Kimberly Blackshear, Personal Assistance Services (PAS)
Interviewed by Claudia Gunsch, Theodore S. Kennedy Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement
As we navigate the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains particularly important to take care of our own emotional health. Kimberly Blackshear discusses the different dimensions of well-being and offers suggestions for maintaining well-being in short, themed video segments.
Watch the videos and see frequently asked questions below.
- Encouraging Well-Being at Duke (series of short videos with Kimberly Blackshear and Claudia Gunsch)
- How Can Faculty Help Promote Well-Being in the Duke Community during the COVID-19 Pandemic? (video with Kimberly Blackshear, Claudia Gunsch and other panelists)
What are the different dimensions that make up well-being?
Well-being can be examined through five different dimensions that work together to impact our whole self:
Emotional well-being is managing our emotions, accepting our feelings and feeling our feelings. The tendency is to suppress feelings by building a bridge and going over them. But they are still there. It is important for us to feel our feelings and move through them. Out of emotional well-being comes resilience and/or strength. As we move through this pandemic, we are continuously challenged. It is important to recognize what we are feeling, give ourselves grace and opportunity for compassion, and check our expectations, especially around work. We also need to remember that we are emotionally raw right now and we are holding on for what we can control. Oftentimes that creates a lot of conflict.
Physical well-being is your body functioning in a healthy way as to what works for you. This is where the comparison really comes out. There is this drive right now where folks are trying to use this time to do what they can control and what they feel like they can control is their physical well-being.
“I have time, I haven’t been able to work out because the gym is closed, but I can go for walks, I can go on a hike, I can go jogging, I can ride my bike.” It is important to practice good, healthy eating and exercise habits but we also must make sure to check in with ourselves to ask ourselves what is motivating our choices. What expectations are we setting? Are we hoping to emerge out of this pandemic as a new person in a different size of clothes or becoming the best physical part of me? Caution should be exercised if this is our thinking. However, if we are doing it because it is a coping strategy and exercising is good for us and we feed off those endorphins, it is great way to maintain good physical well-being.
In terms of healthy foods, we know which foods work for us and which ones do not. We know that the key is moderation and it is okay to indulge in some creature comforts going through this quarantine and the uncertainty of the future. Creature comforts are important when we do not have control of our environment. And we not only have no control over our physical environment right now, but we also do not have control over society, the country or the world. If popping a single piece of chocolate is a nice pick-me-up, then you should do it.
Physical well-being is also about being comfortable in the skin we are in. And so, as we are approach health and wellness, it’s important for us to create that sense of comfort.
Social well-being is the ability to engage in a give and take with another human. As a society, we have been preparing for this pandemic for the last two decades and technology has allowed us to continue to be socially engaged. Altogether, this creates opportunities for our social connectedness in this time of quarantine.
This is not the 70s where you had three options: 1) telephone, 2) snail mail or 3) in-person communication. We are already acclimated to and communicating through technology. The quarantine has given us a wonderful opportunity to connect. The challenge with this pandemic and social distancing is we no longer have the happenstance interactions at work. Now we must be intentional.
Intentionality can bring us closer relationships. This quarantine has provided us with a shared experience. So, you can more easily reach out to old college friends or an old roommate to start the conversation without that weird awkwardness you would have experienced three months ago. Pulling on the shared experience, both the difficulties and opportunities we have, to build connectedness is a positive in this time and space.
Workplace well-being refers to the culture created in our small group work teams. It is important for us to create time on our phone calls and Zoom meetings for a check-in with one another and be productive, even if you only accomplish one thing. Unproductive calls and meetings run the risk of causing folks to pull away and disengage. It is important for everyone to have an opportunity to process, to share and to get something done. We should not be assigning value and need to realize that having the same level of expectation of productivity as before is not possible because everyone is negotiating a lot right now.
Creating opportunities for workplace flexibility is vital. Clear communication with our teammates is also important. If a task or project is urgent, put that in the timeline. Allow coworkers to prioritize their work and responses. If it is not something that needs to be answered right now be flexible with your response and say, “I understand this may take some time for you to respond and that’s okay.” If you forgot to do that ahead of time, do not assign a value statement to the time it took them to respond or the length of their response. Take into consideration what everyone is navigating in the present moment and consider they may be giving all they can offer right now.
Societal well-being is multidimensional and if there is anything we have learned from this pandemic it is how interconnected we are across the globe. There is a lot of concern about our society. The spread of this virus is largely impacted by people following through and demonstrating integrity with implementing the strategies and protections put in place.
It is important to recognize that our society and our community are things we choose to participate in, and we define them differently. We should create space for peers, neighbors and family members to view and process what this pandemic means for them, their home country and their community. We need to acknowledge that even though we are all in this together, all of us are all looking at the pandemic from different vantage points.
What things can trigger anxiety?
Well-being is a subjective state that can be hard to understand, especially for science-based folks, who may want a checklist to ensure they have all the right things. Mental health it is not that cut and dry. We may experience emotional well-being on one day and really struggle the next. This range of emotions is very normal. Oftentimes, we get a lot of anxiety symptoms because we are spinning and trying to understand where our mental health is going. With our midbrain chemically flooded with cortisol we get into this anxious spin. The best thing we can do when we get to this point of anxiety is slow down, take a breath and engage our rational brain. Automatically our brain will pull those feelings into our prefrontal cortex and our cortisol levels will start to decrease.
A lot of things can trigger a person’s anxieties. External triggers could be an email that we receive or an interaction we had with a spouse, a loved one, coworker or friend. Anxiety could also be triggered by our own thoughts. Feelings lead to thoughts, which lead to behaviors and actions; this is known as the cognitive behavioral sequence. We get feelings and then we have thoughts and when we have those thoughts, we assign value to our feelings and then we behave according to them. It is important to feel our feelings, but also to remember that our thoughts can be challenged as well as the behaviors that come out of that.
The best thing we can do to support our wellness is feel our feelings and accept those feelings; then work hard to not assign a value to them. If we have thoughts that will lead us towards a negative behavior or negative interaction, I encourage us to challenge those thoughts with simple questions. Is this benefiting me? Is it going to benefit the person that I am engaging? Is it fact based? Am I being reactionary? Feelings, thoughts and behaviors all make up our well-being.
What do you tell those who may feel isolated but need a lot of courage to engage with people?
Start with a medium that feels less vulnerable to you; usually, that is email or texting. A phone-to-phone exchange can feel very vulnerable. We have all these funny ways of communicating our emotions without sharing them. And how do we do that now? We do that by gifs. When we send somebody a funny gif of eye rolling or a shocked expression it is a wonderful equalizer and way to start off a conversation that may feel vulnerable in a light-hearted manner.
It is important to recognize, again, the climate that we are in and not assign value to somebody’s response. If you reach out to someone who is in the middle of cooking dinner and bath time for their children, it may take them a few hours to get back to you. That delay is not them assigning value to the quality of your relationship. It is simply that they have a lot of things to get done before they can respond.
What might be ways to impact our well-being through mindfulness and resilience skills?
There are some good things in mindfulness skills and in resiliency that can be quite beneficial for us. When we talk about mindfulness, folks often jump into anxiety prone ideas that result in barriers to the practice. Ideas like, “I need to meditate, and I must do it well; I need to sit super still, and my mind should be free and focused; and am I doing this right?” Once they engage in the process, people are often fixated on future-focused thoughts (“What am I going to do next? How am I going to do it better?”) or past-focused thoughts (“What did I do wrong? How can I have shifted it? How can I change it?”). The reality and beauty of mindfulness is that it is simply about being in the here and now without assigning value or judgment to it.
An example of mindfulness practice is to sit in the moment and practice your five senses. You can close your eyes, or not. You can sit in a well-lit room or be outside. Choose a location that is comfortable and pleasing to you at the time. Then walk through each of your senses by asking yourself questions and dialing in on the details without assigning judgment.
- What do I hear? Do I hear my kids playing in the background? Do I hear my dog scratching at the door? Do I hear my air conditioning running or the fan?
- What do you see? What do you see in the room around you? What do you see outside?
- What do you smell? Is it familiar? What does it remind me of?
- What do we taste? Is it from the gum I am chewing or the coffee I had this morning?
- What do we feel? What do I feel as I sit in this chair or on the grass?
Another example of a mindful practice, called grounding, integrates self-awareness, self-appreciation and recognition of what we take for granted. Start out by thanking your body, part by part, for all that it does in a day to help you. Thank you brain for helping you to problem-solve the challenge at work. Thank you eyes for helping me walk the dog and see the beautiful flowers in the neighborhood. Thank you arms for helping carry the groceries into the house. Thank you legs for carrying the weight of me and moving me through this day. Oftentimes, we do not appreciate what our bodies do for us until we have experienced an injury and recovered. Expressing gratitude for ourselves during this exercise is a great way to self-appreciate.
By nature, we also assign a lot of value to our physical, cognitive and emotional abilities and we compare what we can do with someone else. Mindfulness allows us to really create an understanding of what we are doing right now and being thankful for that. An individual appreciating their value is crucial because there is always somebody who is better at something. It is easy to forget what we bring to a situation that is fantastic.
The practice of mindfulness can be done both individually and in groups. It is a great way to end the day, for example with children, to help them calm down and be ready for bed. It can also be done with a student who is emotionally upset.
With our worlds being flipped to a virtual platform, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the professional from the personal life. Do you have any strategies to share to help with this challenge?
A segregated workspace is important if that is possible. It is also important for us to go through our personal routines as we normally would, to the degree that we can. Routines are vital. We are downplaying them and/or ignoring the routines typical for us right now, especially parents as they focus on children’s routines. It is important to think back about your routines and consider the positive, and not so positive, things in your life. What can be integrated now and what should be removed?
It is easy to roll out of bed, hop on a Zoom call and not put your camera on. However, it is psychologically important for us to go through our morning routine. We get to skip the chaotic commute into work and all those people on Highway 40 but, if you got something out of listening to your morning radio show on your way into work, then I encourage you to create an opportunity to tune into that radio station as you get ready so you can continue to get that satisfaction.
We oftentimes separate our life according to our dress. We have our work, evening and weekend clothes. If it provides you a pick-me-up wearing your work clothes, continue taking full advantage of your closet.
For students who have returned home to working parents and younger siblings who need care, what advice can a faculty member provide to their advisees?
The dimension that is oftentimes overlooked with this pandemic is the process of family renegotiation. This process was easy during fall or winter break when students did not have academic expectations and could step into the helping role by doing whatever the family asked. But we are in a different dynamic. Students are navigating high academic performance expectations, and even though they may have lived in that same family dynamic during high school, the educational expectations are not the same in a student’s undergraduate and graduate career. The level of cognitive work and the amount of studying are more. Study environments and habits created at Duke are now different. For students to assume parents understand these changes is not a fair assumption. Both parties must come to an agreement as to what works for them. Clear, transparent communication that seeks to meet both parties’ needs is crucial.
Faculty can create a space where the students feel comfortable sharing about how that negotiation process is going and what the family needs are. Faculty should not jump to conclusions if a student is struggling to turn in assignments or is not showing up for class conversations or lab meeting. Understanding that there is something else going on that we may not be aware of is important.
A student’s past behavior does not dictate their current behavior. If you have a student who previously came to you in another class at the ninth hour with a late assignment and they are coming to you again, it is important to avoid jumping to conclusions and provide flexibility. You may not have all the information about what the student is facing. Many students have underlying health conditions and/or their family members do. It is important for faculty to be open and not make assumptions based on past behaviors because history is not repeating itself; we have not had this pandemic experience before.
What do you tell people experiencing anxiety about the uncertainty of the pandemic’s timeline?
No one alive has lived through a pandemic. Because pandemics do not happen often there are a lot of news stories and information we are receiving from many directions. The number of confirmed cases and deaths is the only facts we know, making much of the information hypothesis or projections. It can be based on math; however, the math is based on human behavior and integrity to follow through with the expectations.
Several things are important for us to do as we read or listen to the news: dose our news information; be careful with the sources we're using; recognize the projections to avoid internalizing them as facts; and take the news with a grain of salt. If we internalize this information and assume that it is factual, then it will stick with us and raise our expectations.
We do not have a timeline for how long this will last. We must be patient and that is not easy. We are in a long game, not a short game. If we play this as a short game, it will be very dangerous for all of us. For the health of our globe, we all must approach this as a long game.
If you feel that this is becoming overwhelming and you feel like you are struggling with the timeline, reach out and get connected with someone who can help you work through your feelings. This may be a good time to reach out to PAS.
What is PAS and what resources can it offer?
PAS stands for Personal Assistance Services and is Duke’s internal employee assistance program. PAS is a group of approximately nine generalist practitioners charged with serving all 40,000 Duke employees and their benefit eligible dependents. The services are geared to be brief interventions covering a multitude of issues: workplace stress, home stress, marital discord, personal wellness plans, coping strategies and more. All employees (including faculty) have eight sessions for any one issue. For example, if an individual has three different issues in a year that they need support for, they can have a total of 24 sessions – all of which is covered by Duke.
The key to appreciate about treatment is that it is not about waving a wand and suddenly being better. It is about getting several tools for your tool belt. What works today during this quarantine may not work next week. So, it is important to be open and try new strategies and techniques because we do not know what will work in the future.
Finally, there are two additional services offered by PAS in additional to individual or family counseling sessions: consultation around organizational or team issues, and crisis debriefing services.
What does a PAS counseling session look like?
PAS’s motto is that they are going to allow you to drive the sessions. It is about what you need. Each clinician will go through an assessment at the beginning of a session that serves as a “check-in.” The check-in is a mechanism for clinicians to learn about all of life’s major domains, regardless of why someone is coming in. It is a standard procedure. We are not measuring someone’s anxieties as much as we are looking at those anxieties’ impact on your life.
I have never been open to counseling because of the negative connotation it holds. But, since the quarantine, stay-at-home orders and uncertainty of life right now, I am really considering it. What can you tell me that will help me overcome the hesitancy?
We still live in a culture that holds a lot of stigma around mental health. That is why Duke is taking such a proactive stance promoting their mental health resources. You may be a wonderful faculty member – an expert in your field – but you may have challenges expressing emotions or processing them. This does not make you deficient; it makes you human.
Another thing to consider is that PAS counselors are trained to make sure that before a session ends the individual is buttoned backup and, in a place to move forward. You may feel rawer or vulnerable because you shared something that you did not feel comfortable with, but you will not feel handicapped to these feelings. Counselors are going to provide skills at the first session to make sure an individual is coping.
The beauty of brief treatment interventions versus long-term care is that PAS is not trying to make individuals patients for life. The job of a PAS counselor is to make sure they can help you cope and move you through your situation in a helpful way.
Are PAS visits confidential?
PAS is governed by HIPAA. The same level of confidentiality that you would get from a community counselor is the same level of confidentiality you will get from PAS. PAS is not a part of the HR system, MyChart, Epic, Maestro Care or any other Duke system. No one in HR, including your boss or supervisor, can tell you have visited. The only people with access to your records is the small group of individuals that work at PAS.
Is there a way for me to self-monitor my feelings as I navigate these scary and uncertain times?
Yes. Knowing key definitions of terminology that relate to feelings is important. Some key terms are secondary traumatic stress or post-traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion satisfaction. Being in touch with our feelings helps us see where we are so that we can know when we reach a different level that may require us to seed additional resources and help. Consider tracking those feels by using a journal, technology or a calendar.