Introducing Housing’s New Student-Staff Wellness Program
This article was co-authored with Brandon Smith.
In Housing and Residence Life, a huge part of the work we do is made possible by our dedicated and talented student-staff. The right mix of student staff and professional intent can create an exceptional experience that is both grounded and challenging. By utilizing a peer-to-peer approach, we create a balanced environment where students feel safe, empowered, and—most importantly—supported.
Recently, however, we have noticed a subtle trend among our student leaders: they were feeling overwhelmed by the various commitments inherent to the multiple hats they were wearing (student, staff, family member, friend, etc.) and this was leading to high levels of stress, anxiety, and potential burnout. Not surprising, really, that the same stress our students face also manifest and challenge our student-staff (after all, the first half of the word is “student”).
This led us to ask:
- What’s going on?
- What has changed since we were student staff members?
- What is the impact on our student staff, our students, and the overall program?
- How can we support student success and wellbeing in a way that reduces stigma?
Over the course of the fall term, we collected data through indirect methods: As director, Ian held individual one-on-ones with over 50 student staff members in varying positions; we did a soft analysis of quality of work over the course of the term; and we did informal “temp” checks during team meetings (we asked students how they were feeling and adapting to existing and new priorities, as well as pressures in their roles as student leaders and students at Ryerson). But, most importantly, we created opportunities for our team to speak while we listened.
What we heard made us take note. Student staff reported feeling overwhelmed by competing priorities, bogged down in programming, stressed about finances, and challenged by demands placed on them in supporting students in crisis. This led to the creation of a Student Staff Wellness Program, which we are piloting with our live-in team and will be rolled out in earnest for our whole team—over 100 student-staff—next fall.
The program focuses on 4 spheres of stress: Work Related, Financial, Academic, and Personal. We are taking a multi-faceted approach to working in each sphere using a mix of educational programming, policy change, and culture change. For example, through an initial assessment we found that our live-in staff were finding the demands of the job related to programming requirements as a major challenge in their role, when compared to the energy and enthusiasm they draw from connecting with students. This led us to take active steps to reframing how we program residence spaces to remove the burden of developmental programming from the live-in team, which will take full effect next year. Another example is the creation of policy and inclusion of wellness principles in our guiding documents and HR materials (e.g. job descriptions, training materials, etc.), including frameworks for a support plan and critical incident follow up.
This image represents a mind map that set the stage for the initial program:
During the process of implementing this new program, what we are finding is true acceptance from the team, a call to go further, and, perhaps most importantly, a renewed energy during a long and cold second term. From the initial assessment, we have been able to adjust our programming to take into account student-staff suggestions like bringing in a RMT to do therapeutic massage, rethinking the Student Leader Lounge and how it’s used, and establishing more opportunities for student staff to come together. Moving forward, we will be conducting periodic assessments every year which will help us adjust our programming and spot trends in wellness by position. Our goal is to normalize wellness within our organization and to provide a more supportive environment for all students and student-staff. By reducing the stigma around seeking support, we hope to create more opportunities for our students to find success.