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Advice to keep you feeling well throughout the year

Some of our readers offer their tips on managing the stresses of university life.
JAN 02 2020

Advice to keep you feeling well throughout the year

Some of our readers offer their tips on managing the stresses of university life.


Every year, many of us resolve to strike a healthier work-life balance and to better manage our stress. Every year, many of us fall far short of these goals. To get the new year off to a healthy start, University Affairs reached out to staff and faculty members at universities across Canada with the question, “How do you take care of yourself?”

Boundaries and self-compassion

David Ness

I really try to keep work at work, and not to take it home. When I leave my office, I find myself taking a few deep breaths, I stretch out my arms and I tell myself, “My work day is done.” I just try to release whatever I’ve been carrying all day so that I can be present when I’m at home. (Now that my children are grown, it helps that I’m greeted by two deliriously happy dogs when I get there.) Fortunately, I have a position that doesn’t require me to be on-call or to check emails outside of the office. I try to keep that boundary because work is so intense that if I start to bring it home, it takes away from my re-balancing and coping time.

David Ness.

In general, try to limit my screen use. There’s an interesting TedTalk by Adam Alter about how technology has removed stopping cues – it sucks us in and we use it more than we intended to. As we lose time, we get more stressed and we leave ourselves less time for survival tasks, like grocery shopping, sleep, or cleaning up our homes – which gets us more stressed. My clients are telling me that they don’t feel good about their screen use, and I encourage them to find ways to control it, rather than feeling like it controls you.

At work, I try to calm and composed, I try not to take things personally and to be compassionate. (Professor Kristin Neff has done some great work on self-compassion.) None of us are perfect; we’re going to make mistakes because that’s being human, and we need to be kind towards ourselves. We still have to take responsibility if we’ve behaved badly or done something wrong, but we don’t have to belittle ourselves. Be kind to yourself, and then connect with the other person and try to heal the damage. By taking this approach, I find myself more relaxed and not as afraid to make mistakes. And I’m more comfortable being myself because I’m not tying my self-worth to what others think of me.

David Ness is director of the student counselling centre and an associate professor at the University of Manitoba. 

Sonja Boon.

A cocoon of books, music and friendship

Sonja Boon 

I’m not the best role model for self-care. I’m not good at reminding myself to stop; often, I push too far, keep going for too long. I dangle by a thread: just one second more, just one step further. Self-care is not my natural habitat. I’m much more likely to foreground the concerns of others – my children, my students, my partner, my colleagues – than I am to step back and think about what it is that I need to allow myself to thrive. And yet, as Sara Ahmed points out in Living a Feminist Life, thriving is an act of community: “we need each other to survive we need to be part of each other’s survival.”

My community is literary and theoretical, it is musical and physical. When I am feeling adrift, when I am grieving, arguing, exhausted and overwhelmed, I turn to books, to a group of friends and to music. Books, music and friendships nurture me when I feel lost, hold me so I can return to myself. Our relationships are built on trust: I know I can release myself into their care, and I know that they will help me to find my way home.

My shelves are filled with thinkers and writers whose brilliance, fearlessness and passion continue to invigorate me. I gather my favourite authors close and let their ideas, thoughts, rage and joy flow through me. We walk together over familiar paths, tracing comfortable journeys across dog-eared pages. I listen. I breathe. I let their stories unfold in me.

In “real life,” it is my lunching ladies who sustain me. We found each other in 2008: four brand new junior scholars from four departments. We don’t meet nearly often enough, but when we do there is always much rejoicing. We laugh. We rage. We whisper. We commiserate. We cry. We listen. We dream. Sometimes we plot to change the world.

At home, in the evenings, before exhaustion overtakes me (and sometimes, even after it’s taken hold of my limbs), I reach for my flute and music. Classical music has accompanied me since my teenage years. Before I started doctoral work, it was my career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my flute is like one of my limbs; cut it off, and I cannot live. It took me much too long to realize this.

Sonja Boon is a professor of gender studies at Memorial University. Her memoir, What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home, was published in September 2019.

David Kent.

Get to know yourself

David Kent

Ever since I was an undergraduate double-majoring in genetics and English, I’ve found that there was only so much scientific memorization I could handle, so I would regularly go off to read a novel. Fortunately, both tasks could be viewed as “productive” at the time. This tendency underscored an important aspect of my personality: I need to strike while the iron is hot, working hard on one task when I’m in the right frame of mind for it, and then switching to something else when I’ve cooled to that first task. “The Black Hole,” the column I co-author for University Affairs, is something I’ve been told by many over the years to drop (because it doesn’t get grants, it doesn’t push my career forward, it’s time-consuming, etc.). But it’s also something I really want to do, and it rarely feels like work. It’s kind of like that undergraduate balance of reading a novel when memorizing science was sucking my will to live! So, get to know how you work best and embrace it.

Honestly, reflecting on advice on “coping” seems quite ironic as I regularly feel like I’m not coping at all – especially in the last 18 months, which have been particularly tumultuous for me (small children, a move to a new lab and city, big grant applications due – the list goes on). But I can recognize that aside from knowing the limits of my attention, I’ve developed a number of other work-life strategies that protect me from burning out:

  • Protect unscheduled time blocks. I aim for three-hour blocks, three times a week with absolutely nothing scheduled, and these often end up being my busiest, most productive periods.
  • Pick a night to embrace the pain. I sometimes set aside an entire night to bang out as much work as possible. It ruins me a little, but it allows me to get a chunk of things done at once and it frees up the other nights of the week or month.
  • Otherwise, say bye-bye to binging. While I like the occasional all-nighter, too much Netflix, video games, poor eating and/or drinking choices – they all lead to sleeping less, or less well.
  • Write a quick-things-to-do list. Have a list of small or quick things to do when you find yourself with a 15-minute gap and you’re unsure of how to fill it. (These short tasks could also be good to switch to when you need a mental break.)
  • Focus on the positives. We could all complain, but I try not to dwell on things I cannot change and work to change the things I see as important.

David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, U.K. He launched “The Black Hole” in 2009.

Ethel Tungohan.

Self-blame, “No Circles” and tag-teaming work

Ethel Tungohan

I want to preface this by saying I’m a tenure-track professor and, in a lot of ways, I have a lot of advantages, like the security of having a job to go back to once my current parental leave is over (which was not the case when I had my first daughter as a postdoc). One way to take care of yourself that’s related to this reality: don’t let the academy gaslight you.

You think that norms in the academe are normal, but they aren’t. Your feelings of being stressed out, of being invalidated, of being scapegoated – it’s not necessarily you. Examine the underlying power structures and imbalances that make it so difficult for academics, and in particular women of colour, to thrive. Don’t allow yourself to always play the self-blame game.

It’s also important to find and create communities of support, to find mentors both inside and outside of the university. Academia can be cutthroat and adversarial, so when you find allies who can travel with you on this journey, they are essential: at York University where I work, I’ve become friends with people who started their professorship journey at the same time I did, and I’m part of the university’s race and equity caucus; at the Canadian Political Science Association conference, I was a lead organizer for the first women in political science leadership program; and in my community work with migrant organizations like Gabriela Ontario, I’ve found mentors who have reminded me of my priorities. And, although I have mixed feelings about social media, following hashtags like #AcademicTwitter, #AcademicChatter, #AcademicMama or #PoCalsoknow helped me when I moved and didn’t know many people. I also have multiple Facebook Messenger chats with people who support me.

Make sure that within your community you have a “No Circle.” These are friends who’ll encourage you to say no to things – no to taking on another commitment when you’re burning out; no to taking on more work for no pay; no to travelling to that conference when you’re sick. You have to recognize that there are times when you are completely active and there are times when you have to step back so you can return refreshed. Doing your work as part of a community means you can sometimes tag-team it: I’ll do this now, but when I’m exhausted and need a break, I’ll tag you back in.

Ethel Tungohan holds the Canada Research Chair in Canadian Migration Policy, Impacts and Activism and is an assistant professor of politics and social science at York University.

Cultivate a relationship with nature

Patty Hambler 

I’ve reached out to a friend to go for a long walk on this Saturday afternoon. We meander through Pacific Spirit Regional Park, which surrounds the University of British Columbia campus. We navigate leisurely through the trails, noticing the mushrooms growing on the sides of trees, and the smell of the fragrant earth. Fall is my favourite season, but any time I spend on the trails – no matter the time of year – is a key part of my self-care routine.

When life comes crashing down around me, whether in very small pieces or large bricks that leave me ducking for cover, how much I’m able to follow my own advice to students will determine how well I can navigate through those moments with my health – both physical and mental – intact. Some of the more important aspects to my self-care: getting my flu shot every year; taking a break from email for 24 hours at least once per week; getting enough sleep (I listen to sleep stories on the Calm app to help); moving my body; trying new things (I’m currently taking an intro to ballet course); prioritizing time with my husband of 26 years; embracing “good enough” and letting go of my perfectionist tendencies – prioritizing my well-being means I sometimes have a messy kitchen, or I delegate more (at work and at home). I’ve also learned that some of the most valuable self-care strategies include taking all of my paid time off and making use of my extended health benefits.

Patty Hambler.

However, self-care for me is also deeply connected to the land and my relationship with nature. My walks through the park are an essential part of my routine – I connect with those important to me; we talk about our worries, struggles, goals and successes; and I use all of my senses to experience the beauty around me.

When I acknowledge that I live and work on the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam people, I always share my gratitude to the Musqueam people and their ancestors for stewarding this land. I give thanks for the opportunities I’ve had over the past 20 years to see the eagles fly overhead, to pick the sweet blackberries, and to walk amongst the tall cedar trees as the Musqueam people have done since time immemorial.

I recently moved to the Musqueam reserve, a short distance from the UBC Vancouver campus. Each day when I walk to the bus stop, I walk through the forest. It’s a short distance, but enough to remind me everyday just how privileged I am to be in this place.

Patty Hambler is the director of health promotion and education at the University of British Columbia.  

Ivan Joseph.

Go slow to go fast 

Ivan Joseph

Taking care of yourself matters to university leaders for the same reason it matters to elite athletes: improved performance. But it’s easier said than done. Despite spending the bulk of my life as an athlete and coach, I had to learn the perils of burnout the hard way.

In 2008, when I started as director of athletics at Ryerson University, I was determined to exceed expectations. I was the last to leave every event. I was in on every project. I came in early and went home late – very late. I worked weekends. Sixty hours per week became 80 and then 100. The result? I was exhausted and my performance suffered.

A decade later, when I moved to Dalhousie University, I knew better. I had learned that taking care of myself is the way to ensure I bring the best version of me to work. And it has paid off. I am more creative, balanced, deliberate, calm and focused, and I can do the job the way I want it to be done.

Here’s what’s worked for me:

  • Live near your work: at Ryerson, I often spent three hours a day commuting. At Dalhousie, I have a 20-minute walk to work.
  • Trust your team: micromanaging limits creativity and confidence, and drags you into things that are not on your list.
  • Go offline once a year: every summer, I take two weeks to disappear and go whitewater canoeing. I come back physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually recharged.
  • Max out at 80 hours: senior leadership isn’t a 40-hour-a-week job, but if you are exceeding 60 hours during a normal week and 80 hours in peak periods, it’s time to re-evaluate.
  • Live like a Haligonian: at Dalhousie, everyone has a “work hard, rest hard” mindset. Get some East Coast in your approach.

Ivan Joseph is vice-provost, student affairs, at Dalhousie University.

Start your day with something you love

Jooyoung Lee

I enjoy getting up early in the morning and one of the first things I do is train in jiu jitsu. Beginning with something I love to do sets me up for the day – I feel like I can go on and handle anything. My attendance has slipped a little since having a baby, but I still try to get in for three days a week.

I got into jiu jitsu when I was in the thick of my research on gunshot victims. I had been spending a lot of time in the trauma clinic in the hospital and visiting people in their homes, witnessing the devastating effects of getting shot and surviving (most people end up surviving shootings). That really started to weigh on me. I noticed that I was sleeping badly, I was having nightmares and grinding my teeth in my sleep, and I was irritable all the time. It dawned on me that I was experiencing vicarious trauma.

Jooyoung Lee.

A colleague inspired me to try Brazilian jiu jitsu, a grappling martial art derived from judo (it’s basically like wrestling with submission holds), as a way of getting rid of my pent-up stress. I left the dojo that first day totally exhausted and completely invigorated. So much has happened in the nine years since then, but that’s still how I feel almost every time I go. Academia is a stressful game. When things are happening at work – when your article is rejected, you’re up for tenure, you’re nervous about a talk you’re doing – it can break your stride. With jiu jitsu, I’m forced to be in the moment – I can’t worry about that deadline that I missed when someone has me in a choke hold!

It’s also profoundly humbling. I was an elite athlete my entire life, but I spent the first year or two in my jiu jitsu training getting destroyed by people who were much smaller than me. I learned quickly that what mattered was technique. It’s a lesson I’ve brought into other parts of my life; it’s made me a humbler colleague and person, and I’m reminded that there’s always room to grow and learn.

Jooyoung Lee is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. He’s currently on parental leave after the birth of his first child. 

Get cooking

Hormoz Izadi

Hormoz Izadi.

One way I take care of myself is by engaging in hobbies for the benefit of my own personal well-being and mental health. I have a passion for cooking. On weekends, I spend a few hours in the kitchen as it allows me to completely de-stress from schoolwork. It is, in a way, my sanctuary. Playing team sports, spending time with family, reading and listening to music are some of the other things I enjoy. Whatever your personal interests may be, I think it is important for one’s well-being to find daily or weekly activities to help you disconnect and de-stress from work, school or life in general.

I also make sure to have a good support system of close family and friends around me that I can reach out to for help, for advice or for feedback in moments of need. I think it is critical for us to acknowledge our own limitations and to reach out to people with more experience and knowledge. It also helps reduce stress and anxiety if we know we have a small community of empathetic people in our lives.

Beyond this, as a graduate student I have found plenty of opportunities and resources on campus. The Graduate Student Association organizes a variety of events and peer support activities to help grad students connect with one another. For me, committee work has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my academic life.

Hormoz Izadi is a doctoral candidate in the department of geoscience at University of Calgary and has served on U of C’s Mental Health Strategy Implementation Advisory committee.

Marie-Ève Tremblay.

Make the most of your morning

Marie-Ève Tremblay

Discipline is very important in keeping me productive, motivated and passionate. A key element in my routine is going to sleep early and waking up early. I like to write in the morning when my thoughts feel fresh and I can have solitude. Whenever possible, I schedule my meetings to start at 9 or 10 a.m. so that I have time to complete important assignments before my workday begins.

In addition to having a regular schedule, I also find it important to eat well. I read a lot about nutrition, especially during my three pregnancies. Managing stress is extremely important to me, so much so that one of the main focuses of my research is on the consequences of chronic stress on cognition, aging as well as neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.

I also like to do activities with my family – like crafting, hiking and winter sports – which helps me to step back. To manage stress at work, I have turned off all notifications on my computer, including those for incoming emails, and I generally keep my phone on silent mode, which helps me focus. For what it’s worth, I did not own a cellphone during the first five years of starting my lab, which helped me to find my own rhythm.

Marie-Ève Tremblay holds the Canada Research Chair of Neuroimmune Plasticity in Health and Therapy and is an associate professor in the department of molecular medicine at Université Laval.

Natalie Samson
Natalie Samson is the deputy editor for University Affairs.
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  1. David Seljak / January 21, 2020 at 07:23

    Thanks for a great article. Lots of great suggestions. I think that the problem of managing stress in the university was captured in Ivan Joseph’s suggestion for senior leadership “Max out at 80 hours”. In an article about work/life balance! Vice-Provost Joseph is right, but maybe the fact that our leaders think this is the way to achieve “moderation” is part of the problem with a university culture that celebrates excellence without calculation of the human cost.