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Re-Envisioning Work in Uncertain Times: A Focus on Small Victories

Health, Safety, and Well-being Health, Safety, and Well-being Initiatives Graduate
April 6, 2020 Michael J. Stebleton Lisa Kaler

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 2., May. 2020 

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

The New Reality

As we write this blog, the United States and the rest of the world struggles to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Much has changed in the last several weeks, including the temporary shutdown of most universities and colleges. Students, faculty, and student affairs professionals were forced to pivot quickly to online instruction and service delivery. From a positive perspective, higher education organizations were among the first institutions to make difficult choices to address this critical situation—starting with the closure of the University of Washington campus. Some colleges are offering empty residence halls and physical facilities to local hospitals to address the influx of patients in need. The landscape is changing quickly; as you read this, the situation will no doubt have shifted significantly again.

In this blog post, we discuss several realistic strategies for educators to maintain productivity and positivity during these difficult times. To continue supporting students in this dynamic environment, educators must intentionally focus on their own work habits and wellbeing.

Moving Quickly

Dramatic changes in the nature of work occurred quickly across higher education. Responding to these seismic movements can result in a combination of feelings: anxiety, fear, and despair; yet also resilience, faith, and hopefulness. Revamped expectations and deadlines in a new virtual reality requires everyone to think swiftly. Many professionals who deferred to online tools (e.g., Zoom) only periodically in the past now spend several hours per day in virtual meetings with students and colleagues. The learning curve is steep, especially for educators who thrive on in-person student connections and happenstance interactions that typically occur on campus. Practitioners must continue adapting quickly to the new demands and roles of their work in student affairs. Yet at the same time, paradoxically, they need to give themselves permission to slow down.

Yet, Moving Intentionally

Since the onset of campus closures, daily life has changed significantly. Making progress on simple tasks can require Herculean efforts. In these times of great uncertainty, it must be acceptable to give others and ourselves permission not to be fully productive at all times. In a viral post about switching to virtual instruction, scholar Rebecca Barrett-Fox encouraged educators to “release yourself from high expectations right now because that’s the best way to help your students learn.” She delineated two main messages: Keep it simple and tell your students you care. We advocate for all educators to slow down and re-adjust expectations for the unforeseeable future. In other words, move slowly and deliberately—take care of your students and, perhaps most importantly, yourself.

A Focus on Small Wins

In a recent podcast, Professor Adam Grant discussed stress and burnout in the workplace. In particular, he mentioned the idea of “small wins” that are smaller, practical, short-term victories. In the past, these minor tasks seemed mundane and insignificant. Now, small victories deserve acknowledgement and merit celebration.           

Students are juggling multiple responsibilities including caregiving tasks; other students lack access to food, housing, and Internet resources. Educators should work and support students to address their most pressing needs and short-term goals. Educators must encourage students to re-envision and re-frame what “success” looks like now and into the future.

Redefining Work-Life Integration

In past years, the workforce experienced a steady shift toward work-life integration and increasingly blurred boundaries between work and home life (Hirschi2020 ). Since the pandemic, working from home—for those who possess that privilege—has taken on a heightened meaning. What are the boundaries between work and home when almost everyone is working from home? Students may be asking the same questions regarding work-life balance. For educators and students, engaging with this challenge remains imperative to maintaining productivity and wellbeing across life roles. Research suggests that individuals who integrate work more into their non-work lives experience more exhaustion and are less likely to engage in “recovery activities” that can boost wellbeing (Wepfer et al., 2018).

What does this mean for the educators and students now forced to integrate their work into their non-work life? Educators must be intentional about where, how, and when they conduct work in their homes. Creating dedicated workspaces and times remains critical, as does creating structured times to postpone response to emails, calendar invites, or campus updates. Furthermore, professionals must now reconsider what a healthy and feasible recovery activity looks like. Individuals must find activities that suit their new lifestyles that are easy to implement and provide a relief from their work responsibilities. Doing so is vital if higher education professionals are to manage the potential for burnout in this new regime of being tethered to the home and office 24/7.

Community and Connection Matter

While most individuals worldwide now self-quarantine, it is important to consider the role of community, spirituality, and humanity (Keeling, 2020). Although principles of “social distancing” prevent us from large communal gatherings, it is vital that we continue to rely on each other in times of great need and uncertainty. Joining a larger network of connection and civic commitment takes on new meaning. The New York Times columnist David Brooks characterized this sentiment when he wrote:

Most of us are self-distancing at the same time. Most of us are experiencing the same pause in normal life, undergoing deeper reflections inspired by that pause, experiencing the same anxieties and fears, reading the same memes. So many human  universals. The great paradox, of course, is that we had to be set apart in order to feel together.

Most individuals have experienced significant upheaval in their day-to-day routines. Recognizing this, practicing acts of humility and compassion towards colleagues and students can foster community in these isolating times. If educators nourish their own wellbeing by allowing themselves and others to slow down, celebrate small victories, and create healthy work-life boundaries, they will be better able to support students as they adapt to this unprecedented situation.

Our hope is that we will eventually feel and be together soon. In the interim, do your reasonable best to care for your students, your family, and yourself. This too shall pass—and we will ideally all be stronger moving forward.

Be well.


Barrett-Fox, R. (2020, March 12). Please do a bad job of putting your courses online. https://anygoodthing.com/2020/03/12/please-do-a-bad-job-of-putting-your-courses-online/

Brooks, D. (2020, March 19). Screw this virus! The New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/opinion/coronavirus-isolation.html?referringSource=articleShare

Diep, F. (2020, March 19). If Coronavirus patients overwhelm hospitals, these colleges are offering their dorms. The Chronicle of Higher Educationhttps://www.chronicle.com/article/If-Coronavirus-Patients/248288

Grant, A. (Host). (2020, March 16). Burnout is everyone’s problem (No. 2). [Audio podcast episode]. In WorkLife with Adam Grant. TED Talks. https://www.ted.com/talks/worklife_with_adam_grant_burnout_is_everyone_s_problem

Hirschi, A. (2020). Whole-life career management: A counseling intervention framework. The Career Development Quarterly68(1), 2-17. https://doi.org/10.1002/cdq.12209

Keeling, R.P. (2020). Cultivating humanity: The power of time and people. Journal of College and Character, 21(1), 49-55. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2019.1696835

Mangan, K. (2020, March 9). The first major campus to close its classrooms is nearly deserted. Colleges nationwide may soon look the same. The Chronicle of Higher Educationhttps://www.chronicle.com/article/The-First-Major-Campus-to/248211

Wepfer, A. G., Allen, T. D., Brauchli, R., Jenny, G. J., & Bauer, G. F. (2018). Work-life boundaries and well-being: Does work-to-life integration impair well-being through lack of recovery? Journal of Business Psychology, 33(6), 727–740. https://doi.org/10.1007/s