Monday, July 14, 2014

Work: Our Place For Self-expression And Our Prison

Yesterday began the fourth week of not a drop to drink for me.  The theory behind the regime is that to shed some pounds I need to be alcohol free and to better manage my arthritis I need to shed some pounds.  After a blood test and a visit to the doc this past week what I've learned in addition is to consider other dimensions of health as well, aside from my weight.  At present, the main other dimensions relevant to my situation are blood pressure and kidney function.  More importantly than the specific dimensions is the knowledge that they are all tied together.  Doing better on one helps to do better on the others.  And apart from diet, exercise is the other key piece of the puzzle. That lever must be pushed as well, with regularity.  After a rather long period of mainly neglect on the personal health front, I'm now quite conscious of it and am making a concerted effort to improve mine.

The end of this month marks another milestone for me, four years of retirement.  Focusing on one's health in retirement seems like a good and sensible thing to do.  But it also has me wondering how much of my health issues were caused, directly or indirectly, by work. Many of my friends and former colleagues are still working.  And though I don't see them as much as I'd like to, when we do get together many show overt signs of poor health, not the same symptoms that I had to be sure, but unmistakable indicators that work stress is getting the better of them. Though I will only write about my own experiences in what follows, to remain on terra firma and to avoid embarrassing anyone else, I'm really writing on behalf of my friends and colleagues and the organizations in which they work.  The issue of excessive work stress overwhelming our best and brightest does get consideration from time to time.  But it doesn't get the consistent attention it deserves.  Perhaps this post can nudge things in that direction.

In what follows I will make no attempt to separate symptom from cause.  I really don't think it is that simple.  What seems symptom of some problem may then prove cause of something else that is different but interrelated.  There may also be causes outside of work.  Further, some symptoms may be entirely benign in the context they emerge but then become troublesome when transferred to the work arena.  Finally, we all take our bumps now and then and nothing particular should be made of that.  All the folks I know are quite resilient and we take incidental stresses in stride.  The issue is more of degree than of kind and further whether there is time enough for recovery from the last bump before the next one appears.  It's the compounding effect from too frequent and severe stress that should concern us.

The Benchmark

I weighed 210 when I was married, in June 1990.  This is approximately the same weight I was when I started graduate school back in fall 1976.  Though there would be some variation over the year - 5 or 10 pounds higher in the winter at the peak and the trough of similar amplitude in the summer - the weight was pretty constant during that time and remained so for a couple of years thereafter. The upward trend began not because of work but because of having kids.  Likewise, I was a pretty good sleeper before we had kids but less good thereafter.  The modest drift up in weight and the lack of sleep were happening at what I consider the best time of my life, when the kids were very young.  Having a family was a wonderful thing. At the time my professional life was as an economist only.  The kids were still young when I gradually moved to learning technology as a career change.

It is impossible to know for sure what would have happened along the road not taken, but I have no problem imagining that had I stayed a full time academic my weight would have plateaued in the 225-230 range,  a little more pudgy than before but still reasonably healthy.  What happened instead, however, was a more or less constant upward drift with the absolute increments also increasing over time till summer of 2006.  In that period I had gained in excess of 100 pounds.  I then had a leg accident, unrelated to work, and took off about 25 pounds afterward, better but far from healthy.   One big reason for the upward drift until summer 2006 was not having sufficient self-regulatory behaviors to maintain stasis in weight.

The time commitment as an academic is large, but much of that is time for introspection and deep thought.  It therefore doesn't have to map into the 9 to 5 day much if at all.  (Teaching does have to map that way as does service work on committees and attendance at seminars.)  Thus I had little difficulty carving out a couple hours during the day to go jogging (a few minutes for changing clothes, about 50 minutes for the run, then a bit of walking and cool down exercise, time for the sauna and shower, and getting to and from the gym).  I was still able to do this when the kids came.   But it became harder and harder to do as I became an administrator, where I was heavily scheduled from 9 to 5. 

The other main point with the benchmark is intellectual.  The Economic Theory group used to give (sell?) sweatshirts to the graduate students that said on the front: Do you live in your model?  In other words, doing theory requires total immersion into what you are working on.  You are so immersed much of the waking day - as much while in the shower or doing household tasks as in the office.  But there are interruptions that allow some relaxation.  And there are fallow periods, typically after a draft of a paper has been completed and sent out for review but before the next model emerges for a repeat of the process.  In other words, there are buffers for mental recovery built in. The administrative work didn't allow for this sort of down time.

Then there is a circumstantial thing that should be noted too.  While the parent roles were never perfectly symmetric between my wife and me, they were closer to that ideal in the very early years with the kids. But after a couple of years with me being an administrator, my wife opted to become a stay-home mom for a time.  There is something like an ideal gas law about administrative work.  It expands to fill the time allocated to it.  I put in major hours in the office on most days, and then did a lot of stuff online at home that was also work related.  I know I would have done less than this had my wife kept working at the time.  So that particular breaker toward ensuring a more balanced existence was removed.

Healthy and Unhealthy Stress

Almost immediately when I started in with SCALE I learned that one piece of the work was fielding complaints from faculty who used SCALE services, which some found unsatisfactory.  When you yourself are a faculty user and things seem to work pretty well for you it is natural to assume they work that way for other faculty as well.  What you can't tell, however, until you get onto the provider side is how democratic service provision actually is.  It may be, in fact, that service provision shares some elements with how teachers treat their best students versus how they treat the rest.  If you are a star user of the service and don't have provider experience, you might not understand this.  So it was something of a revelation to hear those early complaints.  However, there is a substantial difference between getting the occasional idiosyncratic complaint, which needs to be addressed but otherwise need not upset one's personal equilibrium, from getting a large volume of complaints on the same thing, such as when a new service is performing under par or when an old and popular service is being shut down.  These sorts of complaints do get to you.  I will return to the issue in a bit.

Here I want to focus on a different sort of stress that I confronted soon after I started with SCALE.  The Alfred P Sloan Foundation, our grantor, wasn't entirely happy with us because we had promised that ALN would lower the cost of instruction, with that happening en passant, yet our evaluation wasn't producing that as a finding.  I was tasked with getting us to deliver on our promise.  I felt a good deal of pressure as a result and felt very much out on a limb.  Yet I would term this a healthy stress for the following reasons.  First, given my economics background and that my own SCALE project was delivering on the cost objectives, I was uniquely suited to be the one to address the Sloan concerns.  So while this issue chose me, not vice versa, I did feel appointed to the task.  Second, because the imperative was clear to the SCALE advisory committee, I was given broad leeway to structure projects to address these concerns.  In other words, the seeds for the resolution of the stress could be found in the stress itself.  Last, there was no internal conflict whatsoever about the need to do this.  So everyone I interacted with about the SCALE Efficiency Projects (the ultimate resolutions of Sloan's concerns) was on the same page.  Those projects set the table for us to successfully renew our grant.

Now I want to give an example of unhealthy stress.  Indeed I would call it PURE CR__. Too much of this sort of thing just tears at your innards.  After the SCALE grant was renewed and after the SCALE office was relocated from Everitt Lab to the Armory, there were entirely different personnel working in the unit, apart from me.  This included the secretary.  Because the renewal was only for two years and because I had already experienced being end-gamed with staff turnover on the original three-year grant, I opted to go for a temp as secretary, with the hope that our unit would eventually become hard-money (that happened the following year) and then I'd hire a permanent secretary.  You don't interview temps.  They are assigned.  The person I got assigned was unusual.  He had a couple of advanced degrees yet was looking for temp work as a secretary.

Almost immediately there was a personality clash between this secretary and one of the regular staff, who himself was not very easy going.  It got to the point where this personality clash was negatively impacting office work in an overt way so I had to do something about it.  If I could have passed the buck on this one I would have.  But we were too small a unit for anyone but me to do this.  So I let the secretary go.  It was extraordinarily unpleasant to do this and I dreaded it.  It would have also been entirely unnecessary had each of the people simply opted for professional decorum, even if they didn't like one another.  It was might first experience with real personnel issues in the office where I had direct responsibility to address the concerns.  I had subsequent personnel issues, and on at least a couple of occasions I was one of those involved in the conflict.  This first experience in no way prepared me for the later ones.  There were no lessons learned other than I became aware that I dread when stuff like this happens.  Ongoing personnel issues of this sort are one type of excessive work stress.

Budgeting and Mission

The following year SCALE became part of a hard money Center for Educational Technologies, except that only a fraction of CET's funding was hard money.  The rest came from the SCALE grant.  Since that was due to evaporate the following year, CET started without a firm plan for how to fill that eventual void.  Further, one focus for CET during its first two years was to support faculty who had been through a week long workshop, had received small grants for attending the workshop, and who were supposed to do good an interesting things with the technology in teaching as a result.  These faculty were selected because they were mainstream and not early adopters.  The small grant funding was outside the CET budget, controlled by the campus Ed Tech Board.

Even with the funds that SCALE provided, I thought we were underfunded from day one and if usage were to grow, as it seemed it would and as we were encouraging it to do, then we'd need more staff and more back end support.  When the permanent CIO came, in CET's second year, he used his own funds to supplant the SCALE funds that were no longer there.  But to handle the growth need he cannibalized the small grants and with that the week long workshops went away as well.  Thus began the inexorable march of CET, later CITES EdTech, and now CITES Academic Technologies, from the original mission of encouraging mainstream faculty to use the technology in interesting ways, to simply support faculty users of the technology.  To many an outsider, particularly those outsiders in the campus IT organization, CITES,  this is a difference without a real meaning.  To me, this was akin to suicide.  I believed then as I believe now, that interesting use of the technology is the key and dull use is worth nada.  Yet if for no other reason, CET seemed to be on an inexorable march toward promoting the latter.  The scaling issues in support of the technology may have forced this a few years later anyway.  But we got there sooner than we should have.  If your personal raison d'être is tied to the mission and the mission changes out from under you in a way you don't approve, it makes your soul weary (to borrow from a Melody Gardot line).  

Taking One Too Many for the Team

Service closings are never pleasant, but some are handled better than others and in some cases the reasons for ending the service are more obvious to users than in others.  I was the public face on several different service closings. The easiest one was when we terminated support of FirstClass, which had been SCALE's mainstay offering at the outset.  At the time we ended support of FirstClass, we had already been supporting WebBoard for a few years and it was a close substitute.  Further, there were no longer too many FirstClass users.  Most had already migrated to something else.  The ones who were still using FirstClass weren't happy about it going away.  But I don't recall any of them raising too much of a stink about it. 

Service closings are more unpleasant when the move to some alternative is coerced from above, when the time window for the move is brief, and when the alternative is perceived as an inferior substitute to the original by the users of the original service.  This should be obvious.  Let me give one other reason that makes some service closings more unpleasant for the provider that may be less obvious to the reader.  This happens when the provider was not part of the original commissioning of the service but has inherited the service instead somewhere along the way.  Those who originally commissioned the service may have done so with very limited real commitment of resource. Yet users may have perceived a much stronger commitment.  So in this case the provider has to manage fairly high user expectations with quite limited resources already in place to support those expectations.  This is a game most of us wouldn't want to play if we had the choice.

I was involved with this sort of thing twice.  The first time was when CET first started.  The campus was ending the homegrown service called the Virtual Classroom Interface.  Users were supposed to migrate to CourseInfo, the original LMS from the company Blackboard.  The power users were especially unhappy with having to do this as they had customized the VCI to their own needs.  I knew most of these power users from other interactions outside of CET and while I maintained collegial relationships with them I also got quite a bit of complaining.  The necessity of the move was not in question.  What was at issue was the timing and that, at the time of the end of service announcement for VCI, CourseInfo was entirely unproven to the users.  One might attribute this lack of planning to the fact that CET was brand new.

The second of these really was worse, however.  It was the closing of the Campus Gradebook service in favor of having users migrate to the then new Enterprise Learning Management System offering, which was called Illinois Compass and which was based on the WebCT enterprise offering.  There was plenty of lead time to plan for this, so that excuse was off the table this time around.  But it turned out that functionality-wise Campus Gradebook was just better than the Illinois Compass grade book and in addition the Campus Gradebook had gotten daily updates to roster information, especially important during the beginning of the semester when there are a lot of adds and drops.  Illinois Compass could only manage weekly updates at the time. So that too was perceived as a degradation of service.  I got roasted by Campus Gradebook users on both counts.

The reality, under the hood, is that the Campus Gradebook service needed to end.  Part of that was it being supported by only one programmer who knew its code.  If he got sick or moved elsewhere, while the service was still ongoing, that would have been a disaster.  The other part was that the university was moving to Banner for its student information system.  Campus Gradebook  had a special way of getting its data from the old SIS, but all of that would have to be redone for it to survive the move to Banner.  That didn't make sense.  But both of these reasons were outside what users cared about and they didn't understand why the campus commitment to the service wasn't greater.

At the same time this was happening we were migrating all users off campus LMS services to Illinois Compass.  Some had previously been users of WebCT Campus Edition.  Others had been users of Blackboard (what CourseInfo ultimately became).  Anyone who has been through such migrations know they are no fun and at the time the IMS standards were fairly primitive.  It really was better to have courses rebuilt from scratch than to migrate them and we ended up doing that for the more complex course sites.  But we used the migration tools for the remainder of the courses.  Also, the new service had stability issues at the outset that were quite serious.  These issues were probably avoidable, but would have taken a greater commitment to "doing it right" up front.  The consequence was that most instructors were aggravated by the change.  Given that some of this was unavoidable, while the rest might very well have been prevented, it was very hard not to feel anything but frustration about the part that was avoidable.

When there is a massive source of stress of this sort, the staff is likely to feel under assault and one of the key things management needs to do is to give demonstration to the staff that the issues are being attended to as best as possible.  So we brought in the WebCT company for consulting and we had very public meetings with the users to communicate frankly with them about the issues, with key staff and representatives of the company present.  Given the conditions on the ground, these steps were necessary and eventually the service stabilized and even developed quite a few loyal adherents.  But while it was happening I felt like I was walking around with a kick me sticker on my back.

Being A High Achiever And Not Living Up to One's Own Expectations

Until now in this piece, I've treated the source of stress as purely external.  It is a mistake, however, to come away with that impression.  The larger issue is how we punish ourselves because we expect to be able to successfully navigate these waters and when we don't we blame ourselves for the failure. The punishing of oneself is what I mean by use of the word prison in my title. 

This is where early success can be a mixed blessing.  Of course it is good in the moment to succeed.  But it may also convey the false impression to oneself that success can be assured in the future simply via intellect and force of will.  It therefore may leave you emotionally unprepared for failure and create the feeling that some penance must be paid once failure happens.

I will add to this that I've always second guessed my choices when the outcomes have not been to my liking.  I find it impossible simply to move on to what's next.  I have no doubt that I am my own harshest critic.  Let me illustrate the main criticisms so the reader can judge whether the self-criticism is fair or not.

In retrospect, much too much of the decision making got driven purely for IT reasons, which were outside of my control.  For example, in opting for the WebCT product we would not give consideration to enterprise offerings that had a Windows back end.  This meant the only other competitor was Blackboard.  Two other popular offerings at the time, Angel and Desire2Learn, were Windows only and therefor off the table before we even started.  If many users had seen those products and expressed preference for one of them, there might very well have been more support among the community at the outset for the enterprise LMS than there actually was.

Then there was the issue of the timing of doing this.  While we weren't the earliest campus we were still an early adopter.  Having been an early adopter with my own use of technology in teaching, I wanted the campus to be likewise positioned with its implementation of the enterprise LMS and thereby have leverage with the vendor about its future development.  But we are a large and complex place and enterprise adoption is nothing like individual adoption of a service.  So it might have been prudent for us to have gone much slower here, as many of our peers did.

Then I fell into the trap of empire building, even though once the empire was formed it gave me no enjoyment whatsoever.  Very early on, around the time when CET started, my then on campus mentor indicated to me one measure of importance - how many people reported to me, directly or indirectly, and how big was the budget under my control.  The enterprise LMS enabled growth in these metrics.  So for ego reasons I should want such growth, irrespective of what it meant for accomplishing our mission.

Each of these was a kind of conceptual blunder.  I should have known better, but I didn't act that way.  It's for these sort of things that we punish ourselves.

Knowing About The Health Issues But Not Attending To Them

In spring 2002 I got a promotion to Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies following a national search (but where I was told, off the record, that I was the only candidate).  This coincided, more or less, with my little CET merging with the big campus IT organization to become CITES.  As a result of this promotion I was invited to an orientation held at Allerton aimed at new administrators, mainly new unit executive officers (chairs or heads of academic departments).

There was one session led by an experienced unit executive officer whom I recognized from the gym.  While I would jog on the the indoor track above, he would be playing basketball below.  I inferred that he was at the gym a lot because I didn't always go there at the same time, yet I saw him there with great frequency.

The session had a simple message.  It's important to take care of yourself when you're an administrator.  He had gained something like fifty pounds doing the job.  I gathered he had stopped going to the gym.  I had also stopped, mainly because my knees got shot so jogging became too painful.  But I didn't search then for alternatives, such as using the rowing machine more or walking instead of jogging.  I simply became more sedentary.  His message was that this was wrong.  I heard the message and acknowledged it.  But I did nothing immediate about it.

Some years later we purchased a stationary bike for home and a treadmill as well.  Then a few years later we replaced those with a more sturdy treadmill and an elliptical.  I use this home equipment.  But I had several years of no regular exercise after the jogging stopped and those years coincided with a ramp up in my administrative responsibilities.

Near term, this is completely understandable.  There was always too much to do at work and to carve out time for exercise seemed borderline irresponsible about avoiding the work.  Long term this is utter nonsense.  A routine of regular exercise is absolutely necessary.  The work can wait.

There is another aspect to this - finding comfort from eating and drinking as compensation for work stress.  Perhaps some of this is necessary for all of us.  I don't know.  But the possibility of a vicious cycle forming is very great.  When the stress ramps up then the comfort must too to match the added stress.  Further, the added stress contributes to fixating on work, which in turn leads to poor sleeping, and poor sleeping itself generates a need for comfort.  This doesn't stop on its own.  In fact, it gets worse over time.  The session at the orientation was a warning about all of it.

My experience is that a warning, even quite a sensible one such as the one I got at this orientation for new administrators, is insufficient to deter the subsequent poor behavior.  What is needed is an ongoing regime to promote good health.  If that is already in place at the start of the administrative job, perhaps that will suffice.  If it is not, it may be unrealistic to expect the person to develop it as the administrative responsibilities ramp up.

Wrap Up

Not everyone responds to excessive work-related stress by finding comfort buffers, especially eating and drinking, and then overdoing on that score.  Some may respond differently.  Perhaps they become more discouraged about work.  Alternatively, they may show stress signs differently, such as changes in their hair color (President Obama?) or in having their hair fall out.  They may also seem excessively on edge even when in a non-threatening environment.  Then they may show outward manifestations, such as a pumping of the knee while in conversation, and they may find a good night's sleep harder and harder to come by.  As a one-off activity that happens up to a very important deadline and subsides thereafter, this may all be tolerable.  As a recurrent activity that is intensifying over time, it is frightening.  Then something significant should be done to reverse the behavior and return the individual to a more healthy state.

At present, it seems to me that too much of the responsibility for this resides with the individual.  Perhaps there is little alternative for the institution to absorb this responsibility, especially in the tough budget environment that everyone seems to be operating under.  But every organization leader knows that their human resource is the most important.  If I'm correct that for so many their health is at risk due to excessive work related stress, how can that not be an institutional responsibility?

This piece is aimed at getting others to ask the same question.  If enough people pose the question, maybe some sensible answers can be found.

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