Fall Opening in Residence Life:  Where Burnout Begins

Summer is quickly coming to an end for those of us in Residence Life, which marks a significant shift in the cadence of our work.  Soon we say goodbye to our free time, our hobbies, our energy, and maybe a bit of our sanity as we start a multi-month marathon to reopen our doors for the year.  We will spend long nights working with our team, early mornings sitting in training sessions, and even put in work over the weekends to feel prepared for move-in, welcome events, and other duties as assigned.  For pre-covid professionals, this is simply our busy season.  An unavoidable part that comes with the job.  A time when getting a good night’s rest and taking care of oneself are about all we can do until things die down. But is this mentality enough for Res Life professionals these days?  Do members of our department possess the stamina needed to make it to the finish line?  As someone who has both participated in and been in charge of training and events during this time of year, my answer is no. In fact, I would say that our expectation of long days, early mornings, and no weekends clouds our thinking when preparing our staff to reopen; leaving not only the institution at fault for bringing our staff to the brink of burnout…but us as well.  

In this article, I will offer 3 suggestions on how we as residence life professionals can disrupt the culture of business that plagues our schedules during the opening months with the hope that it will lead to staff feeling like the “Fall Opening Marathon” is more like a sprint.  All it takes is the ability to see the functions of our role as cyclical events on a calendar.

Suggestion 1: Build A Time-Appropriate Training in 3 questions

Training is a necessary part of the job so we can ensure that our staff can handle the myriad of situations and tasks they will face in the roles.  However, how many of us might say that training (both professional and student staff) was a good use of our time and that we feel ready for what is to come shortly after?  In my experience, the feedback most commonly provided is to have more office time, more time to take care of personal business, or simply shorter days so they can recharge.  What seems to get in the way more often than not is content bloat due to politics, ineffective planning, or competing priorities.  As the person or team planning a departmental training, campus partners and fellow staff are likely vying for as much time on the schedule as you can allow to say hello, showcase a new initiative or request of our team, or to talk about their office’s role at the institution.  There may be folks on vacation or hardly responding during the summer months making the coordination of a schedule a last-minute task.  And most likely, there could be a culture of front-loading the “necessary” content our team would need to know for the next 12 months into a week or two.  If this rings true in your department, I suggest using these three questions to guide the formation of future training experiences.

Questions to Build Your Training

What do staff need to know in order to open the building?
When is the latest this content can be covered without risking its success?
What method is most effective to disseminate this knowledge?

Reviewing session content against these 3 inquiries can help you determine how time-sensitive the topic is, if it is truly necessary to cover, and if the best method to relay the content is an annual department training.  You might be surprised to see what standard content suddenly falls lower in priority when viewed this way.  For instance, when we practiced this exercise a couple years ago, we found that topics such as “Conducting Health & Safety Checks” or “How to manage your programming budget” were considered important, but not necessary to open the building nor topics that required everyone together in one room (i.e. a one-on-one and/or team meeting with a supervisor would suffice).

Keep in mind that stretching out training content throughout the year—while beneficial to staff’s bandwidth, learning capacity, and wellness—also requires Residence Life leadership to think about the best time to cover what was originally considered a low priority for Fall opening.  For us, this meant training on budget management in mid-August once staff were overseeing their community funds and covering Health & Safeties in late September before checks began in October.

One last suggestion relates specifically to question 3.  If you find that your department regularly trains on a topic that rarely changes in content (i.e. an administrative procedure), consider turning it into a recorded module that staff can review on their own before or after training.  Modular learning has seen a significant increase since COVID as well as a shift in how people want and need to sit with information to understand it.

Suggestion 2:  Compare Notes Before Putting Staff to the Test

How do you know it’s a busy season without it being said? For me, it’s a palpable feeling in the air in workspaces.  It’s closed doors, jam-packed schedules, and a sense of limited time to get things done before the students arrive.  It’s a time when folks are likely in a state of tunnel vision and focusing solely on what is in front of them to get things done.  While this type of focus may help deadlines be met, it also leads to missed opportunities to assess what is going on around us.  Without a chance to see what colleagues are planning and working on for the upcoming year, we run the risk of creating extra work for our staff or unrealistic timelines due to processes or tasks that are competing for attention.  Much like a student overwhelmed with a final exam schedule consisting of overlapping or closely occurring tests, we subject our staff to burnout when we ask them to do many various things with little time in between to recuperate.

I saw this play out in my department one year when we expected our live-in staff to plan a building-wide event, conduct occupancy verifications and run building council recruitment all within the period of 2 weeks.  While these tasks pertained to a different function or member of our departmental team—it all fell on the same people to carry it out (the live-in professional staff and their team).  We realized the impact of our overlapping expectations as staff reported they felt overworked, unappreciated, and exhausted all before the end of August.

In order to create realistic expectations and timelines for our team over the first few months, consider establishing a deadline when all projects, tasks, and plans must be ready to review before rolling them out. This could function as a meeting where staff organizing said work are invited to share out or it could be an electronic document we ask folks to complete by a certain date.  Regardless of what works best for your team, having the ability to aggregate the data you receive to showcase the scope of all things going on and see where we might be overlapping members of our team can be an invaluable method to seeing if what we aspire to do is biting off more than we can chew. 

A tool I highly recommend to facilitate the coordination of timelines and work is a Gantt chart.  Gantt charts help showcase work over time and can illuminate if tasks and projects may converge or pinch leaving staff potentially feeling overwhelmed.  I was introduced to this project management tool early on as a mid-manager and since then, I have never missed an opportunity to incorporate its properties when managing complex tasks on my plate and even when working collaboratively within my department.

Suggestion 3: Use Summer For More Than a Vacation

One last consideration pertains to how we view and manage our time during the summer months.  It’s no surprise we look forward to students moving out so we can relax and enjoy a slower pace of things, but if we are also “checking out” at the end of the year until next fall, what happens to the work we leave for our return? What I think happens sometimes is we allow fall opening to become more of a beast by truncating work that could have been broken into small, manageable pieces over the course of 2 months.  That is not to suggest that Residence Life professionals should not have a summer to enjoy, however, squeezing 12 months of work into 10 can be a proponent of why reopening our doors can be so taxing every year.

A great resource for the summer months are interns through ACUHO-I.  It’s not uncommon for graduate-level higher ed professionals to be seeking practical experience with other institutions to satisfy their academic requirements or to simply expand their portfolio.  Either way, taking on interns can subsidize the staff needed to do some intentional mapping and planning for the fall semester while still allowing members of your department the ability to have some time off.  Interns can especially be helpful if your department has staff on a 10-month contract as they can help the sustain the momentum of tasks and projects as opposed to having them drop off until folks return.Utilizing ACUHO-I interns can also be a great recruitment tool as if the intern finds their experience to be positive, you may see their name again as a candidate for a position in your ranks.

Another suggestion is to review when meetings happen once our doors close.  When do you think staff are likely to want to flex their time or take off?  My bet would be Mondays and Fridays so if we postpone or reschedule standing meetings to occur in the middle of the week instead of the beginning and end, we may find that the work we need to do continues to gain momentum while staff also have the ability to enjoy long weekends and recuperate. 

Your team can work and take off too.  Being cognizant about the use of time and the need to recharge when things slow down can make the difference in coming back to a molehill over a mountain.


Welcoming back our students may always be an endeavor that requires additional energy and attention from us in the first few weeks of the semester.  However, by being intentional and thoughtful of the work we do and when, we can avoid contributing to the haphazard cadence that plagues campuses prior to the start of classes. Remember that not everything is an emergency and things do not have to be perfect.  Staff are not machines, so maximizing time in the office and time out of it are important.  Do things little by little as opposed to all toward the end and you might find that the quality of work surpasses what could be done in years past.

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