the ABC of managing stress in PGR Support

In any role that involves supporting or helping others, especially people who may confide in us or may be worried, upset or stressed, we need to make sure that we take care of ourselves as well. This post was written for PGR Tutors, but will be relevant to other key supporters of PGRs: supervisors, administrators, and mentors.

You will have seen phrases like ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ and ‘fit your own oxygen mask before helping others’ circulating as memes on social media. These are metaphors designed to remind us not to exhaust our emotional reserves in the pursuit of helping others.

While the PGR Tutor [Syn.: PGR Lead / PGR Convenor / Head of Doctoral Programmes] role doesn’t only involve working with people who are seeking emotional support, it is a role that is often positioned as ‘supportive’, ‘pastoral’ or as aiming to assist with PhD researcher issues, or wellbeing. The Departmental PGR Tutor is often the first point of contact for students who have a concern, problem or emergency – in their research, or their supervision relationships. This means that the individual in that role, can find themselves in situations that require careful management and take an emotional toll. 

How can we define and sustain a way of working that allows us to offer emotional support without taking on students’ stress, or getting stressed from giving too much of ourselves to the role, or to the emotional effects of the issues that arise?

As well as being detrimental to our physical and emotional health, stress does us no favours in a Tutoring role where creative thinking is required for complex problem solving and in negotiating relationships. Stress raises adrenaline, and triggers ‘fight or flee’ reactions, which divert energy away from our problem-solving abilities; our capacity for abstract thinking, and creativity take a back seat.

It can be useful to have an aide memoire to remind us to take care of ourselves in our tutoring work – and so below, is the A B C of sustainable support.

A: Awareness

Awareness of how we are doing day-to-day helps us to recognise when things are getting unmanageable, out of balance, or when a boundary has been crossed. Stopping to check how we feel emotionally, physically, and relationally is restorative, and helps prevent the gradual unnoticed deterioration in wellbeing that is a route to chronic stress. 

Self-awareness is a leadership attribute, and modelling good self-awareness is a way of teaching it to your PGRs too.

Perhaps you could add to your diary, a monthly ‘ABC Day’, when you will make a few minutes over your morning coffee to stop and notice how you are feeling. Does anything need to change to help you find balance and set boundaries? Are you in need of a conversation with a colleague? 

B: Boundaries

Boundaries establish each person’s role within a professional relationship. They set expectations for the PGR Tutoring role, helping your students understand who you are, what your role covers and what it does not. Boundary setting also protects your emotional wellbeing, defining the limits of your responsibility in your Dept. Your dual roles of Tutor and Academic in the same department as the students and staff you support, means it’s important to be clear and maintain professional distance.

It is easy to slip towards doing more than you wanted to if boundaries are not set and communicated, and this leads to confusion and resentment. It can be very hard to do this ‘in the moment’ if a student is upset or in crisis, but establishing some ground rules with the staff and PGRs in your Dept, and sticking to them week on week, will help make sure the shared understanding is in place when it becomes needed. 

Some key boundaries to communicate:

  • Office hours: Make clear what your working pattern is, whether they should make an appointment to see you or just turn up, and that you don’t read or respond to email outside of your working hours.
  • Communication: How should they contact you? What do you consider to be a reasonable response time for an email? It may seem common practice to share personal phone numbers or social media with some of the PGRs in your Dept. in the normal course of work, but will you be happy for them to contact you by that method, to discuss a Tutoring issue at any time? Are you happy for them to read everything you share with your friends? 
  • Confidentiality: is the meeting confidential? Will you be informing their Supervisors(s) they have been to see you, or that they are struggling? What if the supervisor(s) asks you directly? What if the supervisor(s) also need your support – how will you manage supporting all parties in an unbiased way?
  • Role boundaries: What topics are you happy to discuss or advise on? What is outside your area of expertise? What can’t you offer?
  • Responsibility for Action: Is the support you offer purely advice/guidance based? Will you take action to resolve issues on the PGR or supervisors’ behalf? What will and won’t you do – who takes what action after the meeting? It’s worth being explicit.

Setting, and communicating clear boundaries is part of a culture of treating our PGRs like capable adults, who we expect to self-govern and be active agents in their PhD learning and wellbeing. We as tutors can give them the tools to support this, but then we must trust them to find their own best way forward, we can’t do it all for them. In this way, we are teaching our students to become good problem solvers, not fostering their dependency on us to bail them out every time something goes wrong. 

C: Connection

Who, outside your Dept. perhaps, can help you when you get stuck? Crucial to resolving problematic, complex or emotionally demanding situations is knowing the best approach to take. But we can’t all know it all. Having good colleagues, or a network of other PGR tutors to draw on for input, and give you space to offload and debrief, can very much help you to help the PGRs in your Department. Sensitively airing issues with supportive colleagues is a healthy way to get input and feedback on your approach. 

Who else can help students? What specialist support services exist for Study Skills, English Language, Careers, Counselling and Mental Health, Administration (e.g. Visa applications), and Professional Development? The Personal Tutor role can include signposting to other sources of assistance. Even if students know these services exist, their unfamiliarity with them, who they are for, and what they do, can prevent them from accessing vital support. A recommendation from you may get them through the door. Inviting representatives of the services into your Dept. to raise awareness and familiarity, may save you time later.

Healthy work, with manageable stressors, is balanced and sustainable. So remind your PGRs (and indeed yourself), to connect to friends, groups, and family, as part of a wide and varied support network. Feeling connected to our outside interests, networks, activities, and to others in our lives is one of the best protective factors against chronic stress. It gives us context and brings perspective to our work. Feeling like we belong – to groups, communities, neighbourhoods, and in the world – adds to our sense of self-worth. Having a rich life outside of work or study makes us flexible and buoyant in our professional lives. Please take care.

This post has been adapted from an original post by Dr Leah Bijelic, written for PhD researchers.

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