Tips on ‘Keeping the Spark’ for Peak Performance

you can’t find
‘wellness’ on your
school’s web site, it is
time to start thinking
about changes on

Drs. McCluskey-Titus, Hall, Coburn, WhitelyDrs. McCluskey-Titus, Hall, Coburn, Whitely

Working in higher education can be draining and all consuming. Many staff and faculty are on call 24/7. We feel as though doing the job competes with having a life, and appeals for work/life balance sound like suggestions to lower our standards.

But when health and relationships slide, work performance suffers. Work/life balance enhances our productivity while increasing our joy in every part of our lives.

Four student affairs professionals spoke at the NASPA annual conference in Orlando FL in March on “Keeping the Spark: Work/Life Balance for Peak Performance and Joy.”

Dr. Mary Coburn, VP for student affairs at Florida State University in Tallassee

Dr. Ricardo Hall, dean of students at the University of Miami in Coral Gables

Dr. Phyllis McCluskey-Titus, associate professor of education at Illinois State University in Normal IL

Dr. Patricia Whitely, VP for student affairs at the University of Miami in Coral Gables

They invited each participant to understand the research-based benefits of an active lifestyle, assess her personal level of work/life balance and commit to a 30-day plan for a personal lifestyle makeover.

What’s your plan? How will you be accountable for it?

“There’s a perception that you can’t be in student affairs and have work/ life balance,” Dr. Mary Coburn said. If so, it’s a sad irony, because student affairs professionals—and indeed all staff and faculty—are supposed to be role models to our students and younger colleagues. How can we model a healthy lifestyle if we fail to live one?

Benefits of healthy living

Where are you now and where do you want to be? What has become of your New Year’s resolutions? The most common resolutions have to do with weight loss, exercise and quitting smoking. A quarter of them fall by the wayside after the first week and more than half are dropped within six months.

Sleep. Deep sleep is important for creativity and memory. It sharpens our attention. Most of us don’t get enough. Everyone’s patterns are different. You can use a sleep monitor to identify your sleep patterns and make sure you are getting enough.

Shortage of sleep throws our body systems out of balance. “When we don’t get enough sleep, inflammatory proteins collect. Then our immune systems are off,” Dr. Patricia Whitely said. We crave carbohydrates and gain weight.

Sleep is within your control. Turn off electronic devices 90 minutes before bedtime. The light they emit can suppress the production of melatonin and make it harder for you to fall asleep. She tells people to call her home phone rather than her cell phone after 11 p.m. The home phone’s ringing downstairs won’t wake her.

Exercise. Physical exercise and brain performance are closely related, especially for women because exercise tones down negative hormonal imbalances. Exercise reduces depression and increases neural connections in the brain.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Ratey and Hagerman (Little, Brown 2013) documents the mind-body connection. Aerobic exercise reshapes the brain to break stress, lift the mood, fight memory loss and sharpen the intellect.

Naperville High School IL introduced a program with pedometers and aerobics, letting students choose from a variety of aerobic exercises. The program helped the school to achieve the top science test scores in the world.

Exercise reduces dementia by 50%, combats chemical addiction and benefits students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “I thought it just made me happy and excited to hit a good shot, but look at all it did,” Whitely said of her tennis playing.

Healthy eating. Two-thirds of unproductive university staff members have unhealthy eating habits, Dr. Ricardo Hall said. “It costs our university if you’re not eating well.”

What does a typical student affairs leader’s breakfast look like? His ideal morning would start with going downstairs to greet the family, lingering over breakfast and taking half an hour to relax before heading off to work. Reality is more often Fruit Loops in a bag on the road.

What about the rest of the day? At lunch do you savor a salad or gobble some fast food? “We’re not telling you what you don’t know,” he said. We are educated people and know what habits we need to change.

Obesity in the United States has more than doubled since the 1970s. Childhood obesity has tripled since 1980. Easy access to unhealthy fast food plays a role; so does the increased use of TV and video games in place of running around outdoors. Among adults on campus, long days working behind a desk are no better for your body than spending time reading a novel on bed.

Health risks associated with obesity include type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and joint problems. Weight management isn’t just about looking professional. It could keep you out of the hospital or even save your life.

Positive living and time management. More globally, life balance offers tangible and intangible benefits for supervisors. It optimizes delivery of services to students. “We can serve well only when we are in balance,” he said.

Work/life balance builds staff cohesion. Some people are too grumpy for conversation until after their morning coffee. It promotes staff development. It’s a red flag when a candidate says during an interview that she wants only to work.

He said they are hearing from their employees that the university keeps saying wellness and balance are important. If you can’t find “wellness” on your school’s web site, it is time to start thinking about changes on campus.

Stress and style

Imagine you are planning a road trip to attend a wedding, Dr. Phyllis McCluskey-Titus suggested. Do you take the expressway and plan out all your rest stops and hotels in advance? You will get there on time but stressed. Or will you allow a week to get there, with no particular plans en route? You may miss the wedding, but the reception will be great!

We all have different styles to blend necessary planning with relaxation. In addition to individual differences, styles vary by generation.

Baby boomers, born 1943-1960. Many executive VPs fall in this group. They want more time at their work. Many don’t want to retire, or think they can’t afford to.

Generation X, born 1960-1981. They see work as a wonderful challenge. They are more interested in accumulating experiences than material possessions.

Millennials, born 1982-2002. The purpose of work is personal fulfillment. Unless jobs are stimulating and hold their attention, the millennials will move on.

Workplace stress can arise because of individual or generational differences in style. Some would rather work as a team; others prefer to work alone. Some are micromanagers; others delegate ably and comfortably.

Reducing workplace stress—and increasing joy and productivity— is partly an issue of actions in the workplace to reduce the stresses that arise from our differences in style.

Participants suggested:

• Give people a goal, not a detailed plan to get there.

• Know individuals’ strengths in advance.

• Talk about potential issues up-front.

• Divide work into team and solo tasks. Workplace systems that promote healthy living and life balance can do a lot to reduce stress in the workplace.

She made four suggestions to promote balance:

1. Professional development. Provide a stimulating environment so both you and your staff can grow on the job.

2. Educational advancement. Offer credit hours and support for courses that help staff to improve their skills.

3. Alternative work schedules. Flextime, released time, occasional work from home and similar options let staff who are in different life circumstances coordinate work with their personal responsibilities.

4. Wellness programs. Zumba, yoga and 12-step programs are only a few of the many possibilities to help staff to maintain the personal health that will increase their joy in life and productivity in the office.

As we enhance work/life balance, we build a more productive workforce. And equally important, we provide a healthy role model for our students as they sort out the need for balance in their lives.






Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, June). Tips on 'Keeping the Spark' for Peak Performance. Women in Higher Education, 22(6), 18-19.

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