Burn-out in student affairs is a familiar story. Living where you work, dealing with crises, and suffering secondary trauma all work together to push your burn-out boulder past the tipping point. In this episode, we speak with Duane Khan and A.J. Guedouar about secondary trauma, burn-out, and how you can manage it before everything gets out of hand.
Meg Sunga: Hey y’all, it’s Meg Sunga and welcome to Will There Be Food?, the student affairs podcast that — like your job — is so much more than free pizza. Every week we get to explore a new topic in higher ed with humans in the industry. Today’s episode of Will There Be Food deals with some especially difficult topics, like mental health crises, sexual violence, student death, and burnout. You can find supportive resources in our show notes at presence.io/podcast. Take care of yourselves as you listen to today’s episode. During my time as a housing and residence life professional, I dealt with some serious shit. Student death, sexual assault, even suicidal ideation. I still remember each event, every interaction, every text, every emergency like it was yesterday. I tried to be as proactive in my self-care by doing things like going to therapy and working out, but in the fall of 2017, I felt it. I needed a break. Last year was the first time I’ve worked outside of reslife in seven years. The difficult reality is that my experience isn’t unique. Burnout is real and can happen to anyone in student affairs. Open up Facebook or Twitter and you’ll be sure to find a group of SApros sharing their burn-out war stories. On today’s episode, that’s what we’re talking about: burn-out, secondary trauma, triggers, and how to take better care of ourselves. First up, we have Duane Khan. Duane is a psychologist and the Assistant Program Director for the Counseling and Wellness Center at New College of Florida in Sarasota, Florida. Hey Duane, thank you so much for joining me today.
Duane Khan: Hi Meg. Thanks a lot for having me.
Meg Sunga: My first question to you, Duane, is what is secondary trauma?
Duane Khan: So, secondary trauma is something that we’ve, um, been studying. We’ve known about it for over 30 years. It is a, um, a cluster of symptoms and experiences that come as a result of working in a profession where you’re exposed to either actual traumatic events or the stories and experiences of helping other people through those traumatic events. And as a result of working with those folks, we begin to take on or experience symptoms of trauma. What’s actually happening is our stress response system is responding to their stress response system. And, uh, we’re kind of just elevating our tightness and are ready to respond to some trauma that hasn’t actually happened.
Meg Sunga: First off, that makes total sense. As a res life — former res life director — that is something that I felt my RAs dealing with a lot. Um, as well as myself. Do you feel there’s a lack of understanding about secondary trauma? Um, when it comes to SApros? What are the things that people are misunderstanding, or maybe some of those myths behind it?
Duane Khan: We’ve got this narrative out there that says we’re supposed to be individuals. We’re supposed to have grit. You know, this idea about resilience is that we can push through it; you can take control of your own destiny. And that perspective, especially when awful things happen, unpursued things happen, lead people to want to take control and control is possibly one of those things that is at the heart of forming negative symptoms related to trauma. The harder you try to exert control, the more you’re ramping up that stress response system and then you’re going to have all of the symptoms of trauma that sort of come with that thing. Hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal, hyper responsibility, and basically cramping in the up direction. It’s really not…it’s not natural to think in a moment of crisis that what I should do right now is relax. We really want to respond and fix the issue and regain a sense of composure and control as soon as we can. And that’s the trap, right? I think oftentimes, um, student affairs, uh, is less funded than academic affairs. You don’t have as many people as you need to do the job. There’s the sense that you’re the boots on the ground, whether you’re an RA or residence hall director or you’re working in disability services or like…people are not going to necessarily come hang out with you unless something is wrong. And then there’s that feeling like, I gotta take control of this thing. I’m the one who’s responsible here or else. You know, particularly when it comes to secondary trauma, the mechanism that makes something work is our empathy; is our compassion. Being able to really get that “this one person is in distress, how distressed are they and how can I help?” And simply by engaging in that mechanism — oftentimes in student affairs, I think a little bit too often — the last student that just left doesn’t know that the next one that’s coming in is going to be telling you something similarly traumatic, right? This experience kind of gradually just turns the volume up on the stress response. And over time, we find ourselves less and less able to respond in the ways that we want to. And then we have all sorts of symptoms, either hyper-engaging or avoiding those symptoms. And then of course, we make ourselves bad and wrong for being avoidant or not being as productive as we used to be or not being this, that, or the other thing that we’ve, you know, in “should be.”
Meg Sunga: I want to continue on with that thought of, you know, symptoms. Right. So what effect does secondary trauma have on our bodies and our minds? What do those symptoms look like?
Duane Khan: Yeah, so, the same kinds of symptoms that we might experience if we were having direct post-traumatic stress and those kinds of things are intrusive kinds of symptoms that we’re thinking about. The story that we just heard or the incident that just happened — whether it was somebody was assaulted or a specific incident — or we start to begin to have intrusive symptoms about other kinds of disastrous things that might, you know, um, people experience flashbacks, nightmares, for some strange reason worrying about their kids at night, or worrying about the health of loved ones, kind of pacing, difficulty sleeping. Then, avoidance kinds of symptoms. Like, “I just don’t want to go past this particular dorm” or sitting in the parking lot Monday morning going, “okay, got to psych myself up to go into work.” But every day it starts to turn into that Monday morning. And then negative alterations of our belief systems about ourselves and about the world, about who else is sharing responsibility for these things. We start to feel like we’re the only ones who are responsible. Doubt about our ability to have a sense of power and control over what happens in our life, in our career. Doubt about our ability to have self-worth and self-esteem, how we define ourselves. Oftentimes, as we work in student affairs, the goals of the institution become our goals. We engage with them in a particular way, but then we start to become defined by them, right? And then, symptoms related to intimacy. It’s just difficult to be intimate with ourselves. Kind of like rolling over the top of things, starting to engage in life in a more shallow and mechanistic way, and we start to engage with our loved ones in a more shallow and mechanistic way. The one that people understand the best are symptoms of depression and anxiety. And what we call Anhedonia. Things that used to be pleasurable aren’t pleasurable anymore. We’re having difficulty concentrating, we feel keyed up, jittery, um, difficulty sleeping, appetite changes, those kinds of things. So, it can be kind of comprehensive and overwhelming and difficult to pin down.
Meg Sunga: Yeah. These symptoms are absolutely serious and it clearly can affect anyone, which I think is what’s blowing my mind right now. All of those things are absolutely what I remember going through during some super stressful moments as a director, my last position, so I can see that this is something that I’m sure people everywhere are going through that are, that are boots on the ground folks.
Duane Khan: Yes. It is pervasive and I think that’s one of the reasons we have such a culture of talking about self care, but that thing has become so ubiquitous. We’re not really sure what it means or what the purpose of those things are. Right.
Meg Sunga: I feel like self care is a conversation that is, I honestly think even when I’m thinking about the way that we talk with our students, I don’t think it gets down to the deeper levels that are necessary. I think it’s still very much like go take a nap or you know, go read a book. But I think there’s so much more that can be done when we are really thinking about self care. What are your thoughts on that?
Duane Khan: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the, you know, the thing that I’m saying about life becoming mechanistic…sometimes our self care can become mechanistic and then that medicine isn’t medicine anymore. It just becomes life. So being really intentional and having an understanding of why we’re engaging in that self care thing so we can be in the moment. And the reason that we engage in self care is actually — it’s very simple, but it can get lost — which is we need to remain adaptive. And so one way to define like a mental health problem or psychological illness is that we are, uh, stuck. We’re no longer flexible in a particular way. So depression would be stuck in the lower end of experience. Um, mania or anxiety would be stuck in the high end. I can’t seem to come down from this thing. And so the self care activities are basically operating all of the different mechanisms and all of the different responses to life so that we can have that full range of motion, full range of feeling, full range of movement or range of engagement, all the different parts of ourselves. Remember who we are in a more whole way.
Meg Sunga: Duane, I’m curious cause we talked a little bit about the different types of secondary traumas that student affairs professionals can experience. But how bad does it have to be to have that effect on a person or does it depend on the person?
Duane Khan: I think lots of people believe that they have to have a diagnosis in order to go for help. The truth is…just thinking about something that we do every day, like walking, right? How bad does a twisted ankle have to get before we engage with purposefully healing that thing or going for help with that thing or attending to it? So the moment we notice some inflexibility, the moment we notice that we’re not functioning the way that we want to be functioning, there’s some numbness there. I think that it is like action or response in that case is warranted.
Meg Sunga: Absolutely. Duane, do you think this is a conversation that student affairs as a whole is having currently? Or do you think it’s only between certain groups or certain people?
Duane Khan: I think it depends on the model that student affairs is is running at that institution. So you’re going to find different models. Really large institutions like UCF or Arizona State or the University of Florida, and then other models at much smaller or medium sized institutions, to the extent that people can communicate, self-compassion, and self-awareness. I think that that’s where NASPA wants people to go. I know that at New College, we definitely include vicarious traumatization and secondary trauma in the RA training — a number of institutions do. And I think you’ll find differences by state, but it’s certainly not considered a standard for us to talk about.
Meg Sunga: Got it. You mentioned models that certain institutions are adopting and putting forth. What do you mean by that?
Duane Khan: So some institutions have really extensive training programs that involve faculty or empirically supported ways to look at suicide prevention, for example. How much do we want to give these RAs responsibility for? They are students.
Meg Sunga: Yes, yes they are.
Duane Khan: But we…depending on what the funding source is, depending on how many staff members you have, sometimes more gets heaped on them than is warranted or needed or should be. So there is an ongoing conversation about, “do we give them more information so that they are better able to respond or do we give them less information so that they can’t take on more than they should?”
Meg Sunga: Sometimes we experienced trauma right along with our students — that’s essentially what secondary trauma is — but how do we support them while trying to support ourselves?
Duane Khan: The first piece of training is that all trauma responders get is generally from Judith Herman. And the first thing that she says is make sure that people have their autonomy returned to them. So autonomy and freedom to respond, and being able to take that sense of personal power back to make decisions for yourself after something traumatic has happened is the most important course. So then people go, “hey, what am I going to do with my autonomy? I’m going to hyper engage on making sure that I’m not defined by this thing or not controlled by the thing,” or “I’m going to hyper engage in this way or that way” for us to know that we have freedom to respond gives a little bit of space to go, “okay, we can be planful about this thing. The crisis is not happening currently.” Now, how do we attain a balance between attending to all the other areas of life and also having some smaller interventions and challenges for us to put a little weight on that twisted ankle. So, the twisted ankle doesn’t become the injury to the leg — it could be more serious than a twisted ankle — but I’m saying, having that be the primary focus after our trauma is not generally healthy. So for us to model engagement with healing, compassion, allowing ourselves to go, “it’s okay to look at this thing that’s not going to destroy us. We actually got through the trauma. We’re on the other side of it. We don’t have to re-experience it.” Engaging with the symptoms or the fact that we’ve been wounded is not making the trauma any more or less real. Modeling that we can do self care activities, that we can engage in other parts of our life, that we don’t have to do it alone, that we can be part of a team, part of our family, part of the group. Attend to all the different areas of wellness, whether that’s our social wellbeing, that’s our physical wellbeing, that’s our academic wellbeing or financial wellbeing, you know, all of these different parts of sell and in a systematic way go acknowledge, yes, we have been wounded. What are we going to do as a team, um, to respond to this thing in a less crisis-driven way? I mean I will say there are some very specific things that we can do, quite a number of specific things that we can do. Those things are, um, attending to our machinery, that is, making sure that we’re getting enough sleep. That is absolutely huge. And you know what? We can’t always control how much sleep we get. There’s a researcher at Berkeley who says that he gives himself a non-negotiable eight-hour opportunity.
Meg Sunga: Well, the keyword opportunity, I like that.
Duane Khan: That’s right — we can’t control whether or not it’s going to happen, but we can open up space for that thing. We can look at our sleep hygiene. Are we shutting off screen, an hour, at least an hour before it’s time to go to bed? Are we preparing our bed for that thing called sleep? Or are we living in our bed and you know, playing games and crosswords or scrolling on social media until the very last moment, keeping our brain distracted, you know? We need to look at the machinery, which is sleep, mood, and physical health. We talked a little bit about food before, but exercise is one of the most important things that we can do. I think in our society, we look at exercise as something that we do to lose weight. Exercise is something that we do to stress our response system. So when you’re exercising for trauma, the thing that you’re looking for is taking yourself way, way up. But it’s the coming down that’s the part that we want to attend to, because we are going to push our stress response system up and we’re going to come back down lower than where we began. So really enjoying that come down after exercise is super important.
Meg Sunga: I think you just blew my mind with that last bit. Wow. I never thought about it like that. Like genuinely. I want to keep going with essentially these, these self-care, these burnout tips. You mentioned sleep and you mentioned exercise, food. Was there anything else in that?
Duane Khan: Those are the main sort of ones that looking at like, what are we doing with our machinery? Right. Okay. Often times if somebody has experienced trauma to their body, they’re going to be pretty avoidant of their body, and so that’s okay. Have compassion, meet yourself where you are, and slowly begin to reengage and re-own the body and say, “no, this is my body. Here’s what I would like to do with it like that.” Alright. Um, the other pieces are those five areas, where we have doubts, whether it’s safety, trust, power and control, self-worth or self-esteem, and intimacy. There’s like a lens that get put on every day, from the time we wake up to the time that we go to sleep, where we’re just moderating threats, for our ability to meet our own needs. The opposite way to engage in life is what Martin Seligman calls PERMA. It’s an acronym for these other five ways for us to engage in life, to lead to happiness. And that is, I’m paying attention to what brings (P)ositive emotions in our life. Allowing ourselves to (E)ngage in positive emotion even if it feels avoidant, right? That’s something that makes us happy. That’s something worthwhile experiencing. Engaging in activities that we want to engage, that reinvigorates that sense of, “no, I, I can have a sense of autonomy over what I engage in. I’m not just relegated to being this person who is there to meet other people’s needs and I have to no matter what…” Looking for (M)eaning and purpose in life. Oftentimes we can say, our meaning can be hijacked, and so for us to reengage in on a daily basis, I’m going to do something that’s meaningful to me. What is that? And so doing a little bit of journaling about remembering who you are that’s not defined by the job or trauma can be really, really helpful. Having positive (R)elationships, reinvesting in the time that we spend to call our friends. I think in the middle of the semester, by the end of the semester, we just noticed that we haven’t made as many phone calls. Right? Right.
Meg Sunga: Yup. There’s no time.
Duane Khan: That’s right. There’s no time. This is the time to make time for that thing. To remember that we’re connected, that we’re not responsible for carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. That we’re part of a team. We’re part of the unit; that we get a reflection of ourselves in their eyes, you know, and, and they see us the way that we remember that we are and what we were. The other thing is personal goals and (A)chievements in the areas that are meaningful to us. So, looking at our accomplishments, giving ourselves credit for what we accomplished, you’re not always gonna get that thing from the administration, right? You’re not always gonna get that thing from your supervisors, all of whom are engaged in sometimes crisis-driven work, which is like, “okay, did we handle all the crises? Okay. Check.” No, not check. Well done.
Meg Sunga: Right. Yeah, I’m thinking about that. And even in the context of when we are in spaces and it’s just like that venting session, right? And like you said, people wanna connect and talk about it, but then there’s that point where it goes a little bit too far. I never know what to do in those situations.
Duane Khan: Yeah. I mean, I am a person of color. I am an immigrant and I am gay and out on campus and at work. So social justice kinds of conversations are part of my identity and also part of my area of expertise. So invite those things to come in, right? So not just with clients who have some shared experiences of marginalization but also outreach events. And then because of the temperature of the country, you go home and on Facebook, everybody’s talking about that thing. You turn on the news and everybody is talking about that thing. And at a certain point you begin to realize that your, you know, your outer shell is hardening. You’re less able to be responsive because you’re exhausted by the trauma of, so I think it’s really important that you acknowledge the anger. Generally what’s underneath anger is fear. To acknowledge that fear, to acknowledge your humanity. But then, to move past that point because staying in that place is really toxic, right? So to be able to move past that point and say, “Okay, so I’m past that thing. Here are the things that I’m really grateful for. Here are the parts of me that either feel like they’re positively touched by that thing or that they’re not involved with that thing.” And it’s okay to have parts of you that are not involved.
Meg Sunga: Duane, how can secondary trauma contribute to burnout?
Duane Khan: So I think one of the things that happens, either because of avoidance or hyper engagement, one of the two is that we start to encode information less. I think like rolling over the top of the soil without sinking in. And that can lead to boredom. It can lead to depression, it can lead to not remembering why you were doing this thing in the first place. It can lead to numbness. So like the longer-term results of not engaging with life in the way that you want to is burnout. It’s exhaustion. So burnout essentially, it’s like guilt. Some people have the distinction between guilt and shame, right? Um, guilt is actually a great emotion. We don’t respond to it like that, but guilt is a great emotion because it helps us to connect to what’s important to us as in “if I had to do it again, this is who I would be.” Shame is not a healthy emotion because it’s this false belief that there’s something broken inside of us and there’s nothing that we can do to fix that thing and we just need to hide it and not let people see in the same way. The burnout connection could be really, really positive. If we’re able to look at how we are without judgment, it can be a real sense of, “oh, this is not how I wanted to be living my life. This is not the way that I wanted to be experiencing my work.” It’s kind of like a litmus test, a little red light that goes off that says, “yeah, not this way”, which is an opportunity for us to say, “how do I reinvent myself and reinvent my job?” So that it is fulfilling. Right. I think one of the ways that we look at relationships, like how do I know this relationship is good for me? The question we ask ourselves is, “do I like who I am or who I get to be in this relationship?” And it’s the same way with our relationship with ourselves and with our relationship with our work. Do I like who I get to be? And if the answer is no, then there’s an opportunity to go, hey, how do we get some distance from all of the things, the determinants that are having me engage in this less engaged way? And how do I do some healing and be creative about who I want to be at work?
Meg Sunga: There’s a lot of young pros in — actually, a lot of SApros in general — level of them doesn’t really matter, I think, that are going to hear that and really, really appreciate that. Oh my goodness.
Duane Khan: Yeah. The younger we are in a field, the more we think that it’s that right in particular ways in that we don’t have autonomy. Um, and we totally do. We absolutely do.
Meg Sunga: Yeah. I’m struck in this way, this feeling, because I think there’s so much of new professionals navigating their day to day work and the tough work and the emotional labor, and they feel like perpetual burnout is normal and is just what everyone goes through. And it is what it is and that’s just how it has to be. But from what our conversation is teaching me, I think what I’m hearing is that it is, it’s the gut check. It’s the “hey, you know, maybe slow down, maybe take a minute to figure out what you need to readjust.” Is that what I’m hearing?
Duane Khan: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It can feel like we’re in prison, that our rights have been taken away from us. And one of the things that I think human beings are really great at is adapting. And so we adapt to the toxic water that we find ourselves in. Right. Um, and that’s not accurate. And for us to have those reminders that having a negative experience of waking up into this thing that you’re just not turned on, by like for more days than not, inside of a week is not normal. Right? But that is not necessary. And it’s not like you’re locked in life. The conversation about that thing is not trivial because this is where suicidal ideation comes at, right? This is where depression takes hold, is that sense that “I can’t change my circumstances” or that I don’t have hope, that I don’t have a sense of purpose that I’m working toward that’s mine. So these are really, really core to our mental health and being able to respond and have the things in our life that we really want in our lives. This, in particular, is not the country in the world where you would expect that so many people would feel trapped. And among helping professionals, at least, I wanna say 35 to 40%, do end up feeling some sense of secondary trauma or burnout from that thing in their careers. So it’s, uh, it’s a large percentage of us.
Meg Sunga: So what can student affairs do to help alleviate trauma and burnout or help support their professionals working?
Duane Khan: I think that there are a number of things that we can do. From a training perspective when we’re thinking about setting up our folks, we really want to be able to give them as much information as possible about the things that they may run into like secondary trauma. So it would be really, really helpful for people to know that after experiencing primary trauma or with secondary trauma, that you may have that thing bouncing around in your head for a number of weeks after that thing happened. That’s actually just your brain looking for where to put this really aberrant thing that you haven’t encountered before. It’s a really natural process and it will subside unless you hyper engaged with it and you think there’s something wrong with you and that you need to fix yourself. And then it can last for much longer and increase in symptoms. Right? So if we provide adequate training to let people know that this is something that may happen, then in the course of the thing happening, we know better how to respond to it. The second thing that we can do is adequately staff and resource. It is okay to advocate for yourself. Just because you advocate doesn’t mean that the institution is going to respond and say, “Oh, absolutely, we can give you all the things that you need.” But continuing that advocacy continues to remind yourself that this is not normal. It’s not okay to have a one person department or a two person department that is overwhelmed and is constantly in crisis mode going, okay, who’s got, you know, A-M and who’s got M-Z. Right. To be able to advocate for yourself and recognize when you don’t have the resources that you need is very important. At a team level, it’s important to be able to have an open door policy to know that it’s okay to talk about and share difficult things and not call it gossip. You know, we want to be able to have responsive conversations with teammates. So we share the burden but not feel like we are engaging in judgment or gossip or, you know, spreading rumors, those kinds of things, which I think is the fear. And so people sort of take that thing on for themselves and say, “that’s my responsibility.” To be able to take breaks is so, so important. Take more breaks. You know, we, we train our students in the Pomodoro method when they’re studying. Like, after you read that paragraph three times and you still have no idea what it says, don’t like be there with a whip at your back going “do it again!” You know, there’s an opportunity to say, “I have some compassion for myself. This, the mechanism isn’t working. Let me go take care of the mechanism or take a break from that thing.” Do something completely unrelated to be able to engage in other parts of your life that have absolutely nothing to do with work. A lot of people enjoy cooking, right? When you work in student affairs and you’re on call and you constantly gotta be right there and ready, it’s really easy to start doing, take out meals and, you know, doing what’s convenient to reprioritize and say, “okay, I’m having boundaries around my work, and I’m going to be able to take some breaks in there.” And I’m also going to be able to be a person who is not defined by that work is something that, um, can be really helpful. So putting these things into the culture of student affairs and co-creating that culture as one that recognizes that secondary trauma and burnout are things that happen that, that we contribute. Um, but then also knowing that there’s a number of things that we’re allowed to do. Um, I know I really appreciate working, um, at an institution where a mental health day is something that’s valued. It’s not like, “oh, yes, you’re slacking off, right?”
Meg Sunga: Duane, thank you so much for joining us today. It has been an absolute pleasure for me and the will there be food team. So thank you again. Thanks for having me. Our next guest is A.J. Guedouar. A.J. Is the Director for Campus Development here at Presence and a former reslife or like me. Thanks for coming on the show.
A.J. Guedouar: Of course. Thanks for having me.
Meg Sunga: Yeah. So we’re talking about burnout and honestly it’s end of the week. So like I’m low key a little bit burned out from the week myself. We just kinda wanna jump in with your story and what burnout means to you.
A.J. Guedouar: Yeah. So I worked in the field for a few years before I got here to Presence, and burnout wasn’t something that just struck all of the sudden. And really when I think about it, it feels a lot like the gradual disenchantment of learning what student affairs really was. This illusion that I had after being an involved student, going to conferences like NODA, which I remember pretty fondly my senior year — just thinking that it was going to be something that it wasn’t when I got there and every little thing that took place over that time though several years was just like another straw on the back. So at the end of the day, yeah, absolutely I reached a boiling point. There are specific things that I can point to that that helped get me there. But now that I’m four years removed from it, it’s pretty easy to look back and understand that it was just falling out of love with the idea of what I thought the role was going to be.
Meg Sunga: So do you think that people confuse burnout with the feeling of being ready to leave?
A.J. Guedouar: Yeah that’s a tough question. Uh, cause burnout means something different to each unique individual. Right. I was burnt out before I was ready to leave. I think, uh, the first round of burnout for me was actually physical, not so much mental or emotional. And a lot of that had to do with one of the institutions that I worked at. It was just so small. They don’t have the resources that I think I became accustomed to at larger institutions or that maybe some of us have experienced. I’ll give you an example. Anytime a beer can was found on campus, a professional staff member was responding in person. As you can imagine, this led to, uh, the nightmares type of on call experiences that people talk about and joke about years later. You mentioned triggers in the overview. I will never forget the duty phone ringtone…and for some reason it’s the Verizon default ringtone. So I actually hear it all the time, all the time. It’s everywhere. The first job wasn’t mental. It was physical, so just purely being tired. Um, it was also my first role in the field and so I wasn’t so much concerned with finding an institution that was the right fit. I was concerned with finding an institution that would take me. So I took pretty much the first job that I was offered that was full time, and over the course of that year, found out that really it wasn’t the right fit for me in terms of policy, in terms of institutional profile. And I was okay with that. At no point did I expect that my first role was going to be perfect. My second role was one that I was really, really excited for. Um, I was going to be in a better geographic place. The team that I’d met during the interview was awesome. I was really, really stoked about it and physically refreshed by the time that I got there. And the second one was harder for me because it ended up being a lot more mental, um, over the course of the couple of years that I was there, falling out of love with the job that I thought I was going to love.
Meg Sunga: I’m hanging on to what you just said and in regards to these multiple on call experiences. Cause I definitely had those and I think of that when I think back on my reasons for leaving. That’s honestly the first thing I think about, just those moments that were just terrible. What are, so if you’re willing, what are some of those stories or do you have a worst night on duty? Um, some of those reslife war stories, if you want to share.
A.J. Guedouar: A lot of it had to do with the nightmare situations that no one ever wants to experience. Um, student deaths, sexual assaults. I remember those two specifically happening in the same week of being on call and, and that was pretty much the end of it. Earlier that semester — not that this was an on-call experience – but one of the staff members in our department had passed away unexpectedly as well. So at that point we were already just hanging on, right, trying to make it through to the next extended break. And, I remember getting a phone call from my RA right after work, probably about 5:15. I’d just left the office. I was changing out of the business casual attire, which was part of my day that I really looked forward to. And then an RA just called me in tears, said that they had found a student not responding. And the rest of it just, it’s just a blur. Like I have photographs of it in my mind here and there, but ultimately just feeling like everything was so far out of your control and something so severe and of such magnitude had happened and you’re just there and there’s no training that can prepare you for that. You’re just there with the EMTs and police kind of telling you what to do and your supervisors, they’re looking equally as shaken, you know? And that’s one of those experiences that you hope nobody, nobody ever has. Um, obviously you feel so deeply for the people directly involved with the student. And, after that there was really no question in my mind that I didn’t want to do this anymore.
Meg Sunga: When you have traumatic experiences like that, what are the things that you can do or what did you do as short-term, long-term fixes. You had the blog that you wrote, um, a couple years ago in regards to that that kind of touched upon that, but I’d love for the listeners to be able to hear what you have to say.
A.J. Guedouar: Yeah. The, the reality is that in the immediate short term, there was nothing, there was nothing. I, I couldn’t leave immediately because I felt a duty and a responsibility to my team, my RA team, my community. And I also like, the other stark nature of it is that I was a young person with student loans and I didn’t have the ability to just leave a job. I was not leaving that place without something else lined up. So in the short term I was just talking about it as much as you could. Um, but really time heals some kind of trauma like that. Once I left residence life — the on call structure, living in the building — it actually was a very quick recovery, surprisingly. Just ownership of time and where you live, not having to worry about staying within 15 minutes of campus, right. Not having to respond to a duty phone or putting your life on hold for a week at a time or whatever it may have been. So as soon as I left the institution, it was a pretty quick and drastic recovery. Um, now there are definitely others solutions for it. You don’t necessarily have to leave. I think that there is more that can be done in graduate programs to prepare people for what student affairs is really like. Time and time again, I hear from people that I work with that it is just not what they thought it would be. And to me that’s, that’s a pretty serious problem. We’re not contributing to people’s health; we’re not preparing them. So I think that there’s a lot more preparation that can go into the education of training these practitioners. I think that there’s gotta be a lot more foundational work done for health and wellness during staff training. Even in the work that we do. I think about RA training. Like what kind of example are we setting when we require people to sit in a room from 8 to 8, and we’re pumping them full of sugar and junk food and things like that? You know, but what kind of example is that setting and what does it say about how much we value health and wellness in the role?
Meg Sunga: I struggle with that as someone who’s been an RA in those trainings; being that student pumped up on the sugar, as well as being the person responsible for structuring that experience for a new group of RAs. And it’s tough cause I know that there are folks out there listening right now that’s like, you know, it’s, I don’t want to say it is what it is cause it’s not necessarily that. It’s, you know, there’s so much we do. I think what, well, we fell back on a lot is “this is just the information that we need to give them.” These are the things and then we’re trying to pick and choose what issues or information takes priority and then we just get caught up and going and then we lose sight of how everyone’s doing, often times while as we’re going through it.
A.J. Guedouar: Sure. There are so many factors that go into it. Budget, time. I mean, what days are you even allowed to have people move back to campus early? Right. There are so many powers that be, and I think like any other issue that people choose to advocate for, you just have to make it a priority. You just have to be willing to fight the fight. I’ve seen institutions do it. I’ve talked to people that have transformed not only the way they train their paraprofessional staff, but their staff members, their professional staff members. So it’s just a matter of picking up the fight. I think.
Meg Sunga: Yeah. Our last guest talked about secondary trauma and how when that happens, the best thing is to fix your physical routine. So focusing on sleep, how you’re eating, exercising, but they also said an important thing to focus on is autonomy.
A.J. Guedouar: Absolutely. I just think there are a lot of pieces to it. They’re not purely physical. Um, and I, I think it’s going to vary per person. One of the specific things that actually developed after in the aftermath of this on-call experience was a simple checklist activity called healthy day. And what we did was, at the top in as artsy of a font that you could muster, you’d write “healthy day.” And what you did is you brainstormed at first, all of the different things that you could do in a day that would make you feel good, that make you feel like you are having a healthy day. And so these would range in scope from brushing your teeth to calling a family member, to exercising, to making your bed, whatever, petting your dog. Letting your dog lick your face was one of the favorite ones I saw; gross, but understandable. And what you do is, after the brainstorm, you would write them all down in chronological order. So at which point in your day might these things happen, and you’d put a little checkbox next to them. As you go through each of your days, check off things that you’re doing. Pretty simple. There’s a lot of philosophy behind checklists and how they can motivate people. Then come up with a scale for yourself. So if I achieve what percentage of these things will I consider it a great day? What percentage will I consider it a perfect day? And over time you’ll find that not only are you building habits, but there’s a feeling of reward and value that comes with being able to check those things off the list, and over time that can really contribute to wellness.
Meg Sunga: A.J., let’s talk about myths and misconceptions about burnout. What are some of the common ones floating out there?
A.J. Guedouar: Coming to this role at Presence was a godsend because first and foremost, when we were super young and couldn’t do benefits, unlimited PTO and stock options were really the only way to get people to do the job and maintaining that unlimited PTO has been incredible for me. There’s no stigma around taking it. I feel entirely guilt free and I just have never felt uncomfortable here being like “I’m taking a personal six days” and just going, you know. So taking time early and often leaving when I just don’t feel like it. You know when you’re at work and you’ve been at like NPR and then you’ve been to ESPN and then you’ve been to Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and then you get back to that first site again and you’re like, “I am not doing anything.” I just leave. I think just being real with yourself about like when you can give and when you can’t and having a relationship with your team and your supervisor where you, when you can’t, you can just step away and take care of yourself has been hugely important. But I don’t think a lot of people are comfortable vocalizing that or even know that they can when they’re early on in their careers and that’s been a pretty big shift for me, but most helpful.
Meg Sunga: I think there is this misconception in student affairs where there is this martyrship a little bit about how much work we do. Like, oh, “I worked X many hours” or “I have, you know, I’m double, triple overtime”, like, and that is somewhat normalized and then lauded but then should it be? Like, I think that’s what I feel is at the center of a lot of this burnout is just the folks that keep pushing that narrative.
A.J. Guedouar: Yeah, you’re talking about the heart of capitalism, right? Right. Which is exploiting your human capital for as much as you’re able. And yeah, I totally agree. It’s an American thing. We brag about how much we work. And I’ve been very fortunate to travel quite a bit and I’ve got friends in a lot of different places and it’s not like that anywhere. I just think that there’s gotta be a pretty serious culture shift around our value system because it’s great to say you worked 80 hours and that might make you some good money. Outside of student affairs, I don’t know that it’s really contributing to our overall happiness. And unfortunately people in student affairs are at the intersection of being exploited a lot of the time and caring too much.
Meg Sunga: If you could tell a new ResLifer anything, what would you tell them?
A.J. Guedouar: Well, because we’re talking about burnout, I would encourage people to make health and wellness a conversation point early and often. Expectations are one of the things that are pretty consistent across the board in student affairs and co-curricular life — it’s something we do all the time, whether it’s with your floor or whether it’s with your staff, whatever. If this is something that matters to you — and hopefully it does — this should be a conversation point early and often. You’re setting an expectation that this matters to you and that this is going to be an important part of your relationship moving forward. And it sounds simple, but like the better that an employee feels, the better they’re going to perform. And that’s better for the organization as a whole. And so it’d be in the interest of employee longevity and tenure to treat everybody well and make sure they feel happy. So my advice would be you do matter. The fact that you’re so new doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to health and wellness and there are so many resources out there for you to figure out what works for you. And just keep that an open conversation with the folks that are supporting you and that you’re supporting. Cause if you care about it, chances are they do too.
Meg Sunga: So let’s say burnout is inevitable, as we live, there’s no way to, as far as like it happens to everyone at some point in time. Um, the challenge is, should we accept that or are there ways to work to change it?
A.J. Guedouar: There are definitely ways to change it. I think that burnout is systemic and like any other system that we look to dismantle, there are ways to do it. It just takes a concerted effort like you know, if institutions adopted a minimum PTO policy, for example — and I know that’s an easy thing to follow upon, like time off and vacation, but what minimum does dismantles the guilt that is associated with it? I know that’s one thing. I think that if we made it a part of our interviews and not just a question or a check mark, but something we genuinely cared about. If it was part of our departmental missions, if it was something that we asked about in every one on one, I think that we could make and effect change. I think that it also starts in graduate programs – or for those of us that did not get student affairs degrees before going into the field, it starts when we’re working with our student leaders. It’s just, it has to be a part of the conversation and I think we are making progress. I think that people are so well aware of burnout. Social media has made it easier to talk about burnout and to share resources. Just think that that has to become a solution-oriented focus of the field.
Meg Sunga: I absolutely agree. I think that when people put time, effort, and energy and intentionality behind it, it can absolutely happen top-down.
A.J. Guedouar: We know so many great people in the field and the passion that you see not just in residence life or student activities, but career services, multicultural athletics, right across the board. There’s so much passion there and we can do anything that we set our minds out to do. It’s just that when it comes to day to day operations, these things fall to the wayside. And that is breeding ground for burnout is when the things that we care about we can’t do because we don’t have the time or the energy.
Meg Sunga: Any last thoughts, tips of words, words, advice, wisdom, to folks who find themselves listening to this podcast who may be experiencing burnout right now? Um, and who just need some clarity, or motivation, anything at all that you want to tell people?
A.J. Guedouar: Some of your best allies when you’re initially looking to confront burnout are going to be yI think I always found solace. I had an awesome, awesome area coordinator team at one of the institutions that I worked with and when everything was burning down, those are the first people that I went to and they, they literally got me through the day to day in a triage sense like, they were there for me when I needed it. We’re all going through something similar. They’re very much there to help you process. I think that’s, if you’re really down in it right now and you’re really, really struggling, I think that’s a way to at least treat it while you figure out what your next steps are. I also think that if you need the time, take the time. I don’t care that it’s opening, right? Like you, your physical wellness, your mental health, your holistic wellbeing comes first. The institution has support systems. They’ll figure it out. Nothing is going to fall apart because you took a day or two for yourself. So don’t be afraid to do that. And quite frankly, if, if there’s some kind of retribution that comes at you for prioritizing your mental health and wellness, then you know, send me an application. We’ll talk about it because that’s something that’s really, really important and you shouldn’t have to sacrifice just because it’s a busy time of year.
Meg Sunga: A.J., thank you again so, so much for joining me today. I loved having this conversation with you from one ResLifer to another. Thank you.
A.J. Guedouar: Yeah, of course. Wish we’d met when we were both in the field. Yeah.
Meg Sunga: Yes. What a joy. Then more war stories would have been shared for sure. You’ve been listening to Will There Be Food? with me, Meg Sunga. My guest this week we’re Duane Khan, psychologists and the Assistant Program Director for the Counseling and Wellness Center at New College of Florida and A.J. Guedouar, the Director for Campus Development here at Presence. You can find Duane on Linkedin at Duane Kahn, PhD and follow A.J. on Twitter @TampaBaeJ. You can follow Will There Be Food? @HelloPresence on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. For our episode transcript and show notes, and additional resources head to Presence.io/Podcast. Don’t forget to rate us, subscribe, and share with all the friends and let us know what topics you want us to cover next. Will There Be Food is a production of Presence. It’s hosted by me, Meg Sunga. The show is directed, edited, and mixed by our producer, Luke Burton. Our executive producer is Cassandra Corrado. Catch us next week when we’ll be talking about leadership and power.
“8 Dimensions of Wellness” (University of Maryland’s Your Guide to Living Well)
Trauma and Recovery (Judith Herman, 1997)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860
RAINN Hotline: 800-656-4673
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