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Creating an Academic Culture of Working to Live

Institutional Culture Students

Creating an Academic Culture of Working to Live

I’m often asked how I succeed at managing work-life balance—or as I call it, “life-work balance”— and it stems from my childhood. My parents both worked as educators, and both were highly successful in their respective careers. But one was able to balance work with hobbies and self-care, while the other was not able to “turn it off.” I didn’t realize until just recently what a major effect this had on me. I always knew that I didn’t want my career to consume me, but then I joined the academic world, which as we all know often perpetuates the sense of needing to work all the time (and feeling guilty when we aren’t doing so).

I majored in exercise science, and after graduation, I worked in and eventually managed a wellness center for a large corporation in the late 1990s. During this time, I learned that the corporate world offered wellness benefits, not because they were more altruistic than other sectors but because they knew that for every dollar they invested in health prevention activities, they would save up to three in healthcare claims. I ended up working for a few years in corporate wellness before returning to college to earn a master of public health (MPH) and PhD in health promotion and behavior. After starting an assistant professor position in 2006, my research interests deviated to HIV and AIDS prevention, but I never lost interest in workplace health.

Fast forward 15 years to the summer of 2021. I had just finished my first two years as dean of the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) at a midsize public institution. I was driving home from my first work trip since the pandemic began and thinking about how to help our students transition to college after their unusual high school experiences. I had witnessed my own children and the habits they’d created as result of the pandemic and figured students of all ages were likely struggling mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, and more. I also thought back to my own experience as an undergrad almost 30 years ago, when I struggled to get connected to activities on campus. It occurred to me that even though students today were connected via technology, they may still struggle to find activities and resources on campus (especially after so much isolation during the pandemic). Then I reflected on our college mission: we prepare students “to increase the quality of life in their communities and beyond,” yet we weren’t teaching them to increase their own quality of life. How could they take care of others without first learning how to take care of themselves? When all these thoughts converged, the CHHS Student Wellness Experience was born.

The purpose of this program is twofold: (1) to increase the quality of life of our students by teaching them about self-care before they enter high-stress careers and (2) to connect students with campus activities and resources so they feel engaged on campus. To operationalize this, we hired two-full time professional staff in 2022, our student wellness navigators, to work with the first-years to help them transition in a healthy manner from high school to college. The navigators teach a one-credit-hour class, Enhancing the Quality of Life in the Health and Human Services, where they teach first-years about the 10 dimensions of wellness and how to engage in activities that correlate with those dimensions. The navigators also meet with students and refer them to appropriate resources on campus. In fact, faculty and staff can refer a student to a navigator, then the navigator will reach out to the student to assess challenges and barriers and make appropriate referrals. They don’t duplicate services on campus, but they help students find the resources they need and fill in the gaps.

We pilot tested this program during the 2022–23 academic year and have collected one year of qualitative process data. For example, last spring, one student wasn’t turning in assignments and was being bullied by her roommate. Her professor referred her anonymously to one of our navigators. After the meeting with the navigator, the student was able to move to a different dorm room and learn better time-management skills. She made all As last semester, was on the president’s list, and returned to campus this fall. Other examples include walking a student to the math department to borrow a calculator for an exam. Some of the interventions are quite simple but make a big difference for a struggling student. And, new for 2023–24, students are using Suitable, a smartphone app that allows them to track their wellness activities to earn badges based on the 10 dimensions of wellness as well as allow us to collect additional data.

Now, recall that I started my public health career in worksite wellness in the late ’90s, so it hit me in summer 2022 that faculty and staff were struggling as much as, if not more than, our students. We needed to do something to help them take care of themselves as well. So, we created the CHHS Faculty and Staff Wellness Hour. With the support of our HR director and provost, we pilot tested the CHHS Wellness Hour, which allows faculty and staff to take one paid hour per day (in addition to lunch hour) to perform an activity that correlates with one of the 10 dimensions of wellness. We collected data this past year; faculty and staff who participated in the Wellness Hour were statistically more likely to report an intention to continue working for our college as well as report a better working environment. In a landscape where jobs are competitive and we can’t compete with pay in other industries, we must provide life-work balance to increase our recruitment and retention and create an overall culture of wellness for our faculty, staff, and students. And if we commit to making small changes, we might just change the academic culture of “living to work” to “working to live.”

Tania B. Basta, PhD, MPH,is a professor of public health and the dean of the College of Health and Human Services at Western Kentucky University (WKU). She has 25 years of combined public health research and professional experience. Her current research focuses on enhancing wellness in academic communities.


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