4 Tips for Keeping Your Head Above Water

It’s hard to work on the front lines of the emotional highs and lows of a situation, but keeping your head in the game and above water might just get you through your next foray into crisis.

March 17, 2016

Two weeks ago I had the great honor of serving as co-chair of a Council for Advancement and Support of Education conference on media relations. My fellow co-chair, Jim Reische, faculty members, Peggy Kuhr and Stacey Schmeidel, and I chose to close the conference with a session focused on maintaining mental and emotional health while holding stressful jobs. We described the session as follows:

Communications jobs can take a heavy toll on your personal and professional life. As a closing session, we are opening up the floor to questions about maintaining work/life balance, rising to your next position, professional development ideas, dealing with the repetition of tight timelines and tough conversations, the difficulty of always being the voice of reason- all while keeping your passion for the profession alive. Most conferences give you great ideas for how to approach your work—we want to ensure you have what you need to do it with your head held high and a smile on your face.

I won’t betray the trust of the session by delineating our conversation, but I was struck by how well the session’s topic resonated with our attendees, in part because turnover of communications positions feels higher than for other key administrator roles on campus. We may transition for a number of reasons, but one I hear most often is tied to fatigue. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And I hope to share my experiences and what I’ve observed over the course of my career to help others navigate stressful jobs, long days and difficult topics.

When a crisis hits or we transition in/out a president or a major announcement is made on campus, those of us with communications in our titles immediately spring into action. Before we start our work, though, I believe we need to put in place important guidelines and boundaries so that we can be as effective as possible. Below are four tactics I try to employ (sometimes successfully and sometimes not) and hope will be helpful to you.

Remember to prioritize those who ground you.  In my life, my family and friends serve these roles. I have to admit I sometimes disappear when working on an important project—one that feels like it has the potential to be big news—only to resurface once it comes to resolution. I’ve become much better over the years about making time for my husband and daughter and friends, even when I’m at my busiest points. It may only be for a few minutes, but spending time with them allows my brain to take a break and allows me to reinforce that I care for those who mean the most to me. Even just five minutes on FaceTime with my daughter (usually while staring down a deadline) reminds me of why I work in this fast-paced field and believe so strongly in our work in higher education.

Maintain what you need to be at your best. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, aren’t eating or don’t plan time for however you prefer to clear your mind, then you can’t perform at the levels expected by your institution or required by the situation. Obviously, sometimes we need to skip a meal or two and on occasion may have to work well into the night, but it is the repetition of missed exercise or meals or sleep or normal routines that can drag us down. I’m famous for always having a pair of running shoes in my suitcase and a protein bar in my bag, because I know exercise and meals are what I’m most likely to cut when I’m busiest. Take care of yourself or you can’t take care of your institution.

Understand when you need to say “no” and why. Know your boundaries and what you can and can’t do. There are times when you may have to admit that a request is outside of your skillset or you don’t feel comfortable with the request. And there are times you will have to walk others through the unintended consequences of the strategy they are proposing or the fact that the tactics they are suggesting won’t net the results they want. You will gain greater credibility for admitting what you don’t know than faking it and hoping for the best or setting up unrealistic expectations for your work. Charles de Gaulle is famous for saying, “the graveyards are full of indispensable men,” and the same could be said for unemployment lines, filled with those who didn’t understand their indispensability.

Don’t take it personally (unless you know you should). Crisis situations are filled with a lot of emotion—don’t take comments personally unless you know you could have performed better. Take time after the situation comes to resolution to debrief and ask for a review of your performance, but don’t take the words spoken or typed at the height of the moment beyond their intended purpose.

It’s hard to work on the front lines of the emotional highs and lows of a situation, but keeping your head in the game and above water might just get you through your next foray into crisis.

What other tips have worked for you?

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