Self-Care Isn’t a Nice to-do. It’s a Must Do: Self-Care for Higher Education Professionals During Fall Semester

The fall semester is a time of great change and excitement for all of us higher education professionals. New students are arriving, new classes are starting, and there is a renewed sense of purpose and energy. However, the fall semester can also be a time of great stress and anxiety. Long hours, heavy workloads, and demanding student situations can take a toll on even the most resilient professionals.

That’s why it’s so important for higher education professionals to practice self-care during the fall semester. Self-care is any activity that promotes your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It can be something as simple as taking a few minutes to relax each day or as involved as going on a weekend self-care retreat. 

Unfortunately, taking time for ourselves can sometimes be easier said than done. According to a 2023 survey from the Pew Research Center, 46% of workers in the United States are not using their full paid time off benefits. I’ll raise my hand and say that I have forfeited paid time off in the past—or donated it to the leave bank when possible. Still, this was time I worked hard for and earned, yet left on the table. At a previous employer I had a sizable pay out of my vacation time only to see it taxed heavily and in reflecting on that in the years that followed I regretted not taking the time off. The impacts on our bodies when we do not rest can add up cumulatively. The American Psychological Association cites how all areas of our bodies can be impacted but perhaps the most nefarious component of a lack of rest and recharge is the idea that this can be a badge of honor. Neglecting ourselves and our needs I have found is no such thing—and often has larger implications beyond those we can see or feel. 

Last fall in my first year as Dean of Students I decided to try an experiment and I scheduled one long weekend each month of the fall semester. This seemed like a simple effort to commit more to my own recharge needs and one I could easily tackle before things overtook my schedule. Over the semester I found these extended opportunities provided me something to look forward to and a needed chance to reflect on the month and semester to date—not only for my work self but also for my personal self. The long weekends weren’t all highly curated. Some were simple staycations—a slow start to the morning and a long walk with our beagle, Hartley, before taking in a pup cup (or as I like to call them “puppochino”) with our favorite baristas. On more than one occasion I may have taken in a Friday afternoon movie, journaled at Rocky Mountain National park, enjoyed lunch with a friend an hour or two away in a different part of the state, or perhaps volunteered at the local Humane Society. 

Over time I found ways to integrate my long weekends into weekly rituals too. I now work from home most Fridays. I get up a tad earlier and head out for my double toasted everything bagel and iced coffee before washing my car and topping off my tank at Costco (IYKYK–those lines on the weekend can be 😱…) and stopping off at the gym for a workout before starting my work day. These earlier morning practices help me find calm in tending to tasks that help me feel accomplished, organized, and ready (literally) to roll. 

While the things discussed above work for me, I know they won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Here are a few self-care tips for higher education professionals during the fall semester to get you started on thinking about your own self-care rituals and practices:

  • Get enough sleep. Most adults need around 7-8 hours of sleep per night. When you’re well-rested, you’re better able to cope with stress and make sound decisions.
  • Eat healthy foods. Eating a healthy diet gives you the energy you need to get through the day. Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is a great way to reduce stress, improve your mood, and boost your energy levels. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.
  • Take breaks throughout the day. Get up and move around every 20-30 minutes to avoid getting too sedentary. Take a few minutes to stretch, walk around, or do some deep breathing exercises.
  • Delegate tasks. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Ask for help from colleagues, students, or family members when you need it.
  • Set boundaries. It’s important to set boundaries between your work life and your personal life. Don’t check work emails or take work calls outside of work hours.
  • Take time for yourself. Make sure to schedule some time for yourself each week to do something you enjoy. This could be reading, going for a walk, or spending time with loved ones.

Self-care is an essential part of maintaining a healthy and balanced life. By practicing self-care during the fall semester, you can better cope with stress, improve your mood, and identify ways for integration. 

In addition to the tips above, here are a few other self-care strategies that may be helpful for higher education professionals:

  • Join a support group or speak with friends. Talking to other people who understand what you’re going through can be a great way to cope with stress and anxiety.
  • See a therapist or counselor. If you’re struggling to cope with stress on your own, talking to a mental health professional can be helpful.
  • Take a vacation or staycation. If you can, take a short vacation during the fall semester to recharge and de-stress.

In the coming weeks, I will take my first extended weekend in September. I have planned a solo trip to check out some of our Western National Parks including Joshua Tree and Great Basin. I hope to do some stargazing and “forest bathing”, amongst other things and look forward to listening to some audiobooks and podcasts I’ve put off on the road. I know that for myself self-care is an ongoing journey. Know that there will be times when you’re better at it than others. The important thing is to keep trying and to make self-care a priority in your life. And for my managers and supervisors out there—think about how you can role-model self-care for your team members as well. 

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