At various stages in the pandemic, we have been overwhelmed—with work, expectations and uncertainty. We made temporary, triaged changes to our routines and systems to survive through the day or week. But as time passed, we learned that what initially was a crisis is now a long-term reality. We also learned that operating with a crisis mindset over a long period of time leads to burnout among both faculty and staff.
Given that experience, one posed the following question to an email list of women educators at our institution: “The patterns, processes, strategies, etc. for work are changing, and I hope in many ways for the good. I've been thinking of ways to adjust to reality in my work…How are you adjusting to reality?” More than 50 examples poured in from 21 faculty and staff. Each of these colleagues gave permission to share their responses.
What we found out is that many of us are letting go of guilt, responsibilities, the need to control everything and expectations. Instead, we are focusing on what is most important to us and scaling down in specific aspects of our lives because our responsibilities, at home and at work, have scaled up.
We are maintaining our standards, controlling what we can control and making necessary changes. Instead of moving items down the priority list, we are removing them entirely without apology. We are adjusting our relationship to work to match our current reality.We are changing how we work by:
Cutting ourselves (and our students) some slack. We recognize that everyone is dealing with unusual circumstances. One of us allows students to drop two homework assignments instead of one but never accepts late work since “I don't want my compassion for others to put extra work on my plate.” As a result, “students get more slack, and I reduce all the overhead.”
Reducing and delegating responsibilities. We are embracing that if “responsibilities have increased in one area…then they should decrease in another.” For example, one of us omits redundant steps in grading. We are also finding creative ways to fulfill other responsibilities. Another of us employs “one of our really good students to do work on my [LMS] course [because] students need extra spending money, and we need extra time.”
Letting go of professional perfection. We realize that what we cannot restructure or reduce, we must let go. One of us adopted the perspective that “it is okay if…everything isn't perfect…just surviving through this time is an accomplishment.” Another deviates “a bit from what may have been my original planned content” which she considers acceptable because she's sticking to the course objectives.” Finally, we “push deadlines a bit” as well.We are changing where and when we work by:
Finding new workspaces. While we work from home, we find ourselves working “on the back patio” or “next to a window” or while walking to “do more big-picture thinking.” One of us used to “feel obligated to stay in my office until 5 or 6 in the evening…[but now] to avoid contact with others, I go home after I teach my class.”
Rethinking time boundaries. Because work is creeping into home life, one of us is adapting what “normal hours” are for her personal life. We are embracing the flexibility of working from home by “using little necessary breaks to distribute different kinds of work over the day.” One of us is protecting quiet work time by noting when she is “not available” on her “calendar every day until 10.” Another of us is protecting personal time by setting up “quiet hours…that keep me from getting notifications during dinner/family time.”We are changing our systems to suit our priorities by:
Simplifying our meal management. We are finding timesavers like “superbatch[ing] in the kitchen,” “paying my daughter to make dinner,” and shifting children's breakfast to school to make “our mornings less stressful.” Several of us are streamlining food procurement by getting others to pick up dinner or using delivery services because “someone will bring it to my door for a contact-free drop off.” One of us is enjoying “socially-distanced potlucks with families in our small bubble to help with meal prep and clean up.”
Streamlining our cleaning procedures. We are modifying tasks to be efficient for our new schedules and responsibilities, like “running the dishwasher and clothes washer pretty much every day, even if they're not full,” and we are ceasing behaviors that create cleaning needs. One of us chooses to “hire someone to clean [my] house…then ignore it the rest of the week.” Another of us is celebrating “the best adjustment…I've made is to let the dirty dishes pile up…until we run out of silverware or plates…without feeling guilty about it!”
Adjusting our childcare routines. We are accommodating unpredictability by “making plans and planning for them to change.” One of us is accepting that “my daughter is getting more screen time than I would normally prefer.” We are shifting how we view time with our children, like “not documenting every little milestone [because] I want to live with the time I have with them” and recognizing opportunities like “my 16-year-old son just asked me to ‘go vibe with him at [coffee shop]’…I'm going…because my reality is that I don't know when I'll see such an offer again!”
Increasing our self-care processes. We are embedding self-care in our new realities. Some of us are using mindfulness and meditation apps, working at standing desks, speaking with therapists, setting boundaries with social media and celebrating small victories. One of us is “trying to take time for play…not just self-care, not just hobbies, but actual play, like silly laughing play.” We are remembering that we should be gentle with ourselves and those around us.Building Community, Shifting Perspectives
Unexpectedly, this exercise—gathering responses and sharing the results in the email thread—built community in a time of great isolation. The trust previously established within our group encouraged us to share honest, personal reflections without fearing negative judgments. Having senior members of the group describing a dropped expectation helped junior members feel they had permission to do so also.
This exercise also shifted our perspectives when possibilities seemed limited. Discussions of our new realities reminded us that we have control over some aspects of what otherwise feels like an uncontrollable situation. It's refreshing to turn away from ruminating on our challenges and turn toward strategies for thriving despite challenges. The choices we are making are deliberate responses to the moment and empower us to better care for ourselves and each other.
We invite you to apply this advice. On a personal level, consider identifying one expectation you have for yourself that causes stress, and then choose to not fulfill that expectation this week. On a professional level, consider replicating this inquiry at your institution. Choose a trusted colleague group to capture ideas relevant to the specific context of your workplace or to a specific job function (e.g., sharing the most productive adjustments to research practices). An email is easy to send, and recipients can respond on their own timeframes. You may be surprised at what you can change.
You may find, like we did, that adjustments to the current reality are adjustments we could have made years ago.
Dr. Heather Chenette is an associate professor of chemical engineering. Dr. Michelle Marincel Payne is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Dr. Manda Riehl is a professor of mathematics. Dr. Kay C Dee is a professor of biomedical engineering and associate dean for learning and technology. Dr. Ella Ingram is a professor of biology and associate dean for professional development. All work at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology IN.