Colleagues Who Can Make You Well by Aaron Voyles


Voyles Headshot

Aaron W. Voyles works as the Area Manager for Jester at the University of Texas at Austin, where he oversees a residential area of approximately 3,200 students. Additionally, he is co-chair-elect for NASPA’s Men and Masculinity Knowledge Community and is an Insanity graduate. He is currently completing his doctoral dissertation on power relations betweenStudent Affairs and Academic Affairs.


Back in 2012, I read an article that changed my perspective on how we should approach wellness.  The article, entitled “Colleagues Who Can Make You Fat,” by Sue Shellenbarger of The Wall Street Journal made visible a phenomenon I suspected in Student Affairs. According to Shellenbarger’s article, 29% of workers believed that their coworkers were sabotaging their wellness and fitness goals. While I don’t appreciate the article’s suggestion of weight as a sole indicator of wellness, the article did help me to recognize that I was contributing to and being negatively affected by a professional culture that espoused wellness as a value but eschewed it as an action. But why is this the culture, and what can be done about it?

 There is a Student Affairs professional stereotype I have heard thrown around by professional colleagues in the field. I fit this stereotype for many years (and still do at times of the year or in smaller or personally unseen ways). The Student Affairs stereotype is a hard-worker who is strung out on caffeine, working till very late at night, and grabbing the fast, often unhealthy items at the dining hall to scarf them down in between meetings. This was me—body image and shape, less than desirable; time to work-out, nil. I had heard that in the “helping professions” self-care was often abandoned. Little did I know how easy it was to abandon it. Rather than defy that stereotype on behalf of wellness, I embraced it as a new professional eager to prove myself. I came down with a case of Student Affairs Martyr Syndrome, in which I subconsciously tried to convince others I cared so much about my students by out-working and out-stressing co-workers.

I finally saw that what was happening to me was happening to others when I attended a retreat with my Residence Life staff one year; we followed up a thirty minute conversation on wellness with planning the duty schedule during lunch because we were crunched for time. The reality was that wellness was not a priority. Regardless of the behaviors of coworkers who might bring in brownies and cookies to celebrate on an otherwise stressful day, our departments need to be the ones that embrace wellness and influence our teams to embody it. No longer could I joke about professionals always being seen with a thirty-two ounce soda if I still kept one in my hand and if I didn’t begin to educate others and start talking about wellness.

I approach a retort of the trends in Shellenbarger’s article in three ways: the personal, the professional, and the collective. I think that the combination of these items is what can make Student Affairs a beacon for wellness and help departments recognize where there is a gap between the espoused value of wellness and the actions taken. We can move from colleagues who “can make us fat” to colleagues who can make us well.

From a personal standpoint, I feel I have to address myself before I can begin to address others. It is similar to the self-work that comes with social justice change. It is how Robert Kegan reminds us that we must change ourselves before we can hope to change an organization. How can we inspire or lead something that we are not? A big part of my journey as a professional is first personal.

For me, the reason I began to workout was that I had two friends who were workout partners. One moved away and the other insisted I join him as a replacement. Through this relationship, I learned the positives of working out, and then I began to make it a daily habit—and then slowly monitoring my diet joined as well. I now track all the foods I eat, and I have done so daily for two years with the exception of vacations or holidays where I don’t find it appropriate.

What I notice about my journey are two things. First, I never had a big epiphany or life-changing event. For me, it was easier for change to occur incrementally, starting with small steps rather than trying to overhaul my life in the midst of my hectic Student Affairs world. Heck, there was a time when changing from regular pizza to thin crust was a big enough shift to rock my understanding of the world. Second, though I’ve made those incremental changes, I have to remain humble in my work and experience in wellness. Even as I type this, I sit with over one hundred hours of accrued compensatory time and no idea when I will use it. There are still stressors. I still have the desire to outwork and out achieve, to prove my worthwhile. But I have found balance and wellness in some aspects of my life. Where I am still working to balance others is just another entry point in the conversation for me and others in their personal fitness journeys.

In addition to that personal component is the professional one. What type of environment are we creating for our coworkers and our supervisees? Are we taking all of their lunches for meetings, or are we looking at the calendar and pointing out times when they could be away? I find myself lucky enough to have a department that has invested in providing personal trainers, gym space, workout classes, health education, and more for the benefit of its employees. Through these components, I feel more comfortable talking about my own wellness and discussing with my staff steps they want to take, knowing that I have resources to provide them.

As a profession, we need to commit to offering support to our staff for their wellness, and that commitment can’t come from saying that we wished others would it do it. We have to make it. I request standing desks, ergonomic workstations, and more where I see it may benefit staff. I try to monitor time off. I speak profusely on behalf of what my live-in staff do on nights and weekends so an eyebrow isn’t raised if their office hours are skewed or they are unavailable early in the morning. With coworkers, I once reorganized our summer training to include time for hikes, for the gym, and for other opportunities to experience wellness rather than hear about it in a training session. Our “shooting the breeze” training that year worked wonders to inspire pockets of individuals to seek out activities together that they liked as retreats from the chaos of a work week. Am I doing anything that is so groundbreaking or shocking? Not at all. My goal is simply to keep wellness on the mindset of my organization.

Finally, the third component is the collective. It is the combination of personal and professional, where our interpersonal relationships exist in the workplace and what we choose to do together. It is where we begin to communicate with one another what’s important and share in those experiences. When I began wearing a visible fitness armband to work, coworkers asked me about it. Given that opportunity, I was able to speak about my eating plan and things that I enjoy in fitness. Soon after starting that, I had a wave of a half-dozen coworkers all logging their food, albeit temporarily, to start looking into what would inspire them with fitness. I talk about how what I do works for me, but I bring it to the collective. It is a part of the baggage I bring to work with me. And even though my students make fun of me for publishing that I complete my food diary daily on Twitter, that’s another point where I can bring the personal and the professional together so that collectively we can discuss change as our conversations move past me into other realms as well.

Hope inspires hope. Success begets more success. Raising awareness of wellness is no more complicated or no simpler than any other issue, and as we spread conversation and dialogue about wellness, we become those coworkers opposite from Shellenbarger’s article. We become allies to one another and to wellness for the causes that will improve our balance with work. We make that balance and that wellness the norm rather than living up to an overworked stereotype. And together, I think we erase the notions of the research that suggest that coworkers are a web of negativity and turn around how we, as Student Affairs professionals, support each other. Rather than trying to outwork or out-Martyr another coworker, wellness helps us to promote understanding of the complexities and nuances of the lives of those around us whom we share so much time and so much passion. I am proud of my work with wellness, and I am excited to be in a community like SA Fit that helps to spread that message.

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

fifteen − nine =