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Gentle SIOP: A New Conference Approach

Haley R. Cobb & Rachel S. Rauvola

For many, SIOP’s annual conference is a respite from our hectic working lives, with much preparation and anticipation leading up to the event. Beginning in late summer and early fall, SIOP members and hopeful conference attendees prepare submissions for the upcoming proposal deadline, contemplating which new projects to highlight, contacting collaborators, and debating how to best position themselves for success. A few months later, we celebrate (or lament) the outcome of these proposals and begin brainstorming our presentations and delegating tasks. Toward the spring, there is a rush to complete presentations and square away travel plans. The series of events culminates with the annual conference, and attendees flock to a usually larger, exciting city in the US.

As much as we look forward to this time, the annual conference itself can also be stressful for conference attendees. Speaking from our own personal experiences as I-O psychologists, attendees, and individuals managing chronic illness and disability*, we find it necessary to put forth a recommendation to all conference goers to take a well-being-focused approach to the annual conference. Within this framework of our own experiences—and given the number of workers managing work and other stressors on a daily basis (e.g., chronic health concerns and disability)—we introduce “Gentle SIOP.” This is our manifesto to consider a more compassionate approach to conference attendance, particularly one that is organized and implemented from the bottom up and is informed by the often overlooked and highly prevalent experiences of chronic illness and disability. We are guided by works such as The Slow Professor (Berg & Seeber, 2016) that call to question the academy’s penchant for (or obsession with) productivity and urgency and empower individuals toward alternative pacing and priorities.

Although we frame Gentle SIOP as especially pertinent and beneficial for those with chronic illness and disability, and justify it through this lens, we want to underscore the utility of Gentle SIOP for all. Indeed, conference goers who are also juggling caregiving responsibilities or acute health-related or personal issues, as well as first-time attendees and students or trainees under pressure to (over)perform, will benefit from a gentler approach; the same can be said for anyone who simply wants to prioritize their own and their peers’ health and wellness, perhaps in the hopes of returning home feeling refreshed rather than depleted. All can benefit from heeding our Gentle SIOP call and encouraging colleagues to do the same. To contextualize our recommendations, we begin with a brief overview of chronic illness and disability in the workplace and SIOP, including our own personal experiences. Next, we highlight some strategies that SIOP has implemented to address attendee health and well-being in order to highlight how Gentle SIOP follows from and complements such efforts. We end our article with our vision for “Gentle SIOP”—a new approach to conference attendance that prioritizes health, wellness, and connection to maximize gains from attendance and minimize stress and strain for all.

Chronic Illness and Disability in the Workplace & SIOP

It is estimated that 26% (or 61.1 million) people in the US live with a disability (CDC, 2019), and about 21% of the United States workforce has a disability (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023). What’s more, nearly half of all Americans are estimated to have a chronic illness, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension (Boersma et al., 2020). Given these statistics, it is logical to consider that a sizable portion of the over 9,000 members of SIOP (SIOP, 2022) have a disability or chronic illness. Regarding the former category, SIOP collects data on disability status in its annual membership survey: Of the 779 survey respondents in 2023 (10.0% sample response rate), 15% reported having a disability (SIOP, 2023). Although we are unaware of other available data speaking to chronic illness, it is reasonable to assume incidence rates comparable to the population exist within the SIOP community as well. As I-O psychologists, readers might be familiar with these facts and figures and are also likely familiar with the well-documented benefits of recovery—and the costs of overwork and fatigue (e.g., Bakker et al., 2014; Sonnentag et al., 2017; Steed et al., 2021). However, we may overlook the significance of the relationships between health and work in our own communities, perhaps even considering ourselves “immune” due to our knowledge of the topic.

In our own personal experiences, this could not be farther from the truth—we are certainly not immune to stress and strain simply due to our knowledge of the theories and research on worker well-being. Rather, managing our health and wellness is an ongoing process, though we are fortunate to be as informed as we are. While at the annual conference, organizations (such as SIOP), coworkers, and other attendees provide instrumental support and encouraging messages, but at the end of the day, we still experience strain and drain, which can be attributed to the overwhelming desire to maximize our conference attendance. Ultimately, we are responsible for maximizing our experiences and productivity while minimizing their adverse effects on our health. We carry this responsibility along with the pressure and desire to be fully present—whether at work or the annual conference—and the knowledge that doing so (in addition to not doing so) can come at great cost.

Individuals with chronic health issues and disabilities manage health and work responsibilities differently than the general population and do so daily. As we have already disclosed, our personal experiences with chronic health and disability have inspired us to write this piece, and the idea was borne out of one of the authors’ conflict between health and conferencing, resulting in her flying home from the conference earlier than planned. We are sure we are not alone in these experiences. On the day to day, we spend time and effort to find ways to function to the best of our abilities, and conferences can upend any stability, routine, and sources of support to which we typically have access. Not only is this strain unpleasant and painful, but it can also prevent us from getting what we want out of conferences. Additionally, part of the strain we experience may come from feeling pressured to hide rather than disclose our work–health conflicts, and part of our desire to put forth Gentle SIOP is to bring visibility to those who, like us, often struggle in silence. Varying levels of prospective regret and shame exist at both ends of this spectrum, as do disappointment, frustration, and fatigue: We want to show up fully for our health and for our work, and these desires are, at times, conflicting. Structural supports, such as those explored next, certainly help address these issues; however, we contend these supports will ultimately be most effective and utilized alongside a grassroots adoption of a gentler conference approach altogether.

Support From SIOP and the Annual Conference

Whether due to physical limitations (e.g., environmental constraints, lack of access to needed spaces and resources), social pressures (e.g., norms around overbooking oneself, expectations to socialize and rest in the same location), routine disruptions (e.g., genuinely losing track of typical self-care practices), or some other set of causes, our typical level of self-care and well-being can often be inaccessible during the commotion of SIOP’s annual conference. Conference attendees with disability or chronic illness may experience added strain, such as exposure to triggers for chronic illness flare-ups, barriers to accessibility for those with disabilities, or compounding challenges for individuals juggling other demands more generally (e.g., those with caregiving responsibilities; see discussions in Tower, 2021; Walters, 2018). To address these challenges, greater attention has been paid in recent years to supporting conference attendees’ health and well-being.

A variety of inclusive conference practices have been implemented to reduce various barriers to attendance (e.g., financial, physical, cultural), such as the SIOP Family Care Grant program, the ability to request accommodations for dietary and other needs, widespread dissemination of accessibility guidance for presenters, and inclusive conference design and planning (e.g., spaces for reflection, prayer, and lactation; conference hotel tours; American Sign Language interpretation during the opening plenary). Conference attendees have also presented on topics like disclosing disabilities at work (Keating et al., 2018), work–health conflict (Fragoso et al., 2017), and autism and depression in workers (Lukaszewski et al., 2023). Additionally, there are several SIOP committees dedicated to supporting health and wellness, such as the Women’s Inclusion Network and the Disability, Inclusion, and Accessibility Committee. Clearly, the health and well-being of SIOP members and conference attendees are supported in many ways by the organization, and we hope to build on this effort with our individual and community-centered manifesto for Gentle SIOP.

Though we give special attention to individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses, we recognize that all attendees can experience strain and poor self-care during the conference and that all attendees could benefit from rest during stressful, busy occasions. We hope that our manifesto prompts both those managing disability and chronic illness, as well as allies, caregivers, advocates, and other conference goers, to think about their well-being and the well-being of those around them. By reflexively applying our field’s own health expertise and experience and doing so with a bottom-up approach that complements existing top-down efforts and supports, we can create a more easeful conference experience for all.

Introducing Gentle SIOP

Our primary inspiration for creating Gentle SIOP is derived from our personal experiences battling the conflicting needs of our professional and personal selves. We are also inspired by similar works such as The Slow Professor (Berg & Seeber, 2016). In discussing the academy’s obsession with time (and the grievance that there is simply not enough of it), the authors write:

For me, [the Slow Professor] means a shift from the dominant view of time as linear and quantifiable to time as a process of becoming. That is, rather than thinking of time as an accumulation of ‘lines on the CV’ (a phrase drilled into many of us in grad school), I am trying to think of time as an unfolding of who I am as a thinking being. (Berg & Seeber, 2016, p. 59)

This resonates with us in many ways. How often do we quantify a successful SIOP as one that was filled with networking, attending as many sessions as possible, and staying out late with new and old friends? While these experiences are certainly something to be remembered, they may not be driven by curiosity, understanding, and community. Productivity at SIOP is undoubtedly meaningful, significant, and impactful, but we hope this productivity is as important as our understanding and personal growth as I-O psychologists. We also hope that productivity does not preclude our own health and well-being, for without those things, we are quite helpless.

When we are unable to fill our calendars to the brim, we may feel ashamed or disappointed. We say, “If only I could be in two places at once, then I could see this symposium and this panel!” or “If I had enough time, I would have been able to have that coffee with the (former student, friend, colleague) who I haven’t seen in years.” We only have so much time when we are at the conference; rather than trying to fill that time with busyness that ultimately deteriorates our health and well-being, we suggest being intentional about how our time is spent. For conference attendees like us who may physically, emotionally, or mentally need to take conference attendance one minute at a time and those who would ultimately benefit from such an approach, intentional time allocation could alleviate a lot of the pressure we experience to perform and produce. Focusing on curiosity and community rather than performance and productivity, we suggest that ways to support health and well-being are NEAR-er than we may tend to think. Our manifesto describes four actionable recommendations that we call “NEAR.” We are confident that this approach could benefit all conference attendees who need or aim to prioritize their health and well-being. Before or at the start of the conference, we recommend all attendees take the following steps:

  1. Nourishment: We cannot successfully attend the conference without finding ways to stay nourished. For some, specific foods are necessary for physical or spiritual health, while food or drink that we cannot safely consume must be avoided. If we are rushed, it may be impossible to find adequate sources of nourishment. Planning ahead can help attendees find ways to stay nourished. Slowing down will also help to nourish one’s relationships with others and oneself. After all, it is wonderful to leave SIOP feeling refreshed and full of new ideas.
  • Outline your preferences and create actionable plans for meeting your nutritional and hydration needs during the conference.
  1. Exploration: As much as we want to attend every session and meet every person, it is simply not possible. In fact, this approach may contribute to the perception of time scarcity and urgency, and prioritizing exploration at the conference may be beneficial. This could mean attending a session on a topic you are unfamiliar with or dedicating some time to wander around the area. If you leave the conference and want to remain mentally engaged, find a nearby park or coffee shop with a friend and mull over what’s sparking your curiosity. Exploring one’s mind can be just as useful as exploring the conference and surrounding city.
  • Adjust your conference goals and scheduling to be more flexible and expansive rather than rigid and restrictive.
  1. Accountability: Find a person (or people) whom you trust, and disclose your health and well-being needs with them. Use this person to hold you accountable (and vice versa) to make sure you are taking time to drink enough water, stretch, or secure snacks; sit quietly with this person or in active dialogue or movement, depending on your mutual preferences.
  • Identify and engage trusted peers to mutually support you in prioritizing wellness and need fulfillment at the conference.
  1. Restoration: An abundance of research belabors the importance of sleep. For individuals with chronic health issues and disabilities, inadequate sleep or rest can be particularly detrimental. We recommend sticking as closely as possible to one’s typical sleep schedule and routine and finding opportunities to rest during the day, too! Bringing earplugs, an eye mask, and a favorite white noise track or bedtime meditation can also help.
  • Set clear intentions and bring aids for recovery during the conference, bearing in mind that conferences blur the lines between work, leisure, and vacation.

Conclusion

We hope that our manifesto will inspire and empower a gentler SIOP conference attendance for all attendees; we could all personally and collectively benefit from being thoughtfully slow and intentional with our time. A gentle approach to conference attendance is near, not some far-off, implausible dream. Ultimately, we wonder: What would happen if you gave yourself, your health, more time?

Note

* Both authors identify with the chronic illness and disability community, and we will occasionally speak from personal experience. We feel that this disclosure is important, as many chronic health issues and disabilities are concealable and go unnoticed, often to our own detriment and leaving the responsibility of coping on the individual.

References

Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., & Sanz-Vergel, A. I. (2014). Burnout and work engagement: The JD–R approach. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1, 389–411. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091235

Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. University of Toronto Press.

Boersma, P., Black, L. I., & Ward, B. W. (2020). Prevalence of multiple chronic conditions among US adults, 2018. Preventing Chronic Disease, 17. https://doi.org/10.5888/pcd17.200130

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023). Persons with a disability: Labor force characteristics2022. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/disabl.nr0.htm

CDC. (2019). Disability impacts all of us infographic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html

Fragoso, Z. L., McGonagle, A. K., & Schmidt, S. R. (2017, April). Work-health conflict: Daily fluctuations in workers with chronic pain. Poster session presented at the 32nd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Orlando, FL.

Keating, R. T., Martinez, J., Santuzzi, A. M., Finkelstein, L., & Rupp, D. E. (2018, April). Understanding the costs and benefits of disability disclosure at work. Poster session presented at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Chicago, IL.

Lukaszewski, K. M., Stone, D. L., & Murray, B. (Cochairs). (2023, April). Forgotten minorities in the workplace: Overlooked and understudied. Symposium presented at the 38th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Boston, MA.

SIOP. (2022). Demographics. https://www.siop.org/Membership/Demographics

SIOP. (2023). 2023 membership survey: Summary of results. https://www.siop.org/Membership/Surveys

Sonnentag, S., Venz, L., & Casper, A. (2017). Advances in recovery research: What have we learned? What should be done next? Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22, 365–380. https://doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000079

Steed, L. B., Swider, B. W., Keem, S., & Liu, J. T. (2021). Leaving work at work: A meta-analysis on employee recovery from work. Journal of Management, 47, 867–897. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206319864153

Tower, L. E. (2021). Caregiving & conferencing: Supporting faculty’s participation in conference travel. ADVANCE Journal, 2, 18897. https://www.advancejournal.org/article/18897-caregiving-conferencing-supporting-faculty-s-participation-in-conference-travel?auth_token=cfrJN76fjb9953RGX9p2

Walters, T. (2018). A tripartite approach to accessibility, diversity, and inclusion in academic conferences. In R. Finkel, B. Sharp, & M. Sweeney (Eds.), Accessibility, inclusion, and diversity in critical event studies (pp. 230–241). Routledge.

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