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  • John R. Harry, PhD, CSCS

Managing Mental Health in Academia: Periodization to the Rescue!

We're taking a little shift away from the typical "Fun Friday" blog content area to discuss something that is perhaps more serious to the general population of scientists and practitioners: How to manage mental health in a high-stress working environment.

I think it's fair to say that most of us academics put way more stress on ourselves than necessary as it relates to our jobs. We "must" work day and night on our research projects and teaching preps, and we sure as hell can't say no when our administrators ask us to serve on yet another service committee. I'm very guilty of this, especially with my email. I often reply to emails that come in at 11:45 PM, which is conveniently right around the time I'm really dozing off into a good sleep. I just have to read it and reply... It's like a drug I'm addicted to! I think there's a lot that goes into that, particularly the publish-or-perish rain storm that constantly hovers over the faculty at R1 research universities and the prospect of achieving tenure that gets dangled in front of our faces like a fishing lure to a fish we're trying to catch. When it comes down it, we just feel like we have to work, work, work, work, work (RiRi voice).

This brings to me to the practice of periodization. Most of us sports science academics know this concept all too well from a resistance training perspective, but we stop there when it comes to applying it to other parts of our lives. I started to think about this really hard a few months ago after I experienced some really bad mental health struggles. Without getting into the juicy details, I started having extreme anxiety with very physical symptoms that would lead to full-blown panic attacks - the ones where you are 100% convinced you're going to die and rush to the emergency room because you're sure you are experiencing a heart attack. As tough as this was for me to go through physically and mentally, my poor wife had to deal with me like this for MONTHS before we got things under control - how she handled that I'll never know.

In addition to the typical treatments people seek out for this type of thing (therapy, medication, exercise, etc.), I decided to explore ways to better manage the "volume" of work I completed. I've always been a fan/proponent of the undulating periodization model for my own strength training (my Program Design students can attest to that), so I figured I'd map out my monthly and weekly work-volume in a similar way. It's difficult to pinpoint whether it's having a big contribution on my stress and anxiety reduction on its own, but it seems to be working and I have to give it at least some credit. The approach I've taken centers on 4 numbers that I was exposed to as a graduate student for a 4-day strength training week, which I applied to my training with some success. Those numbers are 35, 22, 28, and 15.

In short, I map out the number of hours I'll allow myself to work in a month, or mesocycle for the meatheads (I don't plan out beyond a month), so I'm really using a short-term model. I decided to give myself ~112 monthly hours of work that I'll do in the office. This equates to 28 hours per week, but that only covers Monday through Thursday because I spend Friday on this blog or other random things that I just want to do that aren't necessarily "work". So, in an undulating fashion, I apply 35%, 22%, 28%, or 15% of those 112 hours on the 4 weeks of the month. The allocation of those percentages is dictated by my anticipated monthly goals, like a grant submission deadline for example. In that case, the 35% week would likely be the last week prior to the deadline. Within each week, I apply the 35%, 22%, 28%, and 15% volumes on the workdays, again in an undulating fashion. The figure below provides an example for how this might look for a given month, with the days of the week following the same daily volume allocation for simplicity (i.e., Monday: 35%; Tuesday: 22%; Wednesday: 28%; Thursday: 15%).

Figure 1. Exemplar organization of daily and weekly workload.

For the time I've been applying this periodized approach to my workload, not only have I felt like it's contributed positively to my mental health (I get more time to do fun things during the week like rock out at volume 11 on my guitar), but I don't think I am any less productive at my job than I was working full-tilt-boogie every day all day. Using a modified version of the Efficiency Coefficient outlined in the tremendously under-valued (IMO) Science and Practice of Strength Training textbook, I monitor my productivity by determining the ratio of weekly tasks completed and the number of tasks targeted.

Weekly Efficiency Coefficient = # tasks completed / # of tasks targeted

For example, this week I had 20 tasks I wanted to accomplish, ranging from submitting a manuscript for publication consideration to writing a letter of recommendation for a student. Of those 20 tasks, I completed 16. So, my efficiency coefficient for the week was EC = 16/20, or 80% efficiency. Based on the above-mentioned textbook, 75% is considered excellent, 60% is good, and 50% is acceptable. While those coefficients are based on strength training outcomes for the number of athletes achieving their strength goals relative to the total number of athletes, I generally apply them to my own productivity. As such, 80% is a great level of productivity for me as an academic from what I can tell. Don't get me wrong, I've had weeks below 50% in terms of the weekly efficient coefficient, but those numbers help me gauge what I think I can realistically accomplish in a week, and I'm only getting better at fine-tuning how many tasks I take on (much like I would when planning out the number of exercises, sets, intensities, etc. for a strength training week).

My periodized approach to the volume of work I take on is very much a work in progress, but I hope it helps a few people map out their own strategies for their work-life balance to avoid hitting the wall as I did with my mental health. That was (and at times still is) a shitty situation that I don't wish on my worst enemy. If anyone out there is having trouble balancing work and mental health, please do reach out to someone, because the one thing I've learned along this road I've been on is that being vulnerable makes you invulnerable. Also, we can't control every aspect of our jobs, much like we can't control the waves of the ocean. But, we can "learn to surf" to help avoid getting pinned under every 12-footer with a nasty under-tow.

That's all for this week. Next week we'll be back to the typical sports science content. Hit me up if you have a topic of interest you'd like to me have a crack at, as I'm already running out of ideas!

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