update: student employees are using me for therapy

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose student employees were using her for therapy? Here’s the update.

I really appreciated the feedback from Alison about setting boundaries, and some of the higher-ed specific suggestions from the commenters!

The “warm hand-off” suggested by commenter AimeeS was especially helpful:

Yes – handing students a one-pager of resources is all well and good, but they most likely already have one and haven’t used it. What’s really successful is a warm hand-off: “It sounds like you could use some tutoring – Maria is really good. Let me call over and see if she’s available right now.” / ”She is available right now! Let’s walk over together.“ / ”Hi Maria, this is (student). Student was just telling me how (describe issue), and I thought you’d be able to help. I’ll let you take it from here.”

Yes, this is more work, but it’s going to be so much more successful at getting students to those resources than effectively telling them “this is a you problem, not a me problem” and giving them a list of possible resources. It is so much more effective that you should do it most/all of the time, not just when there’s some kind of threat of violence (suicidal ideation, domestic violence, etc.) involved that escalates the issue.

I realized that part of the reason these inappropriate conversations were happening was because I had been making a concerted effort to get to know my students as people, not just as office drones, and possibly opened the floodgates a little more than I intended. I’ve been told I come across as “cold” in the past (I related a lot to this letter writer), so I was really working hard to seem warm and friendly, and apparently I succeeded! I just wasn’t prepared for the unintended result of everyone wanting to share their innermost thoughts throughout the workday. I’ve worked on pulling this back a little, and I think it’s helping. I’m also getting better at discerning when conversation topics are starting to veer away from office appropriate areas and steering them back on course.

That said, I’m cognizant of my mandatory reporter status and I do try to be hyper aware of anything that seems even remotely Title IX adjacent. I’ve also boosted the amount of flyers, business cards, and other paraphernalia about campus services that I keep around the office. I know that in-person discussions are better, but I’d like to cover all my bases.

The other part of the problem was that the quantity of work that I relied on students to do made me anxious about time spent talking and not working. In my experience, and from what I’ve heard from colleagues, my institution relies a little too much on students to fill the gaps in staffing. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, but it’s one of the unfortunate truths of higher ed. We were lucky to hire another full-time staff member in my department last year, which has helped a lot and I’m no longer constantly worried that every conversation running a little long will contribute to our backlog.

I don’t have any of the same students now that I did at the time of writing (I work primarily with graduate students in a 2-year program, so they rotate through pretty fast), but we seem to have found a good balance. Conversations have been mostly about homework, sports, and food lately, although I did “warm hand-off” a student to the faculty supervisor of their relevant affinity group earlier this year.

I appreciate all of the thoughtful comments and advice. Commenter Tupac Coachella had a phrasing recommendation that I thought got at the key point I’d like to make with my students: “Everyone here at College wants you to be successful, but we all serve different roles in that success. As your supervisor, a big part of my role is to help you learn about the working world. I’ve noticed that we’ve formed some habits around personal disclosure that may not serve you well when you’re out in the professional workforce. Let’s talk about what’s appropriate in the workplace, and where you can get help on campus for the things that aren’t appropriate to bring to coworkers or supervisors.”

I genuinely do want my students to be successful and hope that their job in my office is a useful step on their way. I hope I can continue to improve how I can be part of a good learning experience for the working world!

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Let me librarian that for you*

    I missed this story the first time around, but sounds like this was great advice! The “warm handoff” is especially key for mental health. At my worst, I was never going to call a number or sort through a list of resources. It took someone making the call for me.

    I’ll also add that looking into becoming a Mental Health First Aider could be useful! They have specific courses for the workplace, where as coworkers or suppervisirs were often the first line of defense for people who need more support or may even be in crisis. 10/10 recommend.

  2. fort hiss*

    Wow, having the warm hand-off defined for me is going to be so helpful! I tend to do the warm hand-off with students and found it more effective than passing on resources, but wasn’t really able to define it or explain why.

    Glad this working out for you OP! You sound like a great manager for these students.

  3. Roja*

    The “warm handoff” is strongly encouraged by the college I teach at as well. Instead of just emailing (I’m an adjunct, so most student communication is via email) the student a link to services, we’re supposed to email the services and copy the student. Then services will reach out to student and student knows to expect it. Sadly, it still doesn’t always work–the ball is still in their court to respond to the contact, after all–but it goes a long way.

    1. student affairs person*

      FWIW, I’ve found that you can adapt the warm handoff for primarily online communication– I work with online degree programs, so I’ll combine the approach of emailing the service and copying the student (framing it as an email intro) with naming/personalizing a point of contact at that service. So “I know Maria is a tutor, she took my class last semester and is really great!” or “Anne who does the scheduling at the counseling center is super nice– I’ll put you in touch.” I find it goes an extra step toward smoothing their way to utilizing the service.

  4. Zan Shin*

    Wonderful update!!!! The “warm handoff” script and suggestions were awesome and really paid off for you.

  5. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    That script at the end about different roles in success is SO brilliant and I’d say on par with the usefulness of Alison’s”Golden Question” in usefulness because it could be adapted to a lot of situations. “Jane, part of my job as your manager is to help you be successful in the long run. I’ve noticed you outgas the office each time you eat dairy…” Or some other version ;)
    But seriously, brilliant!

  6. Pikachu*

    I really love the warm hand-off. As an adult, one of the hardest things for me about starting therapy was finally being in the right mindset to make a call only to be told over and over that there are no appointments for six weeks. It totally takes the wind out of your sails. I know the situations aren’t exactly comparable, but with mental health things that urge to suddenly take action doesn’t always come at convenient times. We have to take advantage of it when it does.

  7. Kit*

    “ Commenter Tupac Coachella had a phrasing recommendation that I thought got at the key point I’d like to make with my students” is a truly delightful unique sentence.

    1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Yes this OP has really paid attention to comments and taken stuff on board, they got their full money’s worth! Makes for a very satisfying update even though she no longer has the same students on board to actually put it all into practice.

  8. I'm just here for the cats*

    I work in a counseling center at a university and warm hand-offs seem to work much better than just telling the person to call. I think the student feels like they are being cared for

    1. fueled by coffee*

      I have anxiety and when I was first getting help for it, it manifested as *major* phone anxiety, so having to call a number to get an appointment with a therapist was a major barrier to entry for me. Maybe I would have felt cared for, but even at an extremely basic (“I hate phone calls”) level having someone to do the initial reach-out would have been SO helpful.

      1. Kal*

        I have issues with phone anxiety, and those moments of trying to type in the number correctly and then waiting as it rings, trying to be ready to respond as soon as they answer and to say the thing you need to but also not being sure if they’ll even answer or if they’ll immediately put you on hold or their answering script might not match up with what you’re expecting or they have to forward you to someone else or so many things is just excruciating. Having someone else do that process for you so that once you pick up the phone you’re already for sure at the right person and can get into the meat of whats necessary is *so* helpful.

        When you’re already overwhelmed by a situation, those initial steps to start the process of getting help can feel like climbing a mountain. Someone helpfully taking you to and loading you into a lift that will take you partway up that mountain can make you rethink whether it’ll actually be as hard as you thought since they just helped take a chunk of that work off of you.

  9. 5th eldest millennial*

    I did not know there was a term for this!! Nearly 20 years ago I was the struggling student and my professor stopped one of our one-on-one meetings (because I was having a meltdown about being tossed into the real world after graduation into a recession with no practical real world experience) to walk over and do a warm hand-off with the university counseling center. I would never have gone there on my own and I’m so thankful she did that for me. It made a huge impact on my life.

  10. tamarack & fireweed*

    Correctly calibrating these professional / mentorship interactions is so hard, and probably a career-long learning experience. This is a really substantial post and update – thanks!

  11. Let me clear my schedule for you*

    I think a warm handoff is a great strategy regardless of the relationship. I’ve been bugging my college daughter to make an appointment for weeks but she never does it. Great at work too, even if you’re not a people manager — like you’re friendly and know where to get all the answers, but have a full plate.

  12. LGC*

    Thanks for following up – especially since this is my first time reading about this! (And I really needed to read this letter.)

  13. Doc in a Box*

    A warm handoff is a great strategy especially for de-anonymizing resources. Even if Maria isn’t available right at that moment, the student having a specific name and recommendation from someone they already trust, instead of “here’s the mental health hotline,” is really key.

  14. aubrey*

    A warm handoff would have helped me so much as a struggling student. Even if Maria wasn’t available, having a specific person to email would have been so much better than “call this hotline” or “tutoring services are available.” There was just no way I was going to figure out and call any of the resources I could have benefited from on my own (and I never did).

  15. N*

    I just want to extend my thanks to OP for taking your time to reach out to students, even despite the personal burden, and for taking Alison’s advice to heart.
    My time in college, long story short, has been rough. And I have a fond memory of a lady in my faculty’s office who, when I came up to the desk asking to be put in touch with counselling service, took the time to take me into her own office, hear my rambling out, and set aside some time for another meeting – and then gave me the requisite warm handoff, which, too, meant the world to me.
    I’ve only just learned that this lady died fairly recently. Far too suddenly, from what I know. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks of her with gratitude.

  16. Cassivella*

    I used to supervise student employees. I remember one day one of my employees came into work on is day off covered in blood. He just walked up to me and opened his mouth, showing where he had bit his tongue in half after getting elbowed while playing basketball.

    I was like, OMG! Why aren’t you at the hospital?

    He told me he had no idea how to get healthcare, how to use is insurance, or if this was an ER-type thing (it was).

    So, I did help him get his insurance stuff together, and I ended up driving him over to the ER on campus.

    I was slightly bemused that at only 35, this student clearly saw me more as a “Mom” figure rather than a coworker. LOL

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