Advice & News

December 2, 2021

The Blessing and Curse of Higher Education’s ‘Collective Restoration’


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Whether you are new to working in higher education or you are a fully promoted and tenured professor, you've likely come to appreciate the rhythms of the academic calendar. The semester breaks allow the opportunity for variance of tasks and a change of pace. An underestimated benefit is when higher education professionals synchronize vacations or being off campus and apart from one another. For American workers, this "collective restoration" in education is perhaps only rivaled by Congress' August recess.

Research studies have shown the benefits of collective restoration, including a 2013 study in Sweden where fewer antidepressants were dispensed during times of coordinated vacations. In short, people are happier when they take time off at the same time as other workers.

"It's not hard to guess why collective restoration is so powerful," wrote author Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian. "It's easier to nurture relationships with family and friends when they're on leave, too; meanwhile, if the office is deserted while you're trying to relax, you're spared anxious thoughts about tasks piling up, inboxes filling, or scheming colleagues trying to steal your job."

Individuals benefit from rest and recovery, but there are social benefits that extend throughout organizations.

"A person suffering from chronic stress or cognitive fatigue may fail to attend to the needs of others, and a person lacking energy may fail to give effective support," wrote researchers of the aforementioned study led by Terry Hartwig, a professor from Uppsala University. "Restoration of individual resources, therefore, has implications beyond those for individual effectiveness and well-being; it sustains the ability to provide support."

Of course, not all higher education professionals are off during semester breaks, and depending on the functional area, it can be quite busy. But generally speaking, those who work at colleges and universities in the summer are often restored by the relative downtime of having fewer demands from students and faculty on campus and administrators who are taking their vacations.

However, there's an individual cost when the community depends on collective restoration. Just ask anyone in higher education who wants to take a leave during September or April. Also, more energy and resources must be expended by the organization during the rigorous times when the workforce is synchronized, much like the stress a car engine experiences when quickly going from zero to 60 mph.

A person's "busyness sweet spot," explained by "Ultralearning" author Scott H. Young, could vary within a collective. Some workers, with an aversion to idleness, might prefer to stay at 30 mph or take Fridays off here and there and never an entire week at a time.

Synchronicity is also a challenge on more granular schedules. At the university where I work, we have a 'common hour' twice a week for the purpose of scheduling meetings that don't conflict with classes and other scheduled activities. It's actually often the worst time to meet or reach someone because everyone is too busy cramming their synchronized obligations into that hour.

Imposing interventions, such as companies and even countries restricting email access after hours in the name of a "right to disconnect," infringes on employees' freedom to get ahead in their careers or the flexibility to complete tasks at times that fit their preferences. There are more moderate practices and policies adopted by departments, such as email curfews that call for delaying messages to send until the next morning. But even these collective restorations would be met with resistance if applied across an entire campus.

"The ideal modern job is one where you set a schedule that fits with your family life, taking holidays and certainly coffee breaks when you choose," wrote Burkeman, an observation that can be underscored during the pandemic with realized work-from-home capabilities.

But the pandemic certainly hasn't helped people become less fatigued, even for industries like higher education that have seemingly built-in opportunities for collective restoration. A survey released earlier this year by The Chronicle of Higher Education indicated that more than half of faculty seriously considered either changing careers or retiring early because of the pandemic, and nearly 70 percent of respondents said they felt stressed in 2020, more than doubling the number in 2019.

Sure, much of the pandemic-related stress had to do with adapting to unexpected circumstances, remote learning, and the angst of what happens when organizations that depend on synchronicity -- especially the bureaucratic institutions of higher education -- become asynchronized. The rhythms of people's work will eventually stabilize.

But for all of the banging of the drum for colleges and universities to "come together" on campus for mutual benefit, we should also be reminded of how we are restored, as a community, to be apart every once in a while.

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