Give UM Staff Well-being Breaks

Dr. Mark S. Schlissel, President, University of Michigan

As University of Michigan-Ann Arbor staff and allies, we are disappointed that the administration chose to exclude us from the February 24th and March 23rd “well-being breaks.” Staff are not immune to the pandemic-related stress being experienced across the UM community, and the decision to direct staff to keep the University running in the absence of faculty and students sends the message that the University does not value our well-being. We call on the UM administration to extend the second well-being day, March 23rd, to include all staff or in its place provide all staff with two days off to use when is most appropriate for them.

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To: Dr. Mark S. Schlissel, President, University of Michigan
From: [Your Name]

As we approach the 1-year anniversary of restricted operation due to the ongoing pandemic, stress and fatigue continues to mount across the entirety of the University of Michigan community. Students, faculty, and staff alike have demonstrated remarkable flexibility in fulfilling their various assignments and duties under these circumstances. However, in spite of this commendable behavior, we cannot ignore the physical and mental exhaustion all are experiencing due to continuous isolation, financial hardship, and the increased challenges associated with maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

As staff and allies of staff at the University of Michigan, we were encouraged to see the university acknowledge the importance of time off for well-being this semester by providing two one day "well-being breaks" for students and faculty on the Ann Arbor campus, as well as a four-day weekend for students, faculty, and staff on the Dearborn campus. Unfortunately, while Ann Arbor students and faculty were encouraged to pause academic activity and prioritize personal wellness on the well-being days, Ann Arbor staff were not only left out of the picture but, in some cases, took on more work to accommodate the shift in schedule.

The decision to exclude staff from these days makes it clear that University leadership continues to ignore the unique needs and voices of its staff. Last September, several UM-Ann Arbor staff circulated an open letter expressing our concern for the University's handling of the pandemic and demanding staff participation in conversations about policies impacting our employment. The letter described the many ways in which staff are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. We have faced threats of layoffs and furloughs, cuts to our budgets and spending freezes, eliminations of our standard merit raises, the added burden of adopting and enforcing the administration’s pandemic policies, and anxieties about our health and well-being while working in person. Many of our workloads dramatically increased due to the pandemic, only to be made worse by the University-wide hiring freeze. While President Schlissel recently announced that there are tentative plans to lift the hiring freeze starting July 1st, several months stand between now and much-needed relief. During that time, individual staff will be expected to continue to complete the workloads of multiple individuals.

Because faculty and students were encouraged not to work on February 24th, many staff were forced to compensate for these absences. Staff took on more work during these days to keep the institution running. There were canceled or rescheduled meetings that caused us greater work-related stress. Meanwhile, the suggestion in some units, like LSA, that these days be used as “deep work days'' to “give everyone the opportunity to devote attention to projects that require sustained focus,” felt like a further insult. Staff need the opportunity to have an actual break, not a day encouraging us to be more productive -- as if that were a gift. The well-being break on February 24th came at a cost, paid entirely by UM staff.

To be clear, two days off is not enough -- for anyone. Per testimonies in a recent article of the Michigan Daily and data collected by UM’s Student Life, many students lament the loss of longer dedicated periods of rest. We stand in solidarity with the faculty and students across the UM-Ann Arbor campus who have called for a more substantial break as we all continue to suffer through a pandemic made far worse by the University’s policies. While two days off cannot hope to offer enough rest and relaxation to outpace pandemic-related stress, it is a bare minimum that should be afforded to ALL members of the campus community. We are frustrated that UM’s administration would deny us even this small relief. This denial not only deepens the palpable inequities on this campus but also sends staff the message that UM does not value or care about us.

The issues that many faculty and students are dealing with -- concerns about our health, caregiving responsibilities, grief, financial security -- are not lost on us, so why is the University acting as though we are immune to these things? Nationally, journalists have described how The Staff are Not Okay, and UM’s decision to deny staff paid vacation on these two days demonstrates that staff wellness is not their concern.

We call on the University to provide the second well-being break, March 23rd, as paid time off for all staff, or in its place provide all staff with two days off to use when is most appropriate for them. In addition, we ask that the University hold substantial and sustained conversations with staff about how to better support their well-being in the future. Current efforts to engage staff primarily through occasional surveys or poorly-institutionalized committees such as Voices are not enough to fill the void of a robust staff governance body at UM.