Creating a Culture of Wellness in the International Education Workplace

  • Tiffany Komon, International Programs, Coordinator/Advisor, University of Michigan
  • Stephanie Ramin, Asst. Director of Study Abroad and Exchange Programs, St. Mary’s University - San Antonio, Texas

“Burnout”, “stress”, and “workplace anxiety”, are likely not new concepts to anyone reading this post. As co-authors and passionate international education professionals, our interest in this topic is deeply personal. In particular, Tiffany’s mental health journey began as a teenager when she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Now as an adult, she navigates mental health challenges in the workplace. Between losing sleep over the next day’s looming tasks, and overwhelming tears falling during staff meetings, career-related stress has often felt debilitating. For Stephanie, she has witnessed how the mental health of some of her colleagues over the years has been impacted through their roles in higher education and she wants to better understand what can be done to provide positive and effective change.

For those who face mental health challenges, it’s necssary to have support in the workplace. Recent data from McKinsey & Company found that while 65% of employers report that mental health is supported “well” or “very well”, only 51% of their employees agree. This means almost half of the surveyed employees do not feel their workplace adequately supports mental well-being. The international education space is not immune to this sentiment either.

How does the international education field compare?

The Forum on Education Abroad’s 2022 State of Field noted that organizational support and culture were listed as the top reasons for employees to leave or remain at their current workplace. The McKinsey survey also notes that maintaining a workplace that supports emotional and mental well-being is correlated with increased employee satisfaction and retention rates. With international education being faced with setbacks of the “Great Resignation”, it has become increasingly pertinent to address retention factors and support employees holistically. The 2022 Diversity Abroad Professional Survey also offers insights into international educators' demographics and workplace satisfaction, revealing a critical need for more inclusive practices to enhance employee retention and engagement.

To better understand the current landscape of organizational support in our field, we surveyed 31 international education professionals. We found that over 64% of organizational leaders do not address personal wellness regularly according to respondents. In addition, almost 30% of respondents felt as if their supervisors were unsupportive, or not very supportive of their mental health. When asked what they wished their organization or supervisor knew about supporting them in their well-being, respondents noted a variety of things they wish their employers would do differently. Here is a brief summary of the most commonly mentioned points:

  • Provide more organizational support: Although many respondents noted that supervisors supported their well-being, some did note neutral or negative perceptions of their supervisor's support and wished they would be more empathetic towards employees’ personal situations. Furthermore, even when respondents were able to note positive experiences of support from their direct supervisors, they indicated the support stopped there. Often, they mentioned a lack of support and understanding from upper administration.
  • Create clearer boundaries: Many noted how taxing work in the field of international education can be: it is the expectation in many offices to answer emails outside of standard working hours, even on breaks. It is also a reality for many to be on call 24/7 to handle student emergencies, which can be psychologically taxing. Many respondents identified burnout as an issue, and there is a desire for a better work-life balance and more realistic expectations for what truly needs to be worked on outside of standard working hours and what can wait until they’re officially back on the clock.
  • Offer more flexibility: In particular, having the flexibility to work remotely and flexibility to have personal days and/or mental health days in addition to standard sick leave were mentioned as desirable by various respondents. Additionally, some respondents noted that not having to explain the need for the time off (i.e. specific illnesses, therapy, etc.) would also be appreciated.
  • Provide more resources/awareness of resources: It was noted that it would be helpful to be provided with more resources to help address mental well-being. For example, some respondents mentioned that mental health care was still expensive under standard health insurance, or even non-existent, so having more accessible resources available to staff would be beneficial. Additionally, it was noted that employees should be better informed of benefits offered at their organization, and encouraged to use them (particularly those that are at no cost).
  • Increase compensation: Some respondents noted that they aren’t compensated well for their roles; in fact, the primary stress that one respondent felt they have from their job is the financial stress brought on by a lack of sufficient compensation for their work.
  • Increase staffing: Finally, many respondents noted turnover in their work environment, and that empty positions often sit vacant for extended periods of time (sometimes never being filled at all). In addition, it seems high demands then sometimes fall on current staff, who often have to take on the tasks of those that have left (and are still expected to meet the same office goals/outcomes with less support). Respondents wished organizations would be more proactive about filling open positions sooner.

What can office leaders do?

Mental well-being and the maintenance of one’s mental health are often viewed as an individual responsibility, rather than a collective one. Countless blogs and articles with self-care tips, stress management advice, and guides to practices such as meditative breathing are just a quick Google search away. While individuals should be expected to take responsibility for their overall health, given the demands and heavy nature of the international education field, it is unsurprising that our work can impact our well-being. Between handling 24/7 student crises to taking late-night meetings with partners across time zones, international educators are often making personal sacrifices for the sake of their jobs. There are only so many breathing exercises one can do before the issue of employee well-being becomes larger than the workers themselves. The tone for the workplace wellness culture is set by office leadership. Unit leaders have the power to establish and curate workplace norms. Actions such as sending late-night emails or planning weekend/evening events could insinuate that working outside of standard office hours is the expectation in that space, affecting work-life balance and ultimately employee well-being. Therefore, support from office leadership is key to curating the office’s well-being culture.

Support from office leadership can take a variety of forms:

  • First, office leaders can establish clear expectations and boundaries of working hours, and limit communication and work events outside of said hours.

  • Additionally, education and transparency about employer-sponsored wellness benefits are crucial. Employers should make employees aware of their options and encourage them to utilize their benefits (including time off). A leader should set an example by utilizing said benefits themselves.

  • Leadership should address burnout by working quickly to fill positions during periods of staff shortages/turnover and be realistic about the workload a team of their size can reasonably manage.

  • In addition, leadership should have empathy and an open ear for what employees wish to communicate about their well-being to their employers.

  • Finally, office leaders should consider bringing ideas for policy change to the entities that have the power to affect change in this area within their organization. (For example, advocating for mental health days, a hybrid work environment, etc.) To have a productive conversation, leaders should try finding established policies at peer organizations to share in their discussions, and they should be prepared to demonstrate how allowing such flexibility can ultimately lead to more success for their organization. (i.e. higher employee retention, happier employees, etc.)

What can employees do?

Although there are a variety of ways that employers can (and should) create a culture of wellness in the workplace, it is still important to consider what you can do to continue to prioritize your personal well-being as an employee. (Whether your workplace excels in this area or falls short!) This includes:

  • Finding balance to accommodate your schedule with others’ schedules: this can be tricky if you are in a demanding role. One way to address this is to carve out a recurring time of day that you dedicate solely to address your most urgent and essential tasks, time to deal with unexpected things that pop up, and time specifically to connect with colleagues who need your attention for various things. Whether this is done daily or weekly, having time set aside for colleagues who rely on your input will help make it easier to accommodate your schedule with others’ schedules.

  • Setting clear boundaries: communicate your needs with your supervisor and/or colleagues. If you’re taking on too much work, ask for support. If you find yourself starting to work outside of standard work hours more often than before, speak with your supervisor about re-setting realistic expectations regarding your workload. Additionally, consider putting on a standing-away message that indicates a timeframe in which you aim to respond (e.g. within 48 hours, within 2 business days, etc.). This will set expectations with the recipient, and give you some flexibility with the timeframe in which you can reply.

  • Scheduling breaks throughout your day: all too often, staff are sitting for hours on end at their desks. Between demands from an overflowing inbox, meetings, and eating lunch at our desks, it can be easy to sit for hours without realizing it. Schedule in 5-minute breaks on the hour (where feasible) to get up, walk around, and take a breather.

In conclusion, it’s clear that the well-being of employees is something that is still being overlooked in the field of international education, even as this topic has come to the forefront in recent years. Our hope is that this post will contribute to the ongoing conversation at hand of how to best support employees, and that those of you who can do so will feel inspired to make some positive changes in your work environment in order to best care for and support your employees.

Note from the authors: we would like to extend an extra big “thank you” to those who took the time to respond to our survey. Your insights were invaluable to our blog post and to continuing this discussion regarding mental health and well-being in the international education space!

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