This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
I’ve had the opportunity to work in higher education for the past 20 years or so and have served in an administrative position since 2007. So I’m aware of the challenges university administrators face. A few of those challenges include recruiting and retaining high-quality faculty, ensuring the quality and relevance of an institution’s educational offerings, and of course dealing with budget and resource woes that often result in personnel being asked to do more in the same or less time.
Another challenge that is ever-present, but in my opinion doesn’t receive enough attention, is the challenge that university administrators face staying healthy.
The total number of hours the average person spends at work in a lifetime is staggering. A person who works 40 hours a week from age 22 to age 65 will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of 90,000 hours at work, and that’s factoring in time off for holidays and vacations. And we all know that many university administrators work well beyond 40 hours a week!
In addition, people in our society are faced with a variety of health-related challenges: unhealthy eating habits, high levels of stress, lack of physical activity, and sleep-related disorders. These challenges plague university administrators as much as anybody else.
How much physical activity is enough?
One question health and fitness experts routinely hear is “So how much exercise should I be getting, anyway?” The CDC reports that we should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. Moderate exercise could be something like brisk walking, whereas vigorous exercise could be running or participating in a spinning class. The CDC also states that approximately 80% of people don’t meet these recommendations, and about 25% get no physical activity whatsoever.
The CDC recommendations are just that: recommendations. Before becoming the director of online education at my institution, I was a faculty member in our Department of Exercise and Sports Science. In talking with people about physical activity, I would often suggest that they not get wrapped up in how many minutes a day or week they need to exercise or at what specific intensities. I think a good goal is to strive to incorporate some physical activity into our lives every day. This may include going for a walk, riding a bike, swimming, working in the yard or garden, raking leaves, chasing your kids around, or using exercise machines such as stair climbers or ellipticals. The important thing for most people is to just get out and move a bit more.
If you would like to incorporate more physical activity into your daily routine, I’d suggest you try walking meetings. They were standard practice for Steve Jobs and are just what it sounds like they are: having a business discussion while going for a walk. It may sound strange to some, but I think you’d be surprised by how many people would take you up on the offer. The strategy can also work on occasions when friends or coworkers contact you to meet for coffee or lunch. Every so often, simply suggest skipping the coffee or lunch and go for a walk instead. It really works!
He who laughs last …
Researchers started to get interested in the health benefits of laughter in the 1960s. Eventually, they began to share and discuss their results at scientific meetings and conferences. Generally speaking, they found that there appears to be a positive correlation between laughter and health. Laughter has been shown to elevate our mood and happiness, strengthen our immune system, decrease pain, help us relax, and build stronger connections with other people.
Even though average employed people spend approximately 90,000 hours at work in their lifetime, many do little or no laughing on the job. Although I think working in higher education is serious business, I also think that trying to incorporate more laughter and humor into our routines at work is important — and possible. It may be as simple as sharing a funny picture or video with a co-worker or retelling a humorous story during a staff meeting. (Of course, it’s always important to keep it appropriate and non-offensive.) It might also be something on a larger scale such as bringing in a humorist for an employee appreciation event. And let’s not forget that a lot of us could probably stand to tone down our serious nature and laugh at ourselves a bit more.
Another idea to consider is keeping a humor file at work. This is something I’ve been doing for years and turn to pretty consistently to lift my spirits. When I come across something I find funny, I save it in a folder. When I’m having a tough day, I spend 5 to 10 minutes going through my humor file, which always improves my mood. The bottom line: However you do it, laugh a little bit more.
Recognize and take steps to control stress
Many university administrators have achieved success in academia because they are focused, hardworking and driven. Most would consider these admirable qualities. Regretfully, sometimes administrators try to do too much, and their health suffers as a result. It is important to be able to recognize when stress is negatively impacting health. For example, is your work schedule so intense that you don’t spend time exercising or take the time to eat nutritional meals and snacks? Are you having trouble sleeping because you can’t stop thinking about work? Or maybe you have even had a panic or anxiety attack.
We all need to know our limitations. Many great administrators I’ve worked with over the years were good at delegating duties and responsibilities to those under them. That not only helps the individual who is doing the delegating; it also helps elevate the leadership potential of others on their staff. And if you are the type of person who loves to be involved with new initiatives, serves on numerous committees or boards, and generally says yes to most requests that come your way, saying no every so often can have a positive impact on reducing stress levels.
The topic of health is so big that I’ve just scratched the surface, and I’m already running out of column space. So here are some closing thoughts:
First, understand that you will always be able to find an excuse to not focus on your health. “I don’t have time to exercise … I need to stay up late and finish this project … Cooking and eating healthy meals takes so much time and effort … My dog chewed up my running shoes.” So, thought number one: No more excuses!
Second, attempt to change the culture in your work environment. Give walking meetings a try. Bring in fruits and vegetables for the break room or social gatherings instead of cookies and donuts. Try to introduce humor and share laughter with your co-workers.
Finally, I hope this column has given you the encouragement and motivation to attempt to make one small change in your health-related behaviors. One small success can lead to another, and another, and another.
Good luck with your efforts!