Monday, December 5, 2022

Faculty, staff mental health neglected

By Aleksandra Sidorova

SUNY Plattsburgh spent $339,666 on mental health resources for students this academic year. But the mental health of faculty and staff does not get the same support.

Kim McCoy Coleman, the coordinator of the employee assistance program and assistant professor of social work, said the college’s administration has done “very well” trying to create a campus culture of well-being for a while, but noted that well-being was different than mental health.

Some ways the campus cares about its employees’ well-being are service recognition programs such as the Cardinal Care honorees that have been announced every month for at least seven years, newsletters like President Alexander Enyedi’s acknowledgement of National Custodian Appreciation Day sent out Sept. 30 and spaces like the faculty and staff lounge at Feinberg 335.

“I think that the scope of who will be recognized will be broader and more inclusive to let people know that they’re doing a good job,” McCoy Coleman said. “Because that matters.”

However, the campus’ approach to its employees’ mental health is different.

“Talking specifically about the mental health of faculty and staff and professionals, I don’t think anyone does a good job anywhere, not just on our campus,” McCoy Coleman said.

Campus employees face a lot of stress. Professors Julia Davis and Michelle Ouellette shared that there is a high amount of work generally expected from faculty: performing college service, publishing papers and conducting research. Furthermore, much of the faculty’s “housework” — months of searching for potential faculty to join the university, reviewing documents, filing reports, addressing department issues — falls on women, Davis said. 

“I think if you look at women both at home and at work, we’ve been kind of trained to be the ones who notice,” Ouellette said. “Someone spills goop on the stove. Who in the household cleans up the goop? It’s probably not the man.”

Davis and Ouellette said their students’ stress affects them as well. Davis and Ouellette are busy “rooting for everyone” and trying to ensure their students’ success academically and otherwise.

A campus employee who requested to remain anonymous “for fear of retribution” said “kind of everything” stresses him out about his job. He faces rigid deadlines, high expectations and a lack of support for what he needs. Although he will eventually be able to access a vehicle or purchase parts he needs for a project, it comes with a delay. He doesn’t always have the tools he needs. Sometimes, he buys parts out of pocket because he cannot afford to wait for the purchase to be approved, or buys the wrong part because he is unable to get the right one through the college.

“There’s really nobody that asks me what it is I need, so it’s up to the employee to find a way to solve all their own issues,” the employee said. “I often feel like I’m doing my job in spite of the college, not because of the college.”

McCoy Coleman tries her best to promote the employee assistance program, where campus employees can be informed, assessed and referred to appropriate resources within the community for “any kind of problem.” McCoy Coleman also plans to work on programs encouraging mindfulness, healthy eating, self-care and resilience to help protect employees from stress.

“I’m trying to promote EAP because I think it’s a resource that’s underutilized, that the administration and labor [department] provides to our employees,” McCoy Coleman said.

Another option is telehealth services, which come as part of employees’ health benefits. McCoy Coleman said telehealth may not be everyone’s first choice, but can be just as effective and more convenient as in-person counseling.There is sometimes a long waitlist to see professionals in the North Country region.

The anonymous employee said he started working with EAP 6 months ago and has been utilizing telehealth services through the school-provided insurance UnitedHealthcare once a week for at least 18 months.

“Not to be too much of a salesperson, but there’s not even a copay,” the employee said. “It’s fantastic.”

He said the services have been “really helpful.”

“Is it enough? No,” he said. “I don’t know what

is enough.”

However, he credits his union, United University Professionals, for providing him with the resources to manage his mental health, and not the college.

“The college is not giving me this, this is something that I think is a result of my union,” the employee said. “I could be wrong.”

The employee also said the resources available to him do not actually make his job easier.

“Ultimately what these resources do is make me more resilient so I can put up with all the crap,” he said. “But in the end, it’s still crap, so it doesn’t actually make my life any better.”

What would fundamentally change the way he feels on the job, he said, is realistic expectations and communication with employees in order to make manageable goals. Without realistic expectations and achievable goals, he ends his days “feeling further in a hole, every day, than at the beginning of the day.”

“Here’s the big thing: it won’t cost anything,” he said. 

Realistic expectations paired with the proper tools and equipment would help provide solutions to the problems the employee faces on his job, especially in his interactions with students.

“For me, since I work with students, that’s a priority, and it’s a part of my job that I really enjoy,” he said. “So that there’s always a balance between trying to achieve a specific goal and trying to educate students.”

McCoy Coleman said “it makes sense” that the college puts its focus on students’ mental health: “Students are the focus of why we’re all here.”

Davis and Ouellette said they have a supportive community of faculty and women on campus to help tackle problems. Ouellette spoke of finding things about her work that bring her joy, as well as finding a balance between home and work life. Davis and Ouellette also listed some of their hobbies that help them relieve stress: reading, pilates and yoga.

McCoy Coleman has many initiatives planned, including mobile self-care events appearing in various spots on campus still in the works. Confirmed upcoming EAP events include an open house at Beaumont 410 from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19 and a week later, a virtual and in-person discussion about faculty and staff mental health called “The Elephant in the (Class)room” from noon to 12:45 p.m. McCoy Coleman is also working on establishing a campus well-being committee “to focus on generating well-being on our campus amongst employees” to meet quarterly starting November.

McCoy Coleman’s goal is to fight the stigma associated with the discussion of mental health. To contribute to the campus conversation on mental health, she talks about her struggles with depression and anxiety when appropriate.

“Stigma is real,” McCoy Coleman said. “It doesn’t feel great to talk about [mental health] with other people. There’s a lot of shame involved.”

Davis and Ouellette said they start classroom discussions about both their and students’ mental health “as a way to model.” Davis said she asks her graduate-level students to call her out when she agrees to something that would be to her detriment so they can learn from her mistakes.

“I am pretty famous for an inability to say no, and there are a lot of us that we know each other because we show up. We say yes, and sometimes it’s to our own detriment because we may not have any more bandwidth to play with, but will still say yes,” Davis said. “I do point that out to my students and I say, ‘Call me on it. Point out when you see me at too many things. You call me on it, and I will call you on it.’”

However, to some, speaking out about issues they face at their job can result in losing it.

“I was pretty, I think, vocal about being stressed out at work, and I still am, but I was a little tempered by reading about some places that were firing people who seemed to have mental health problems. I guess it wasn’t really that I expected that here, but on the other hand, I don’t know,” the anonymous employee said. “I need this job. So in the end, whatever happens, I don’t feel like I have a lot of options but to just suck it up.”

He said the work culture on campus is not geared toward opening up about mental health and instead “geared toward silence.”

“We call it efficiency, we have all these names for it, but really what it is is ‘get in line, stay in line, do what you’re told, get it done,’” the employee said. “We’ve created a whole mythology around that: if you’re a person who can get it done, you’re a hero. You strive for those things, but at what expense? I think it’s slowly turning around to where there’s a knowledge that we’re allowed to have lives outside of work, and I may be speaking more of my own personal journey here.”

Another problem with the mental health of college staff is that there is close to no research on it.

“You could just type in ‘student mental health’ and you’ll be bombarded with research, but there’s not much for faculty and practically nothing for staff mental health,” McCoy Coleman said.

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