May 11, 2020

Human resources leader reflects on work-life balance during COVID-19

Michael Van Hee’s thoughts on resilience, leadership, and personal interaction

Like so many of us, Mike Van Hee has been dealing with a handful of personal and professional challenges since policies to combat COVID-19 were implemented. Relatively new to UCalgary, the associate vice-president, human resources started in his role just before the crisis. In addition to getting used to a new job, team and organization, COVID-19 threw a curve ball. Stationed at a desk in his son’s basement bedroom he reflects.

Coping through challenges

“Working from home can be a challenge itself, but when you add a full household, it gets more demanding.” Van Hee has four kids, all of whom are at home with very different schedules. “Of course, there are benefits to being home and spending more time with your family, but I’ve definitely noticed my work-life boundaries have blurred. Without a commute to and from work and a physical separation of home and office, I know I need to be better at setting boundaries.”

When asked about how he’s coping otherwise, Van Hee thanks his six-year old son Andrew for changing a habit he’s now noticing hasn’t felt healthy.

“He told me the news scares him, that’s when I realized I needed to cut back, I needed to manage down my media consumption for my own mental health and that of my family. COVID-19 happens, then you hear the terrible news in Nova Scotia, it can be really depressing.

"You can only take so much before feeling overwhelmed. I turned on a Michael Jordan Netflix documentary instead of switching on a news channel the other day, and I’ve made a point to go outside more with the nice weather. Those are little things that have made a difference.”

New home office habits

Van Hee is working on forming other new habits, too. “I’m a bit concerned about my physical health. I tend to get stuck in the same chair for an entire workday. My main challenge is getting up and getting moving. On campus we’d be going room to room, building to building, so sometimes I’ll try to schedule a meeting as a phone call rather than a video call, so I can move around while I work.”

For other digital fatigue tips, Staff Wellness has resources to help improve unique work from home setups. From workstation adjustments to simple movement-based exercises, small changes can have a real impact on well-being.  

The virtual water cooler

Van Hee takes comfort in the connection he sees among colleagues in this trying time. “What I’ve seen working for me and others are regular check-ins. While not ideal, I think the tools we’re using now are showing us how we can keep people connected and engaged. What would have been a quarterly town hall due to logistics, we can now convene that number of people weekly or bi-weekly in an online meeting.

“Just like in the office, you don’t need to jump right to business in a meeting. I hope we can keep checking in on our colleagues. Have the water cooler talk, even if we’re not at the water cooler.

"It’s easy to get right to business, but find ways to lighten it up. Our HR social committee scheduled a mid-morning coffee break last week. I popped in and heard people chatting about pets, yard work, or what their last trip to Costco was like.”

Leading with empathy and recognition

Van Hee sees other leaders at UCalgary enacting similar practices. “Leaders that I talk with are really doing a good job of staying connected with their teams. I see genuine care, empathy and concern. They recognize everyone is going through something different, whether that’s aging parents, kids at home, living alone and feeling isolated or otherwise. Everyone is dealing with something.

The best thing a leader can be is perceptive and curious and show empathy for everyone’s unique situation. Take extra time to check in.

"For myself, I ask: What’s going on with my people, how can I help them get through this more successfully?”

For those struggling with working from home, Van Hee stresses open communication. “Sometimes the barrier is an assumption — thinking an expectation is one thing, when there’s actually room for negotiation. We’re of course trying to conduct business as usual and do our best, but I think we’re all trying to understand that sometimes work needs to happen more flexibly. As a leader I’m trying to stay attuned to that.”

Van Hee and son Andrew at hockey practice

Van Hee looks forward to a time when he can can coach his son Andrew's hockey team again.

Final thoughts

In a time of so much uncertainty, Van Hee still hopes to learn from his current challenges. “This time is unprecedented. I hope one of the things we can take out of this is an appreciation for the small things at work and in life: On a weekend morning, I would occasionally grumble about waking up at 4:45 to coach my son’s minor hockey Timbits team. Assuming we get a chance to play next season, I can tell you for sure I won’t be complaining about those early practices because I realize now how fortunate I am to be able to do those kinds of things.

"At work, I miss the casual, unplanned interactions with people we have at work day-to-day, whether it’s seeing someone in Mac Hall getting lunch, or passing by someone’s office and having an impromptu chat.”

To that effect, Van Hee is encouraging another workplace practice. “I’m seeing small acts of recognition having a real difference — verbal or written, show people how much they matter, that the work they do matters, be more forthcoming more than usual. I think a few words right now can go a long way—and we should try to get in the habit of doing it all the time.”

UCalgary COVID-19 resources

If you’re feeling distressed or need more support, free and confidential services are available. Find the right resource for you

Find more mental health tips for working from home.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Learn more about the strategy here.  

As part of the CMHS, we have implemented the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. The National Standard outlines 13 psychosocial factors that foster a psychologically healthy workplace.  Many of these factors, such as Balance, Recognition and Reward, and Clear Leadership and Expectations were described in this article. 

Visit WellBeing and WorkLife to learn more about the implementation of the National Standard at the University of Calgary and to learn about existing programs and resources that support each of the 13 Factors.