Thriving Faculty is a regular column highlighting individual or collective UBC Faculty who exemplify integration of health and wellbeing into their classrooms, research, departments and/or communities. Thriving Faculty support others’ health and wellbeing in addition to making a commitment to their own self-care. This column highlights personal and professional stories of Thriving Faculty.
Read an interview with Dr. Jessica Tracy
Q. Do you implement any strategies to support student mental health and wellbeing in the classroom/lab/research?
Student mental health/wellbeing is definitely something I care about — I’m most of aware of these issues with my grad students, given that they’re the people I work most closely with. It’s a tough balance, because getting a PhD, and — equally important — achieving the high level of productivity in grad school that’s necessary to get a good job — requires a lot of long hours and hard work, not to mention stress. But I try to create an environment where my students know that they can organize their schedules in the way that works best for them, and can work from home, or other places outside the office, a good deal of the time if they prefer. I also make sure that students know that work is not the only thing that matters, and that I value the things I do outside of research, and the things they do outside of research. A lot of this happens through modelling. Our department tends to model very healthy productivity — our faculty get a tremendous amount of high-quality work done, making us one of the top psychology programs (in terms of research productivity) in North America — but we are also a place with healthy norms and a solid respect for family life. Things shut down in the department after about 5:30, and it’s fairly unusual to see faculty in their offices in the evenings or weekends. This doesn’t mean we’re not working during those times, but there’s a general sense that it’s OK to leave the building and spend time with family. And, we do a lot that’s great for faculty relationships but isn’t work — like department parties and ski days!
Q. Are there any other policies, structures, norms, leadership in your Department that support well-being?
Absolutely, we do a lot as a department to support well-being, in a structural sense. First, the adherence to UBC’s parental leave policies goes well beyond adherence; there is a great deal of support for faculty members who have children. Faculty who make the decision to have a child are always celebrated, and because so many of us have young children, there is a great deal of resource sharing (e.g, information about sitters, childcare, and so on).
Second, we have a faculty mentorship committee that works hard to figure out what resources faculty need to do their jobs in a supportive environment, and then finds ways of helping faculty attain those resources (to take one example, our mentorship committee recently organized a lunchtime workshop on graduate student mentoring; about 20 faculty members attended and exchanged stories, tips, and advice on mentoring issues).
Third, we have monthly department parties (known, informally, as “beer on the head”), which are held in our department lounge and are a time when faculty and grad students come together to enjoy drinks and snacks and catch-up in an informal atmosphere. These are themed (by grad students) and very well attended, and help promote an overall feeling in the department that we are a group of people who not only work together but also genuinely like each other, and like to spend time together. In recent years, the developmental psychology area has provided free childcare during these parties (by area research assistants), thus further supporting faculty who have family needs that would otherwise prevent attending a work-related event that is typically held from 4-6 pm.
Q. Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote health, mental health and well-being?
One of my major research projects examines the emotional underpinnings of alcoholism — specifically, whether shame about one’s addiction inhibits a successful recovery, and whether pride about successful coping with addiction can promote improved outcomes. This work has been funded by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and CIHR, and several promising findings have emerged so far (see http://ubc-emotionlab.ca/wp-content/files_mf/randlesandtracycps2013.pdf).
Shame is fascinating for many reasons, but one of the things I’ve found most interesting is that people assume that it’s a good thing — that if you do something wrong, you should feel shame about it, because that’s what it takes to change your behaviour. But, our research has found exactly the opposite — that shame actually prevents positive behavioural change, because it is such a painful emotion to experience, people often cope with it by engaging in more of the problematic behaviour (e.g., addictive drinking). This is completely consistent with what clinically oriented psychologists have long thought about shame, but evidence supporting the association between shame and problem behaviours has been elusive, largely because shame is a very difficult emotion to measure — people tend not to report it, even when they are experiencing it. In my work, we circumvented this concern by measuring participants’ nonverbal behavioural displays of shame. In the end, what these findings suggest is that we, as a society, should help people find more adaptive ways of coping with shame, and, to the extent possible, help people feel guilt instead of shame.
Q. What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as Faculty?
Personally, I find it helpful to block off time for family, and assume that no work will be done during this time. I have a four-year-old daughter, so most weekends are work-free family time; same goes for most weekdays from 5:30 to 8:00pm. If I end up getting a few hours for work during this time, I feel like it’s a bonus as I don’t expect to get anything done during those hours. I also make sure to make time for myself. I’m a big runner and biker, so I make sure to carve out time for those activities. I live very near Jericho Beach, so typically run along the beach, up toward UBC. On the weekends I’ll occasionally do longer runs that get me into the forest areas in the endowment lands. I bike for transportation in Vancouver almost year round. I love it that I can bike to work (yes, that hill is a killer, but with UBC’s casual atmosphere I can typically get away with just changing my shirt when I get to work!) I also love going out to dinner and meeting friends for drinks in the more eastern part of the city (e.g., Main Street, Commercial Drive) but I hate driving out there, so in recent summers I’ve taken to biking eastward to discover great new places without having to deal with the traffic.
I do think that as faculty, we have more freedom to organize work-life balance in a way that works for us than most people out there working a typical 9-5 job. I can be home with my daughter in the morning before school, and can take off pretty easily when she has a sick day. I also can be productive in the evenings after she goes to bed. The main thing is taking charge of your schedule, and knowing, to roughly quote Spiderman, that with great freedom comes great responsibility. It really works to take the family time I need, as long as I know it’s up to me to make sure I carve out plenty of work time too.
Dr. Jessica Tracy is an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where she is also a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar and a Canadian Institute for Health Research New Investigator. Dr. Tracy’s research focuses on emotions and emotion expressions, and, in particular, on the self-conscious emotions of pride, shame, and guilt. Tracy has published over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and theoretical reviews. Her research has been covered by hundreds of media outlets, including ABC’s “Good Morning America”, NPR’s “All Things Considered”, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Economist, The New Scientist, and Scientific American.