Productivity isn’t possible without well-being

University Affairs by Stephanie Whitney 25 November 2019


As part of my continuing academic career, I had big plans for publishing this past summer. The fall and winter terms of 2018 were slow for me, productivity-wise. The start of a new position at Wilfrid Laurier University overlapped with the completion of my PhD by a month, so I was juggling my dissertation with project management, fieldwork and finalizing a major grant contract.

By December 2018, I was burnt out and, in a careless moment, I had an accident and suffered a concussion. I only took a week off to heal from the physical trauma, because I was teaching during the winter term and needed to prepare. I didn’t want my productivity to suffer even though my body needed to heal.

Fast-forward to the summer term. I was starting to feel physically rejuvenated after months of regular paramedical treatments and a gradual increase in exercise. I celebrated my convocation in early June and started to really find my groove by mid-July. My kids were in summer camp, I was enjoying running outdoors again and I had big plans for completing five papers. My research team had a series of productive meetings – data were being analyzed and manuscripts were in various stages of completion. I was making good progress on a grant application for early-stage researchers and could see my applications for tenure-track positions shaping up nicely.

Then, in July, I took a call from my brother. He reported that my dad had fallen while getting into bed and paramedics were on the way. My dad had had bypass surgery just a month earlier, the same week as my convocation, but he’d been recovering well. Within hours, I was shocked to hear my dad had died of a heart attack.

Disturbingly, my first thought was that this might be a silver lining for my career. I now had three reasons to justify my low level of academic output over a six-year period: the birth of my second child, a concussion, and the death of my father. If my references sang praises about my commitment and potential, evaluation committees could still feel confident about my abilities to publish, given my extenuating circumstances.

My next reaction was to feel immense shame for being a horrible daughter and a callous person to even think such things. Only later did I realize this may have been a way for me to deal with the initial shock of losing my dad, by focusing on other things in my life, like work.

Reflecting on these feelings, it is clear to me that I have been trained throughout my academic career to make productivity the metric of everything I do. Grief is a powerful emotion, yet even the loss of my dad was filtered through a productivity worldview.

I have sought counsel through various channels and am learning to reframe what success means to me. The process of healing from both physical and emotional trauma has taught me that well-being cannot be neglected if productivity is the objective.

Today, I am fully present at my son’s hockey practices and my daughter’s dance lessons, refusing to check and respond to emails during those precious moments. I took a phone call from my mom today, mid-morning, where previously I would have hit “decline” and called her back in the evening, if I remembered. I opted for a ladies’ cottage weekend instead of a writing retreat with colleagues. These “gaps” in productivity actually contribute to my continued success as a researcher – productivity is a marathon, not a sprint.

I am determined to create impact in the work I do and stay healthy at the same time. This may mean – using traditional metrics – I may have less demonstrable productivity than other job candidates. But my priorities will shape my career trajectory. I can be an effective scholar and leader only if I am well, both physically and mentally.

I know that my grieving has only just begun. Will I be able to continually fight back against years of conditioning? Only time will tell. What has been really therapeutic is sharing my story with others. I hope that I can also inspire others to be kind to themselves.

I will also continue to seek out mentors that empower others to be the best versions of themselves by embracing their vulnerability, not hiding it. I am determined to exemplify healthy leadership within the academy, fostering a new culture that values mental health and self-care. I remain optimistic that the right department in the right institution will see me as a productive leader and a healthy academic.

Stephanie Whitney is the associate director of the Viessmann Centre for Engagement and Research in Sustainability at Wilfrid Laurier University.