).

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I am playing Junior Scrabble and Junior Monopoly with a different primary goal in mind: how to help the youngest player (6) compete against a determined-to-win older sister (13). (Hint to other players: order of play and seating arrangements are key, but two players working cooperatively can undermine a single player whose strategies include hoarding the ‘good’ letters. Note that once I shared this insight with the teen player, she combined strategic cooperation with a determination to win, an unbeatable combination).

Is this an analogy for academia? Isn’t everything? To name just a few on social media: broken chairs, lego, vending machines, and Game of Thrones.

The spark of joy that lasted all day (my cheering kids) matters this week. My usual joie de vivre has been fleeting and delicate. Hence this post: I have needed to work at optimism. Call it what you will—optimism (not the cruel sort), resilience, durability, perseverance, grit (as it is named on the Australian Qualifications Framework review discussion paper). I mean the thing that keeps me feeling, on the whole, more positive than negative about my work, myself and my university.

For a more academic version of this, with lots of references, here is how colleagues and I describe engagement with work in a recent paper on early career academics:

Engagement is a state characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption (Schaufeli,Bakker, & Salanova, 2006), opposite to burnout, which is characterised by reductions in motivation and productivity, as well as cynicism and exhaustion (González-Romá, Schau-feli, Bakker, & Lloret, 2006). The extent to which workers perceive their organisation cares about their wellbeing and values their contribution, both now and in the future, influences engagement in workplaces (Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Vandenberghe, 2009). Support can be demonstrated through a range of rewards, benefits and flexible work arrangements, along with a supportive culture with clear and reasonable expectations for workers (Castelló, McAlpine, & Pyhältö, 2017; Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Van-denberghe, 2009; Saks, 2006). In addition to increased engagement, job satisfaction and wellbeing, perceived organisational support also increases workers’ affective commitment to their organisation along with objective performance (Kurtessis et al., 2017).

Universities are not always caring institutions. So what did I do to re-engage myself, to renew my ‘vigour, dedication and absorption’ in work and my ‘affective commitment’ to my university? First, I disengaged. I took a day off work. Mid-week, I spent a day alone doing things I like. I loved it, and would like to do it more often.

On my return to work, with colleagues commenting on how relaxed I looked, I arranged future coffee and lunch meetings to catch up with people whose company revives me. I focused on tasks I enjoy. I looked for the positive and I read Humans of Macquarie on Instagram. Here are brief excerpts. You can read the full posts, and see photos on Instagram.

I have always wanted to be a teacher. I never knew why; I felt really bright in primary school but it kind of faded into dullness when I hit high school and I just kind of drifted for a few years. I struggled a lot with mental health and identity issues. I was finally able to open up, and I started developing into my own person when I found real, meaningful relationships with other people (Sam, Psych & Education)

 I suppose my biggest fear was just being a filler person. You know, that kind of person that although in every practical sense lives a decent life, untimely ends up as just another tally on the population counter. University I feel has been able to subside that fear by exposing me to opportunities and incredible people, giving me some direction in my otherwise messy life. (Alysha, Anthropology)

My mother was barely in adulthood when she decided to go to New Zealand from Fiji and pursue further studies, against the wishes of her conservative Hindu family. She’s now one of the most high-ranked Registered Nurses at her hospital. Here’s where I come along: a cheeky brown kid in year 6, about to conclude my ‘About Me’ speech. I told my class that I WILL become a Barrister. The teacher chuckled, for according to her I had many imperfections. Like my mother, I refuse to accept the perceptions of others. (Krishna, History, English & Law).

These stories are nourishing.

Postscript: My teenager told me to write this: she is growing into a strong, determined-to-win, brave and courageous hero. Her greatest strength is her ability to creatively ‘ship’ Harry Potter characters. (Here’s Urban Dictionary on shipping for the uninitiated).

Less-than-perfect capabilities

I have a love/ hate relationship with university graduate capabilities statements. You know, those ubiquitous institutional claims about the attributes of their graduates, and the skills, knowledge, values and dispositions their degrees impart. For example:

Our students will enter a globalising world of major environmental change and resource constraints, of scientific and technological advance and ethical challenge, of continuing political instability and possible international conflicts, of unlimited creativity and increasing social surveillance … We considered the capabilities the University’s graduates would need to develop to address the challenges, and to be effective, engaged participants in their world.

What I love about them (other than their dystopian vision): they have been a fruitful source of research with colleagues as we have gathered statements from forty Australian universities from the 1980s to now. We have written about graduate attributes in relation to social inclusion, student engagement, and global citizenship. We have some further analysis in progress, focused on employability and international comparisons. I have enjoyed this research more than expected, not only because it was an excellent collaborative experience, but because it enabled us to consider questions about the purposes of higher education. (For those interested in a philosophical approach to this topic, I recommend a new blog by my colleague Mitch Parsell The Conflict of the Faculties).

What I hate about graduate capabilities: their uniformity across institutions, compliance for the purposes of constructive alignment, and proliferation across all levels of education. Like universities, my daughter’s primary school promises to develop lifelong learning and global citizenship. Even my son’s preschool promises to develop lifelong learning and global citizenship. I don’t think that captures the best of learning and teaching at any of those organisations.

I have been reflecting on a recent conversation with a self-described perfectionist. This colleague has nailed the planning our university performance review system asks of people: a 5 year plan, a 3 year plan, a 1 year plan. She knows what she needs to achieve this month, this week and today in order to meet her long-term goals. Being a less-than-precise planner (as I have previously posted, I am better at dreaming than planning), my heart started palpitating as she described listing three daily goals that align with her plans.

I started thinking about what my daily goals might look like, and I have realised they would be the same every day of the week: have an interesting conversation, spend some time outside, enjoy eating and reading.

So far today, I’m achieving my goals.  I listened to an unkindness of Australian ravens from my balcony:

I read the introduction to No Friend But the Mountains over a delicious breakfast of strawberries, yogurt and muesli. More interesting conversations to come, but in the corridor this morning  we have already ranged across reading to children, insects, death, memories and cleverness. (Put all of these together and you get Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis, which I read to a group of 3-5 year olds to celebrate Book Week yesterday).

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If I were forced to align my daily goals with a long-term plan—and here you see I haven’t stopped talking about capabilities—I would use this list of competencies for performing life roles (adapted from Knowles, 1975):

Roles Competencies
Learner Reading, writing, computing, perceiving, conceptualizing, imagining, inquiring, aspiring, diagnosing, planning, finding help, evaluating
Being a Self (with a unique self-identity) Self-analyzing, sensing, goal-building, objectivising, value-clarifying, expressing, accepting, being authentic
Friend Loving, empathizing, listening, collaborating, sharing, helping, giving of constructive feedback, supporting
Citizen Caring, participating, leading, decision-making, acting, being sensitive to one’s conscience, discussing, having perspective (historical and cultural), being a global citizen
Family Member Maintaining health, planning, managing, helping, sharing, efficient and effective buying, saving, loving, taking responsibility
Worker Career planning, using technical skills, accepting supervision, giving supervision, getting along with people, cooperating, planning, delegating, managing
Leisure User Knowing resources, appreciating the arts and humanities, performing, playing, relaxing, reflecting, planning, risking

I like the integration of life roles here, especially the inclusion of family, friends and leisure and difficult-to-measure competencies such as imagining, getting along with people, being sensitive to one’s conscience, and loving.

Things that help

I have too much work to do. I have made optimistic promises of writing, editing, feedback, reviews and references to co-authors, editors, committees and colleagues. Ideally, this should all be done in the next couple of weeks, and I am off to Adelaide (my first visit) for the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) conference next week. So far, my presentation is roughly scribbled on a piece of paper with no powerpoint slides in sight. My to-do list is an exercise in dread and guilt. Sound familiar?

It’s the middle of winter, with a top of 17º in Sydney today (that’s cold for us!) so the temptation is to take a doona day. Perhaps that will be my reward at the end of this busy period. In the meantime, here is a list of non-academic (some frivolous) indulgences that are helping me to feel good right now.

  • Porridge of all sorts

Not all mixed together, but as the basis for experimenting with a variety of porridge recipes: oats, chia seeds, LSA, almond milk, coconut milk, cinnamon, almonds, stewed fruit, berries, grated apple, linseed. This list could go on. Here an LSA porridge I tried recently (recipe and photo from the Natural Nutritionist). Even better made with love for another person.

LSA Porridge

  • Comfort reading

My young adult book club (for adults only) is reading Tamora Pierce for our next meeting. I somehow missed these when I was of age, so it has been a pleasure to dive into some escapist YA (girls dressing as boys to become knights, dragons, talking animals, magic) and these books offer respite from tougher YA (some of recent book club reads have dealt with suicide, police shootings, domestic violence, rape).  In other comfort reads, I am enjoying Sulari Gentill’s Australian historical crime series featuring Rowland Sinclair. As well as tasks left undone, I’ll be taking a loaded Kindle to Adelaide with me.

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  • Coloured tights

This winter I am wearing coloured or patterned tights or leggings most days. So far this week I have worn mustard and black with paper cranes (from my favourite source Zohara—I first found a pair in a thrift store (new in the packet) and have bought a couple more pairs since). Those tights are pricey. I supplement them with a collection of patterned leggings my mother found for me at a discount shop.  I’ve ordered some inexpensive bottle green, dark purple and burgundy to add to my options this winter. I’ve loved coloured tights since I read D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love as a teenager, with its descriptions of stockings:

Gudrun was the more beautiful and attractive … Ursula was more physical, more womanly … Gudrun’s dress … was of green poplin, with a loose coat above it, of broad, dark-green and dark-brown stripes. The hat was of a pale, greenish straw, the colour of new hay, and it had a plaited ribbon of black and orange, the stockings were dark green, the shoes black. It was a good get-up, at once fashionable and individual. Ursula, in dark blue, was more ordinary, though she also looked well.

  • Getting outside

One of the curses of too much to do is the amount of time and energy consumed in thinking about how much has to be done. Day and night. It can feel as though you are mentally ‘at work’ almost all the time. It’s not just work, it’s the administration of everyday life—bills to pay, appointments to schedule, gifts to buy, forms to complete. It’s relentless. On the weekend, I had an experience that completely stopped me thinking about all this stuff. I participated in a Treetops Adventure with my daughter, her friends (one of whom was celebrating her birthday) and another mother. It was terrifying and exhilarating, and entirely consumed my thoughts for several hours.

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